Jim Ferguson on Temerlin: ‘There’s Going to Be Change’

Jim Ferguson doesn’t like the look or feel of Temerlin McClain’s 250,000-square-foot office building in the Dallas suburb of Irving, Texas. The gray, beige and black decor makes it “a great place to think but not to create,” he said.

Ferguson, who today starts his third month as the Interpublic Group agency’s chairman and chief creative officer, has enlisted Austin, Texas, sculptor Bob “Daddio” Wade, known for his large, vibrant sculptures, to add a dash of color to the environment. Ferguson knows such moves are symbolic, but he insists, “you need changes like that to signal [real] change.”

More substantial moves, such as letting some people go and reorganizing the operation, are in the works. “There’s going to be change here,” Ferguson said. “They didn’t hire me to come in here and say, ‘Everything’s fine, we’re going to stand pat.’ ”

A native of Hico, Texas, some 100 miles southwest of Dallas, Ferguson, 50, returned to his home state following a six-month stint as a “creative consultant” on McDonald’s at Omnicom Group’s DDB Chicago. He joined Temerlin following a rough year for the shop. In the last year it has lost its $15 million Nortel account and the Houston Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits’ region, with $3 million in billings. The agency has picked up some southeastern Popeyes franchise groups, the Caribbean portion of its American Airlines account and a project for a regional bank. Ferguson said he expects revenue and billings to be up overall in 2003. Last year revenue was estimated to be down 15 percent, to $59 million.

The shop has also been roiled by instability at the top. Executive creative director Eric McClellan, hired in an earlier effort to reinvigorate creative, left abruptly in March after a year marked by infighting. In April, COO Mark Denesuk took a job at McCann-Erickson in New York as evp, group managing director, a shift he said had been planned since Temerlin and McCann Southwest merged in 2001.

In May, Don Easdon, the top creative on the $150 million Subaru account, left over what sources said was a reduction in fees from the client. And when Ferguson joined, Dennis McClain relinquished the CEO title and is now consulting with the agency. The CEO title remains unclaimed.

Ferguson, who left DDB Dallas in 1999 for Young & Rubicam in New York, made his name with the McDonald’s spots like “One on One” with Larry Bird and Michael Jordan he helped create in earlier stints at Leo Burnett and DDB in Chicago. In describing Temerlin’s creative product, he is typically blunt, calling it a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10.

“It’s just a fastball down the middle,” he said. “I don’t think any agency looks to our work and goes ‘Holy shit, I wish we had done that.’ But it’s nice, solid, good work. It could use some spark.”

His first move was to hire Jay Russell and Wade Alger, creative partners he first worked with eight years ago at DDB Dallas. Russell and Alger are working on accounts including Subaru. Ferguson first hired them when they were right out of college, and they remain big boosters. “If there’s one person who can [turn things around], it’s him—fast is the key word,” Alger said. “I trust him a lot to turn this place around. Otherwise, we’d be at another agency.”

Ferguson also recruited Ira Chynsky, who was director of creative services at Y&R New York during Ferguson’s four-year tenure there. Chynsky quit Y&R in July, and Ferguson hired him to be Temerlin’s director of operations three weeks ago.

Chynsky’s job is to help Ferguson organize Temerlin and integrate the account, creative and interactive departments. The agency’s president, David Lyon, heads account and client services. Lyon and executive director of strategic resources Valerie Moore will join Ferguson in chasing new business—”anything that can enhance our creative reputation,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson has held 15-minute meetings with each of the agency’s 60 creatives to get to know them and their work. But he is looking at staffers in every department as he figures out how to run the 360-person, 59-year-old agency. “There will be people who will leave,” he said. “You’ve got to evolve, got to change, got to bring fresh thinkers in, fresh ideas, fresh clients.” A stack of about 50 résumés sits on his desk.

But if one hand is holding a hatchet, the other clutches a pompom. “They’ve had some down moments, and they need to feel good about themselves again,” Ferguson said. “A couple wins, a couple great pieces of work, and you’re off and running again.”

Ferguson, who is divorced, said he took the Temerlin job to be closer to his two teenage daughters, who still live in the state. And he admits he is back in his element. “This is more comfortable. It feels more like home,” Ferguson said. “People here are more receptive to an outsider coming in. Y&R was not receptive to it at all.”

Staffers at Temerlin said Ferguson’s arrival was welcome after almost two years of instability that followed the McCann Southwest merger. “There is clear leadership about what he wants to happen and the fact that it’s about doing great work and being more creatively driven,” said creative director Todd Tilford.

“I think there’s cautious optimism,” said James Hering, director of interactive marketing. “There’s not a feeling of rebirth just yet.”

Even competitors have welcomed Ferguson to the market. “I think any infusion of paying attention and trying to make the Dallas market better and grow, which is what they’re obviously trying to do, will benefit all of us,” said Ted Barton, president/creative of Publicis in Mid America, Dallas.

Next to Ferguson’s desk is a picture of a grenade and the words “fire in the hole.” “We’re going to try a lot of things,” he said. “Some of it will turn out good. Some, hell, will turn out bad—hopefully not disastrous and hopefully we’ll learn from our mistakes and move on.”