Bob Jeffrey’s Biggest Influence Was Bill Bernbach

JWT's outgoing CEO looks back on 11 years on the job

In nine days, JWT's Bob Jeffrey will join the ranks of former agency chiefs as he shifts, as planned, to non-executive chairman and global president Gustavo Martinez rises to CEO. Jeffrey had a remarkably long run as head of a global shop, having succeeded Peter Schweitzer in January 2004.

During a recent lunch at La Fonda del Sol in midtown New York, the 60-year-old leader talked about his early influences—including his father and Bill Bernbach—what CEOs he admires and the hardest lesson he learned on the job.

What will you miss most?

The interaction with the people around the world. When I first started [at JWT], I was just running New York. Then, I ran the U.S. I was very fortunate to get a global role because it's just such an amazing experience. You're dealing with humanity, you're learning different cultures, different economies and I do really think we have amazing people inside the company.

Is the flip side all the travel?

I got use to the travel and I consider myself a road warrior, but I won't miss it.

What are your favorite moments?

When I was running New York and we won the Merrill Lynch business. When I came into New York, I walked into an office that was desperately going backwards. They had lost Kodak, they had lost Citibank. I arrived on April 2nd and we won Merrill Lynch in July of that year [1998]. It was $25 million in revenue and it was a global win as well. … For me, it's what really turned New York around. It was the catalyst that started the growth in New York.

What else?

I loved working on Ford because it was such an iconic American brand. And I started on Ford when it was at the height of its success with selling SUVs and the Explorer. Then I was also on Ford when it was in the valley of darkness. And there's a lot that you learn with a client not just when they're at the height of your success but when they're in the valley of darkness. It was when Mark Fields came from Europe to run North America, and we all started working very closely inside of WPP to create the integrated team [that became Team Detroit]. So, I felt like that was just a great experience on so many levels.

Is Martin Sorrell the most exacting boss you've ever had?

I started in the business where I had exposure working with Bill Bernbach. I worked with Jay Chiat, a little bit with Frank Lowe and then Martin. So, I would say from a creative point of view, Jay was the height of obsessiveness and good enough is not enough. Martin is a different kind of leader—equally obsessive but in a more business-like way.

What did you learn from him?

Martin is good competitive influence on you as a CEO because he's relentless and you want to keep up with him. I always wanted to go to Martin and tell him something that he didn't know because he's so competitive.

What do you want to do next?

Next year, I'm non-exec chairman and my role is really going to be advisor to Gustavo, giving air cover on certain clients and being overall brand ambassador. My whole objective this year has been Gustavo's success in transition. Next year, he'll be global CEO. So, I'm here to support Gustavo and the company.

So, does that enable you to look at other opportunities?

I definitely will be doing that role for next year; what I do beyond that, I don't know. I mean I don't see myself "retiring." But what I do, I don't know. I feel like next year will be a good year to think about the long-term future.

Any desire to do a startup again?