John Wren On The Spot

John Wren has been running Omnicom since January 1997, when his mentor and predecessor Bruce Crawford handpicked him after he transformed an unglamorous mix of marketing companies into its fastest-growing unit (DAS). Since becoming CEO, the 53-year-old former accountant built Omnicom into the world’s largest advertising holding company, one that many analysts consider to be the industry gold standard. Widely praised by his agency chiefs for his hands-off management style, Wren discusses his smartest business decision, missed opportunities, his defining characteristic and how the holding company differs from its competitors. Q: You were an early believer in so-called below-the-line services, and now nontraditional media is creating all the buzz. Do you see growth in 2006 coming more from marketing services than traditional advertising?

A: Well, the answer is yes, but advertising will be at the core of what clients require, and so it will command the most money. But it goes way beyond the 30-second commercial. You need the other related services so that you can be agnostic in terms of how you deliver your brand message and how you attract customers. And it’s getting more integrated every day. The lines are blurring between what a traditional agency did, say, five or 10 years ago and what they do today and what they’ll do five years from now. But I still believe at the center of the activity, you’ll still have the main agencies.

But historically, you’ve had some agencies that were slow to embrace integration, namely BBDO. What are you doing to ensure that your agencies are becoming more integrated?

One is that there is a new generation of management in that specific instance, which does absolutely accept the fact that, without compromising on the quality of their creative, that they have to execute it through various media. By making those [management] changes, we had generational change. The age of the leadership in my agency groups dropped significantly just in the past year. Allen [Rosenshine] stepped up to chairman, Andrew [Robertson] is 44 years old. Ken [Kaess at DDB] is 49 years old. Lee Garfinkle came in. You’ve got [David] Lubars. So we now have people who are more reflective of the way that you have to reach the consumer today than what made us successful in the past. The management that made us successful in the past was appropriate for the past, but these guys have moved way beyond that.

What about the DAS assets you are aligning with each traditional agency? Are you where you want to be on that yet?

I’m extraordinarily close. We moved and Integer into TBWA, so you have a great CRM capability, one of the leading Internet groups and a great creative agency. They are learning every day how to collaborate and coordinate and execute ideas together. DDB is almost there because it has Tribal. The one piece that isn’t 100 percent in place is Rapp Collins in the United States and the U.K. So there is only a small move left in order to get DDB into that position.

What, specifically, is holding that up?

People don’t work together because I tell them to, people work together because they have to prove to me that they can and so that sometimes takes a little longer.

Your lead agency networks are all considered to be highly creative. What distinguishes them from each other?

Their heritage, their leadership and, in many cases, their client bases have reflected very heavily on their culture.

Does that go for holding companies? What is Omnicom’s competitive advantage?

Every holding company is clearly defined by its leader and whatever the philosophy of the company is.

And what is your philosophy?

Well, it was Bruce Crawford’s before me. Effectively, what we try to do is to push as much autonomy down into the groups as humanly possible, giving them goals and objectives and holding them responsible for obtaining those. And that’s not financial objectives as much as it’s qualitative and safeguarding the creative product. We have an incredible commitment to training and developing people. And we spend a fortune on it, but it’s money well spent.

You always say that Omnicom is not an operating unit, but this year, Omnicom pitched, won and now handles Bank of America. And there was Chrysler before that. How do you explain this reverse in philosophy?

I have 5,000 clients, so you’re selecting two of them where there is more Omnicom involvement than the other 4998. We’re client-centric. We have the capability of doing anything that the client requires

at any level. In those two cases, we have

centralized on behalf of the client because that was in the best interest of the client.

How does your approach to a holding company pitch differ from your competitors’?

It’s not about Omnicom. It’s about Omnicom guaranteeing the resources are going to be there and Omnicom providing navigation for those resources. If you take a look at the way that I pitch business, even so-called holding company pitches, it’s with my agency brands. If you look at the way Martin [Sorrell] does it, he cherrypicks a WPP team; he’ll go with Y&R’s distribution system and Andy Berlin as the creative. There’s a huge difference.

And why do you choose to do it your way?

Win or lose, the actions of the CEO of the holding company can affect the morale

and the well-being of the brands. In my case, by supporting the brands, I have an opportunity, if we lose something, for the brand to learn from that and evolve. If you are customizing the team, you are focused on winning today, and I’m not so sure it doesn’t stunt your evolution. I’m as interested in being able to adapt, learn and develop the companies and the brands as I am in winning any particular event.

