ATLANTA-Less than a year into his reign as president and chief executive officer of BBDO South here, Larry Tolpin has bolted to J. Walter Thompson in San Francisco. His abrupt departure raised questions over the future status of the Atlanta operation.
Tolpin will become JWT's third worldwide creative director and serve as chief executive officer of JWT West in San Francisco.
Tom Carey, president of BBDO North America, will act as interim ceo in Atlanta, while senior vice president and group creative director Ellen Curtis will oversee creative output. Tolpin may be replaced by one or more individuals, Carey said.
Carey dismissed speculation that BBDO North America might reduce its office here to a media buying and account service operation for Dodge Dealers Associations-the agency's largest client with billings estimated at more than $125 million. BBDO South claims 172 employees and billings of $225 million.
The agency is a finalist in the $12-15 million National Thoroughbred Racing Association account. Review consultant Jerry Brown said Tolpin's leaving would not be a compelling factor in the agency's chances on the business.
Tolpin's departure comes less than a year after he became regional creative chairman for BBDO's Atlanta, Chicago and Minneapolis offices. He had hoped to transform the Atlanta shop into "a power base that rivals [BBDO] New York," but BBDO South saw its longtime client Delta Air Lines shift to Saatchi & Saatchi in New York last spring. As a result, 25 staffers were laid off.
Tolpin said his tenure yielded improved creative work, a new account planning department and a "leaner, meaner" staff. Those changes, however, failed to land any significant new accounts.
"If the new ceo doesn't pick up new business, then [in] the next couple of years [BBDO and parent company Omnicom] might rethink the decision" to keep BBDO South as a full-service office, said one source.
-with Jim Osterman