Editor’s Spot: What a Tangled Web We Adfolks Weave

The Inaugural, especially when power passes to the backbenchers, says historian Peggy Noonan, should be a seminal event. It’s a valedictory for a nation, which has graduated from the grip of one party and is about to be subjected to the agenda of another. Ross Perot didn’t have time to listen to Bill Clinton’s Inaugural last week – I managed to fit it in. A lot of people around me – agency types, journalists, taxi drivers and my 9-year-old godson – did too, but, oddly enough, to a boy, they found it wanting.
The next day New York Times columnist William Safire lamented that there were no ‘ask nots’ in the speech: ‘Clinton’s address had a theme and shape that satisfied, a length that was a relief, a delivery that was a pleasure to see and hear, but a thrust that failed to thrill.’
I disagree. I listened not just to the words – but to themes Clinton struck and began to think not only about the need to renew government in order to revitalize our democracy but the need to cleanse American business – particularly advertising – of the political infighting and greed that has sapped our strength over the last decade.
Advertising has been a source of intrigue almost from the time Egyptians experimented with signage on the pyramids. And it has intensified in the last 10 years. J. Walter Thompson, under Don Johnston, is one classic example; the last days of Ted Bates under Bob Jacoby would be another. As Harvard Business School professor Stephen A. Greyser says, ‘The frenzy of buying agencies and mergers in the Jacoby-Johnston period was perhaps as bad as it gets. That represented the Mount Everest of the condition. At the lower intensity level, however, (intrigue) is part of the reality of existence and ever more will be so. The human condition in organizations is very difficult for most people to rise above.’
Johnston rose to power in the ’80s, and after he maneuvered his way to the top, he reached beyond four talented managers – men of the caliber of Burt Manning, Bert Metter, Wally O’Brien and Jack Peters – to make Joe O’Donnell his Crown Prince.
‘When he picked O’Donnell to succeed him, Johnston overlooked three or four people who were more obvious choices,’ says Richard Morgan, who chronicled the drama in his book J. Walter Takeover. ‘Johnston never gave anyone a full deck. He had such an obsession with power, which makes sense in light of his own rise to the top, that he skipped a whole generation of leadership to go with O’Donnell.’
Perhaps, muses Morgan, Johnston might have reached out to O’Donnell because he assumed his acolyte would remain loyal – but as it turned out, O’Donnell tried his own coup, triggering a course of events that eventually led to Johnston’s departure and Martin Sorrell’s successful – and virtually unique – hostile takeover of the agency.
By then JWT had become such a Byzantine palace of horrors, it put the Plantagenets to shame. And JWT is not alone. It’s easy to tick off a dozen high-profile firms that have driven out top executives in petty battles the most recent being the ‘palace coup’ by McElligott, Wright, Morrison, White partners against chairman Tom McElligott while he was judging an awards show in Southern France. Wasn’t that a great day for advertising – considering that the resultant squabble incinerated the very agency the younger partners were trying to seize.
‘I think (intrigue) is a human condition,’ says Dick Lord, who’s survived his fair share of agency duels. ‘Look what’s going on in American Express today. You witness fear, insecurity and greed lusting for power. Some call it a game, but it’s a very hurtful game. Executives who make vast sums are playing with people’s lives.’
John O’Toole, who shepherded Foote, Cone & Belding over the shoals of the early ’80s and who today leads the 4A’s, thinks big agencies – and big advertisers – have a ‘self-correcting mechanism that government doesn’t have’ because their boards of directors are increasingly dominated by independent, outside directors.
‘Sure you’ll have people (in agencies) vying for top position. That’s healthy,’ he says. ‘But you don’t hear of people getting the top job (who don’t have any claim to it). There’s little or no nepotism. Agencies are less susceptible than privately held corpations and smaller companies to (corrupt power plays) – and all of them pale in comparison with capital politics itself.’
Maybe so, but there is the kernel of something that Clinton was tabling for us all to consider: You can’t lead and be immune to challenges, but cultures that are built on politics often succumb to it. ‘The structure for the ’90s is collaboration,’ says Dick Hopple, vice chairman/corporate strategic development at D’arcy Masius Benton & Bowles. ‘Anything that gets in the way of people working together is wasted time and sapped energy. Agencies that remain separate offices and fiefdoms are the ones that are not going to win. People who sit around and plot and gaze at their navels don’t have enough to do.’
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)