Is Nick Brien Saving McCann or Screwing It Up?

As big accounts walk out the door, its top exec says he just has a PR problem

Entering his third year as chief executive of McCann Worldgroup, Nick Brien admits he has a problem. But it’s not the one you might expect for a man overseeing the company’s embattled flagship, McCann Erickson. The world’s largest agency network has struggled to win new U.S. business while bleeding global legacy brands like Nestlé’s Nescafé and ExxonMobil­—ending a 100-year relationship with the oil giant. And in another stinging loss, Lufthansa—the world’s fourth largest airline—took off for a small independent German shop amid sniping press coverage that legendary McCann is fast losing altitude.

Is Brien’s problem that he hired too many outsiders with big titles and less than relevant experience to reinvent one of advertising’s strongest agency cultures?

Is the problem that the ambitious—some say too ambitious—media-agency turnaround exec focuses too much on the Big Vision at the expense of serving clients in the trenches?

No, none of that.

The problem, Brien says, is public relations.

He insists that he has only failed to convey what he calls his great progress in transforming the legendary century-old agency. “One of the areas I didn’t consider as important as I do now is communications,” Brien emphasizes between sips of espresso in his temporary corner office with sweeping midtown Manhattan views. Like the transitions at McCann, the space is short-term until the completion of a redesign to open up the floor plan, allowing for more collaboration to reflect the larger cultural shift underway. Architecture as environmental public relations, you might call it. “Communications need[s] to be delivered with ruthless efficiency and regularity,” he continues. “And that hasn’t been the case.”

Ruthless regularity, certainly. Brien is working with his fourth PR exec since taking the top job at McCann in April 2010. Even in the smoke-and-mirrors world of advertising, those who know Brien say that he more than most industry execs manages through a prism of PR spin. For a man who joined Interpublic’s Universal McCann seven years ago—then quickly fixed the troubled media agency—the buzz about his latest challenge has not been good. As one former company executive puts it: “The McCann culture has always been about winning, aggressiveness, power, a not-to-be-denied mentality. Now they’re not winning. They’ve lost power. They’ve lost confidence.”

What’s at stake is far more than just reinventing one of advertising’s most traditional agencies. Worldgroup accounts for some 30 percent of Interpublic’s $7 billion in revenue, so the fate of its largest operating unit directly impacts its publicly held parent. In a May research note, Pivotal Research Group’s Brian Wieser called McCann’s turnaround key to IPG, highlighting account losses, risk to L’Oréal and the departures of executives who were important to account relationships. On the positive side, he pointed to growth in China, healthcare wins and additional business from GM and Nestlé Waters.

Raised in London by an Australian orthodontist father and German museum docent mother, 50-year-old Brien exudes a worldly air as he casually greets a visitor in a suit, sans tie. A naturalized American, he confesses that his U.S. passport is his most treasured travel possession in an ad career that began in the British capital as a media planner with Grey. Next, he moved to Leo Burnett London as media director, where he rose to become that agency’s CEO before hopping the Atlantic to Starcom MediaVest Group, Chicago, to lead corporate development. He went on to become CEO at Burnett’s marketing services arm, Arc Worldwide in Chicago. In 2005, he moved to New York as CEO of UM, which he overhauled before joining Mediabrands in 2008, reinventing the media management unit along with overseeing the resurgence of Initiative.

A big personality and intensely driven, Brien is a man who by his own admission hates standing still. But his strengths can also come across as his weaknesses—a confidence that can be perceived as arrogance, an impatience that appears impulsive. He sees himself as a leader taking a view from 30,000 feet, while appointing people to dive into more gritty details of business. (A small but telling detail: Brien, who received a $1.25 million bonus in 2011, was the only one of Interpublic’s five top execs who required a personal driver, according to last year’s proxy, something even holding company CEO Michael Roth didn’t need.)

Brien believes resilience is his best characteristic, a quality much in need at McCann these days. In addition to the global accounts lost on his watch, the agency’s U.S. client departures include Verizon Wireless (which was heading out the door before he arrived), Avis, Unilever’s Bertolli and P.F. Chang’s brands, Nestlé’s Nesquik and Coffee-Mate. Clients like Kohl’s and Staples are putting out feelers to other agencies for work, while McCann resigned Applebee’s in review. In non-incumbent pitches, the firm failed to win business such as Hennessy, Norwegian Cruise Line, Burger King and Stolichnaya. Meanwhile, the agency’s San Francisco creative crown jewel, Twofifteen McCann, is holding on to Hewlett-Packard PSG Americas for now, despite losing global project work for HP. Also gone on the West Coast: iShares, the exchange-traded funds marketed by BlackRock, which has been one of Interpublic’s largest investors.

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