Can Agencies Attract Top Client Talent?

LOS ANGELES When Joe McCarthy and Tony Rogers announced they were leaving top marketing posts at Johnson & Johnson and Wal-Mart respectively, both to join agencies next month, eyebrows were raised at the counterintuitive moves where each would shift from running giant budgets to seeking and servicing clients.

McCarthy, J&J’s vp of worldwide advertising and marketing communications, said that he would be going to Publicis USA in New York as the CEO next month for the “great challenge. I need to prove myself again,” as well as for the agency culture’s “healthy mix of left- and right-brain thinkers.”

Rogers, vp of advertising for Wal-Mart, declined comment on heading to Omnicom’s GSD&M Idea City, Austin, Texas, while still at the retail giant. But the agency said he was taking the yet undetermined “top-tier executive position” to satisfy his passion for evangelizing new and existing clients on the shop’s “purpose-based branding” concept.

McCarthy, 52, is no stranger to either side of the conference table. Before he came to oversee J&J’s $1.3 billion account, spread over some 14 general market and specialty agencies, none of which included a Publicis network shop, McCarthy had co-founded McCarthy Mambro Bertino in Boston and had also been on the client side at Nike, earlier in his career. He says he likes both the client and agency side, as well as experiencing “a degree of frustration with both” over the years.

“The agency-side frustration is always in its nature as a service organization, serving a client,” McCarthy said. “Sometimes the right solution can’t be sold, and you’re one step removed from having something happen. And because of the holding companies, there’s the issue of how to balance long- and short-term revenue growth.”

Though McCarthy said his experiences at Nike and J&J were not examples of increased pressure and diminished tenures for CMOs, he admitted that in general the client side “can be too homogeneous an environment, and executives can find themselves learning how to fit [to the corporate culture] instead of risk taking and innovation.”

A native of Boston’s north shore, McCarthy said that because of a long stretch at Publicis’ Saatchi & Saatchi in New York he settled his family in Princeton, N.J., and by the time he founded MMB in 2001, he came to loathe splitting his time between cities, singularly wrecking that agency experience. “I used to say that if MMB were in New Jersey, I never would have left.” Ironically, he said the travel demands at J&J were “more contained,” involving regular trips to Asia, but not a weekly commute.

“This opportunity, because of the people at Publicis, felt like the right thing at this time,” McCarthy said. “Though I wouldn’t be surprised if someday I’m back on the client side. I’ve never been good at plotting my career.”

The executive moves follow similar decisions in recent years, each for disparate reasons and yielding different results. In June 2007, Esther Lee, former worldwide chief creative officer at Coca-Cola, joined Havas’ Euro RSCG as North American CEO and president of global brands. Lee, who is based at Euro RSCG’s New York office, had spent five years at Coca-Cola. Before that, she had never worked on the client side before.

Kevin Roberts, former COO at Lion Nathan brewery and an ex-group marketing manager at Procter & Gamble, has been worldwide CEO of Publicis Groupe’s Saatchi & Saatchi since 1997. His success is rooted in his deep connections with top client P&G. Before Saatchi, he had never worked at an agency before.

Same was true of Ann Fudge, a former division president at Kraft Foods, who became worldwide CEO of WPP Group’s Young & Rubicam in 2003. Fudge failed to gain traction, however, and was replaced in June 2006 by Hamish McLennan, a respected Y&R regional leader with a classic account management background.