The appointment of Nick Brien to the worldwide CEO post at Interpublic Group's Universal McCann clarifies a key structural element in the holding company's ongoing efforts to reorganize its media agencies into a separate operating unit.
IPG's biggest competitors (WPP Group, Omnicom Group and Publicis Groupe) have embraced that model, and IPG has signaled in recent months that it is committed to implementing some variation of it—most notably with the hiring in May of former MTV Networks COO Mark Rosenthal as chairman and CEO of newly formed IPG Media.
However, until now, it remained unclear to what extent Universal McCann would be separated from its parent, McCann Worldgroup. UM was formed as a media agency in 1999, but at the behest of McCann Worldgroup CEO John Dooner (and unlike media agencies formed at other holding companies), it remained tied to the operating structure of its parent company, without a separate P&L and therefore without control of its own budgets and finances.
Sources said the lack of a separate P&L sometimes made it difficult for UM to honor promises to clients about staffing and support levels for accounts and caused some clients to depart. "There's some truth to that," an IPG source said.
Last week IPG executives confirmed unequivocally that Brien would in fact control the purse strings at UM with a separate P&L—something Brien confirmed was a prerequisite to his taking the job. Rosenthal confirmed that UM's new financial structure will be implemented "as soon as practicable," meaning as soon as possible after IPG's restatement of past earnings is filed with the SEC, now scheduled for Sept. 30. A representative for Dooner and IPG CEO Michael Roth said both executives supported the new plan, although neither executive was available to discuss it last week.
Meanwhile, the industry's reaction to Brien's appointment was that Rosenthal had made a very good hire—his first key move since joining IPG.
Why Brien? Rosenthal called him "a true internationalist," with solid credentials to run a global agency. "Beyond that, media is getting incredibly complex, and it's great to have a person who really comes from and has a significant amount of experience on both sides. He understands the creative process," as well as media, Rosenthal said. "To have both in one person makes a great double-barreled asset for us."
Media executives who know him describe the 43-year-old Brien as big-picture smart, a leader and an eternal optimist. The first two qualities are the price of admission to the post he will assume officially on Oct. 1. As to his optimistic nature, consider this observation of the struggling media agency: "The product must be good, because there are clients all over the world that are buying it, like Microsoft and Intel."
You can't blame Brien for choosing to see the glass as half full. He might have added that just last week UM won new business from Spain's telecom giant Telefonica (with estimated annual ad spending of $135 million) covering parts of Europe and Latin America, following a review in which the agency beat out Starcom, Carat and MPG.
Still, that win provides little recovery for a company that has lost clients with combined ad budgets of roughly $4 billion or so during the last year, including Nestlé and L'Oréal, in a slump that was punctuated this May with the defection of the estimated $3.2 billion General Motors buying account.
While Brien, a U.K native and graduate of London University, is an optimist, he is also a realist who believes that a strong alliance with Worldgroup remains critical. "The relationship will evolve from control to collaboration," he said. "My challenge is to become financially independent but at the same time maintain a high level of collaboration to enable the Worldgroup to offer full marketing communications solutions. I've made a commitment to that."
"Media is in my DNA," Brien said. But he is not your average media wonk. His diverse background also includes running an ad agency for four years (Leo Burnett in London) and building Starcom MediaVest Group's Arc Worldwide marketing services group over the past two years. There are lots of things Brien is not prepared to talk about yet, like what major challenges he will face upon joining UM six weeks from now (he is relocating from Chicago to New York), what he thinks UM stands for as a brand in the marketplace and whether it might need repositioning. But look for him to stir the pot upon arrival. "I want to talk about customization and personalization" of media and marketing strategies, he said, "not integration. 'Integration' and 'integrated marketing' are terms that are thrown around with an intellectual laziness, like 'holistic.' What does that mean?"
Brien already had ties to IPG. His brother Barrie, now COO at London-based marketing services company Creston, is a Lowe alumnus. Brien is also friends with Stephen Gatfield, evp of global operations and innovation at IPG, who hired Brien as executive media director at Leo Burnett London in 1992, when Gatfield was CEO (a highlight: winning half of Procter & Gamble's agency of record assignment). Brien succeeded Gatfield in 1997 and left in 2001, relocating to SMG in Chicago to head up corporate business development.
"Nick is an extremely dynamic individual with a lot of energy and a big appetite to challenge the status quo," said Gatfield. "That's compelling, because one thing that is certain today is that the status-quo media is not likely to stick around for long."