Mark O’Brien: Beyond the Balance Sheet

Mark O’Brien acknowledges that overcoming his reputation as “just a numbers guy” is the biggest challenge he faces as the new North American president of DDB.

O’Brien, in his first major interview since taking the reins six weeks ago, stressed that his previous role at the Omnicom Group shop was operational, not financial. As COO of North America, he worked with office presidents, managed key clients such as Johnson & Johnson and helped recruit talent, including Chicago chief creative officer Ewan Paterson. Also, in earlier financial roles, he helped set up digital unit Tribal DDB.

Still, up until 2009, he held nothing but finance and CFO jobs at DDB and other agencies (see box). Indeed, the University of Mississippi accounting major began his career in the audit group at Arthur Andersen in Dallas. This background means he’s decidedly not the quintessential suit who rises to a leadership role based on his long and deep ties to major clients. His predecessor, Dick Rogers, is that guy, and O’Brien, 47, initially will rely on the 61-year-old Rogers, who remains as regional chairman, to make introductions and smooth the transition.

“I know that the finance role and the role that I played is an important one, but it isn’t the central and integral role of an agency,” said O’Brien, who joined DDB in 1998. “The most integral role of the agency is our product. So, for me, understanding that that’s what drives the business and appreciating that in order to help us grow, helps me to focus on what’s really important.”

As COO, O’Brien was also what Jerry Della Femina once described as a “killer” (the one who calls you into his office to fire you). Naturally, that fact has created wariness among some DDB rank and file. But whether firing, hiring or recruiting, “the motivation behind it is to make DDB a better place to work, to make a place where we can do the best work for our clients and where good people can succeed,” said O’Brien.

In his early weeks, O’Brien has gone out of his way to bond with staffers. In the wake of Chicago CEO Rick Carpenter’s exit last month, the New York-based O’Brien has temporarily taken on that role as well, spending the bulk of each week in Chicago and attending that office’s holiday party. He’ll continue to split time between Chicago and New York until he fills the CEO’s slot, most likely by June.

Another crucial test for O’Brien is how he meshes with creatives in particular, given the general industry divide between creatives and those who manage the balance sheet. Said one source: “He’s good with the numbers. We’ll see how he does leading creative people.”

Worldwide CEO Chuck Brymer appreciates the new regional chief’s hands-on approach and is unfazed by the “numbers guy” perception. “Mick Jagger started at the London School of Economics and he’s a pretty creative guy, right?” said Brymer. “I don’t think we need to box people in—I don’t anyway—by the boundaries.”

This Florham Park, N.J., resident won’t ever be confused with a rock star, however, or even a larger-than-life ad figure. On the phone, he comes across as thoughtful and measured, even when confronted with a cynical description of him as a “soulless numbers guy.” (“That’s just a stereotype,” he replied.) Low key is fine, though, if he delivers results. As Rogers put it, “Everybody walks in with a reputation. It’s going to [come down to] proving that he has got the vision and . . . action.” Besides, Rogers added, “Talk is talk and everybody is action. That’s what counts.”

Mark O’Brien Dossier:
• 47 years old.
• Raised in Schenectady, N.Y.
• Father was a computer programmer at General Electric, mother was the station manager at an NBC affiliate in Albany.
• University of Mississippi alumnus (majored in accounting).
• Before DDB, worked at Griffin Bacal (as CFO), The Focus Agency (finance director) and Arthur Andersen (senior manager).
• Joined DDB in 1998 as director of worldwide finance.
• CEOs that inspire him: Jack Welch, Steve Jobs.
• Favorite author: John Grisham.
• Describes himself as honest, direct, hardworking.