Fallon And Silburn: How The Marriage Went Sour

Paul Silburn’s dismissal from Fallon shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise, at least not to insiders. Not only did the shop suffer one of its worst years under his watch, but Silburn’s tenure was marked by tension within the creative department as the 49-year-old London native implemented more oversight to a veteran staff accustomed to independence.

The Publicis Groupe agency’s statement last week was uncharacteristically blunt. Chairman Pat Fallon praised Silburn’s creative acumen, but wrote that he was “not satisfied with our progress. I needed to make a change that called for decisiveness.”

By all accounts, it was a marriage that simply wasn’t working. Silburn, one source said, was “never able to get his feet under him.” Problems that had been brewing before he arrived last February, such as trouble on the now-lost BMW of North America’s $70 million to 80 million account, came to a head shortly after he arrived. And the agency failed to convert on a number of new business opportunities, including Heineken Premium Light’s $40 million account last December.

Still, sources said pointing to any one factor for the split would be a mistake. “It was a series of blows,” said one executive.

Other sources noted that Silburn alienated the creative staff by imposing more oversight and instituting more creative jump balls—the opposite approach as that of Silburn’s predecessor, David Lubars. Silburn also seemed to be more comfortable creating work himself than coaxing it out of others.

For his part, Silburn said he was happy to be free. “I feel like Terry Waite,” he said, referring to the former Beirut hostage. “Pat said he needed a change, and I totally agree. Ironically, trying to implement change is kind of what I was fired for.”

Left up in the air are the fate of several creatives Silburn had brought in during his nine months at the shop, including co-creative directors Mark Taylor and Roger Camp. While Taylor left the agency last week as well, Camp was asked to stay. The fate of the others, such as married creative team Kirs and Alisa Sengel Wixom, art director Carl Broadhurst and copywriter Peter Reid, is still unclear.

Despite that uncertainty, sources reported a sense of relief that Silburn—and the resulting tension—was gone. “There’s a sense of optimism,” said one insider. “I’m waiting to see what will happen next.”

Sources in and around Minneapolis floated the possibility that former executive creative director Bill Westbrook might return in an interim role. Sources familiar with Westbrook said it was unlikely he would return to full-time agency life, though they said his affinity for Fallon—the man and the agency—was strong enough to bring him back temporarily. Westbrook did not return phone calls. An agency rep dismissed talk of a successor as rumor and speculation.

With a string of setbacks stretching back six months, the shop is at an unparalleled time in its nearly 25-year history. But last week’s bold move could be seen as a signal that the founder is working to solve the agency’s woes. “It’s decisiveness from a leader,” said one source. “I think people will take satisfaction from that.”