What’s going to happen to IPG?

I think it’ll stabilize in the near term if they can maintain the quality staff that they need at their agencies.

What has been the biggest change since you were appointed CEO of Omnicom?

The thing that has remained the same is that quality always wins. And creativity is at the core of developing great ideas. What’s changed is the way those ideas get executed because of fragmentation in the media. We’ve had to adapt ourselves and spend our clients’ money far more wisely.

OK, this is where this gets a bit more personal. How would you describe your management style?

[Laughs, pauses] I don’t know.

Come on, are you telling me that you have no idea what Jean-Marie [Dru] or Andrew think of you as a boss?

I think they respect me.

And do you think that’s just because of your brain?

No, I treat them as partners, they are responsible for their brands, and they are responsible for telling me and informing me as to what resources they need so we can jointly figure out how to acquire them. And they don’t always succeed. The system is built so that not everyone has to perform at their highest level, all the time, in order for us to accomplish our goals and objectives for growth. I give them a lot of autonomy, and I’m available to them in terms of the guiding principles. We make only a few rules.

Wait, what rules? Your rules?

Right, there’s only a couple of commandments.

And what are they?

Basically, that creativity is at the core of everything we do. Every one of the brands that we are going to invest in and get behind has to be a leader in its category. That every middle and upper manager has to be committed to the training and development of their staff. And that the people who have been empowered have an obligation to grow their companies responsibly over time. Those are the basic commandments. And, that bad news should travel faster than good news.

Who has influenced you the most?

In my life or my career?

Can we do both?

Sure, if you said my life, I’d say my mother.

And what is the biggest lesson you learned from her?

To work hard and stay focused. And to understand that you’re part of a team.

And from a business point of view?

Bruce Crawford.

Can you describe your relationship with Bruce?

I probably can’t, but I’ll try. We share a number of similar qualities, but what I got from Bruce is the confidence to empower the people who work for me.

Describe the relationship more.

My relationship with Bruce is extraordinarily close. He selected me and handed Omnicom over to me and has stayed committed as the chairman of the company for the last 10 years and has always been a valuable advisor to me.

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment so far?

Staying true to our principles and growing the brands within Omnicom to the size and importance they are today.

How important is it to you that Omnicom be the biggest?

It’s never been important to us. We’ve never focused on it. We’ve never used our acquisition dollars for that purpose. What is important is that we continue to grow the company and invest wisely.

Can you point to one of your smartest business decisions over the last few years?

Um, no.

Really? Would you rather talk about one of the dumbest?

[Laughs] Not really.

Tell me one of the smartest, then.

Let’s see. Making the investments that we did in the Internet is probably the smartest business decision I’ve made in the last five years.

In terms of seeing it early or identifying those particular acquisitions?

One, seeing it early, and two, being able to make the acquisitions we did and to maintain our position in that area. So we are incredibly well-positioned—as we’ve always been—in marketing services and also to address this expanding space in the Internet.

If I rephrase the question about your dumbest move to ask you to identify a missed opportunity, you’ll answer that, right?

OK. Probably not pushing integration harder and faster.

If you weren’t the CEO of Omnicom, what would you be doing?

Something entrepreneurial.

Give me three words to describe yourself.


What else?

What am I going to say?

I know this is painful—you probably don’t sit around reflecting on these things very much.

That’s right. I don’t. I do what I think at the moment is the right thing to do.

OK, what would other people say?

I have no idea. The one thing is, when you’ve been the CEO of something for 10 years, no one tells you the truth.

Name one characteristic you can’t stand in other people then.


I would have thought you’d say disloyalty.

I think if you’re selfish, you get to disloyalty pretty quickly.

Is the business still fun? Are you still having fun?

For the most part, yes, it’s still fun.

Is it more difficult? More challenging?

Well it’s different. It’s a much more consolidated industry. There’s even going to be more consolidation, in my opinion, over the next two years. And the bigger you are, the harder it is to grow, but so far we’ve been able to successfully accomplish that.

What keeps you up at night?

Nothing keeps me up at night because I don’t get that much sleep to begin with. I can’t think of anything, really.

That’s good, you must be satisfied.

I’m never satisfied.

Recommended articles