In what sources described as a holding company battle for Unilever attention, Omnicom Group has hired Asit Mehra, a global account leader on Unilever at Interpublic Group's Lowe in London. The hire came after WPP Group wooed the executive in hopes of shoring up its Unilever business at JWT.
Mehra, a director in charge on Unilever at Lowe, will assume a similar role for Omnicom at DDB, another Unilever roster shop that handles brands such as Knorr and Lipton. He'll be based at DDB's London office, but report to Omnicom CEO John Wren, said Mehra.
The 44-year-old, who is a planner by trade, has a relationship with the Anglo-Dutch packaged-goods giant that traces back 18 years to Lowe's predecessor, Lintas. He is well-connected among top executives at the client, in particular with Manvinder Singh Banga, president of the foods division. Mehra has known him for 15 years and describes him as a friend.
New Lowe CEO Stephen Gatfield met with Mehra in an attempt to keep him, but apparently didn't match the zeal of his other suitors.
Sources said that WPP CEO Martin Sorrell pursued Mehra aggressively and offered him a corporate role on Unilever at JWT. The global agency has lost detergent (Omo) and oral-care business (Close-Up) overseas in the past five months, and Sorrell is said to be frustrated with the losses and anxious to turn the tide.
Mehra was mulling WPP's offer when Wren got word that he was close to making a decision. He called Mehra on a Friday and invited him to come to the U.S. to meet.
Two days later, Wren personally picked him up at the airport when he arrived, and within a few hours, they had a deal. "I signed a napkin at the Greenwich Country Club," Mehra said last week. "He picked me up at Kennedy and dropped me at Kennedy four hours later." The next day, Mehra resigned from Lowe. Wren was not available for comment.
Explaining his decision, Mehra said: "John Wren is very successful, and it's a very collegiate culture" at Omnicom. "The other thing is, the agencies are highly creative and highly collaborative."
And while Mehra acknowledged that DDB's share of Unilever is relatively small compared to other roster shops, "the interesting thing will be: Where do you take it?" he said.
At Lowe, Mehra was both an account chief and global planning director on Unilever. The shop handles both global and regional brands out of London, including Rexona, Hellmann's, Domestos and Cif. In other markets, Lowe works on Omo detergent (Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean), Degree deodorant (U.S.) and oral-care brands such as Close-Up, Pepsodent and Signal (Asia, Latin America and Africa).
Mehra described his tenure at Lowe as "fantastic," adding, "I enjoyed it immensely."
His contract includes a six-month notice period, but sources said he's in negotiations with Lowe and IPG to leave earlier. Neither side would comment on the particulars, but Gatfield acknowledged, "That's subject to negotiation."
Gatfield put a positive spin on the loss, stressing that Lowe has "some very strong people who know Unilever." In London, he noted, Helen Bell oversees management of health and personal care brands; another top exec is Jean-Louis Roché, who manages food brands.
Mehra's exit gives the agency a chance to "design a solution that fits the new Unilever," Gatfield added. As for Mehra, Gatfield said: "We wish him well with what he goes on to do."