Last spring, on the afternoon of his fifth anniversary at J. Walter Thompson in New York, Bob Jeffrey walked into a seventh-floor meeting area where he expected a handful of senior executives to toast him with champagne. Instead, 300 staffers were waiting for him. Jeffrey, a modest man, wasn't told of the scale of the event for fear that he would shy away from such a grand gesture.
At the toast-and-roast, executive creative directors Rich Sabean and Jeff Watzman mocked Jeffrey's Kennedyesque accent (he grew up in Providence, R.I.), while New York COO Marc Capra read a list of "Top 10 Reasons Why We're Glad That Bob Is Our Boss."
Toward the end of the hourlong tribute, Jeffrey, JWT's North American president, thanked the staff in a voice choked with emotion. Attendees said it was an unusual moment —one that wouldn't have happened five years earlier, when the shop was stricken by paralyzing power struggles and flagging morale.
Colleagues say Jeffrey, whom worldwide CEO Peter Schweitzer handpicked as his successor last week, has transformed the JWT culture into one that is more open, responsive and inclusive. The New York office has grown 60 percent on his watch, adding $525 million in billings to reach an estimated $1.4 billion.
Schweitzer unveiled the succession plan, which takes effect Jan. 1, at a meeting of 50 top network executives last Tuesday. He credits Jeffrey, 50, a driven, disciplined and thoughtful leader, with bringing a new passion to the $9 billion global shop, which used to be known as a "university" led by old-school account chiefs. "His dynamism manifested itself in the recruitment of top talent, a stellar creative product, enhanced strategic planning capabilities and best-in-class delivery of integrated marketing solutions," says Schweitzer, 64, who will remain in the picture as worldwide chairman. What's more, says Martin Sorrell, CEO of JWT parent WPP Group, "People like him. He's a good leader."
"I'm going to be able to work with clients all over the world, and I'm excited about that," says Jeffrey, adding, "It's not just about advertising. I think it's [about] making the organization more creative. Everybody has to feel creative. Everybody has to feel they can generate ideas."
The plan also calls for the promotion of Michael Mädel, president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Mädel, 53, based in London, will become worldwide president—another title being relinquished by Schweitzer. The moves leave open the job of North America, as well as Mädel's regional post. (Jeffrey and Mädel will cover both for now). The agency, however, is said to be focusing on a short list of candidates for a New York president—the post that first lured Jeffrey from Interpublic Group's Lowe in April 1998.
At the same time, it took then WPP human resources chief Brian Brooks and JWT CEO Chris Jones four months to woo Jeffrey, largely because he struggled with the idea of breaking away from Gary Goldsmith, his longtime creative colleague and friend. The two had launched Goldsmith/Jeffrey, a hot creative boutique that Lowe absorbed in 1996. Before that, they had worked together on brands such as Gaines dog food and Hershey at Chiat/Day and DDB in New York, where they both started their careers in the early '80s.
"It was a grueling recruitment exercise," recalls Brooks, now head of HR at IPG, who spent three or four Sundays with Jeffrey that spring. "For most people, it wouldn't take that much. But it was about Gary." Loyalty is a recurring theme in Jeffrey's career. Not only does he display it, he instills it in others.
Another common theme is captured by creative recruiter Gloria Viseltear: "He's respectful. He's funny. He's very sensitive. He's a very nice person," she says.
Not that he is a pushover. Says former JWT creative chief Bill Hamilton: "He's always had great ambition. And he's the kind of account guy that every creative guy would die for."
Goldsmith still marvels at the passion Jeffrey displayed when selling one particular creative concept for chocolate milk to Hershey in 1983. "He was incredibly intense," he says. "It was basically like he wasn't going to sit down until [the client] bought it." The spot, "Chocolate Cow," went on to win a Cannes Lion.
That intensity also reveals itself outside the office. A one-time marathon runner, Jeffrey used to play tennis regularly and now focuses on weight training and yoga, doing one or the other six times a week.
Russ Jeffrey, who shared an apartment with his older brother in the early '80s, says Bob entered the New York City Marathon six months after he picked up running. Individual achievement and discipline motivate Bob as much as competition does, Russ says. Jeffrey says athletics are cathartic and give him the "warrior" mentality he needs on the job. "I find the best thinking and the best creativity is when I'm in some kind of athletic mode," he says.
To balance that aggressive spirit, Jeffrey is a big believer in holistic methods for achieving well-being. At JWT, he has even introduced a relaxation room and organic-juice carts.
But it's Jeffrey's intellectual rigor and curiosity that clients such as Tim Pearson and Matt Shattock appreciate. "What Bob brings is an intellect, an energy, a progressiveness and a thoughtfulness," says Pearson, vice chairman, global managing partner for marketing and communications at KPMG. Adds Shattock, president and CEO of confectionery for the Americas at Cadbury-Schweppes: "He's a real business partner, and his curiosity is boundless. He's a guy you want to spend time with."
Childhood: Raised in Providence, R.I. Eldest of seven children born to Bob and Gilda Jeffrey.
Education: Manhattan College, B.A. in English literature/classics.
First ad job: Traffic manager at Doyle Dane Bernbach, $8,000 a year.
Interests/Hobbies: Yoga, weight training, technology, movies. A voracious reader, his favorite book as a teenager was Jack Kerouac's On the Road.
Role model: Bill Bernbach. "What I learned from Bernbach was the importance of creating an environment where people can really do great work," he says.