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(Tough) Life of Brien

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Nick Brien exudes confidence. But even he must feel snakebit by the client troubles he has seen in his first eight months as worldwide CEO of McCann Worldgroup and its flagship agency, McCann Erickson.

On his watch, Verizon and General Motors have shifted business to rival shops, and now Nestlé is looking beyond the agency for ideas on three of the brands McCann handles. The U.S. Army account is in play as well, though the review was contractually mandated. In cases like Verizon, the agency’s problems pre-existed. But, of course, any new CEO inherits it all. And now it falls to Brien, an impatient type who hates to stand still to turn the tide.

The stakes are high, given that Worldgroup supplies nearly a third of Interpublic’s $6.03 billion in worldwide revenue. McCann also is one of the largest global agencies in the industry. But, as David Jones, global CEO of Havas’ Euro RSCG, put it, “Being a big global network is not a sexy thing to be today.

“He has a double challenge,” Jones added. “[It’s] one that everyone faces, which is clients turning over faster and faster. But the bigger and broader one is they’re seen as the best company in yesterday’s industry.” Jones characterized Brien’s task as “very tough.”

As the new face in the historically clubby McCann, Brien also is dealing with cultural issues. “It’s a very aggressive culture,” said another global agency CEO. “The barons [regional and account leaders] at McCann—these guys are people who are extremely entrenched.”

Thus far, Brien, true to his “fortune favors the bold” motto, has recast many key roles. Last month’s recruitment of Linus Karlsson as his new chief creative officer for New York and London came after he installed a new chief talent officer (Joe Kelly, in June), chief strategy officer (Lee Daley, also in June) and CEO at digital/CRM unit MRM (Mark Landsberg, in September).
How his troops—and clients—respond to the moves remains to be seen.

Brien is “still very bullish, still very charismatic,” said a source. But “he’s genuinely shocked about how bad things are. The reality is he has really got his work cut out for him.”
Brien, for now, is keeping his head down. He didn’t reply to an interview request last week.