Ogilvy Chief Miles Young Is Busy Reinventing a Troubled Agency

So don't expect a Christmas card

Some five years ago, Coca-Cola’s Jonathan Mildenhall took his first tour of Asia after assuming the company’s top marketing job, and as one would expect, Miles Young, then regional chief of Coke roster shop Ogilvy & Mather, took his client out on the town, in his own inimitable way. In Bangkok, Young treated Mildenhall to a meal at a streetside joint where the Ogilvy exec ordered in the local dialect and they dined on bowls of steaming noodles served on a Formica tabletop.

“I expected an expat living in an expat bubble—but he’s not a British guy, he’s not an expat,” Mildenhall says of the man who now runs the global agency out of the U.S. “He understands local culture, especially street culture,” Mildenhall continues. “There has been a lot of Ogilvy management establishment in New York, but Miles is truly a global leader who lives in the world.”

So much for the bygone era of elegant client lunches in midtown Manhattan where Ogilvy brass would expect the coffee at the end of a meal to be served with a piece of new business. In the years before Young’s ascension, the agency was largely run by Americans imbued with a kind of insular elitism reflecting one of the bluest of advertising’s blue-chip clubs. New business largely came by way of personal connections, with former CEOs functioning as agency ambassadors, swooping into some far-flung office before moving on to the next dot on the map.

Young, who just marked his fourth anniversary as Ogilvy’s worldwide CEO, is forging a new way of working in that role. Like his much-respected predecessor Shelly Lazarus, he has spent most of his career at the agency, championed integrated communications and been a leader in direct marketing. But the differences between the two are telling: Young has never been part of the American advertising club; rather, he is a global player who built Ogilvy Asia into the dominant presence in the world’s fastest-growing market.

In transitioning to the New York headquarters, Young brought that same aggressive ambition and revamped view of the industry’s future. And he has made new business an urgent pursuit. Since his arrival, Ogilvy has won global business from UPS, Kimberly-Clark, S.C. Johnson and Philips. Meanwhile, Ogilvy Group’s worldwide revenue in that time has grown 15 percent to an estimated $2.3 billion.

Yet while highly regarded in Asia, Young remains little known in the states. He certainly wasn’t the obvious choice for the top job. But in talking to Martin Sorrell, CEO of Ogilvy parent company WPP Group, he makes it clear that Young had already played a larger corporate role. Apart from running Ogilvy Asia-Pacific, Young served as a de facto WPP chief in the region, supporting acquisitions and developing talent.

“Miles has a deep understanding of Ogilvy and its culture and its importance within WPP,” Sorrell said in an interview with Adweek. “Historically, our leaders just focused on their own companies.”

Sorrell first approached Young about the job at the end of 2007, at the World Economic Forum in Dalian, China. The two met for a drink (during which they were interrupted for a chat with Jordan’s Queen Noor). But taking the position wasn’t such an easy decision for Young.

In Asia for 13 years, Young had doubled the region’s revenue to $500 million between 2003 and 2008 and built out operations in China, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Korea, Japan, Thailand and Pakistan as he expanded practice disciplines. Along the way, Young fell in love with Asia and lived amid the lush vegetation in Hong Kong’s exclusive Peak District, with its sweeping views of the harbor and the city. The adman vacationed at his Sri Lanka plantation and sought out local regional artists, acquiring a stunning collection of Asian paintings and sculpture.

An Englishman in New York

If his life in China was fueled by the dynamism of a new age in global economics, Young’s move to New York presented the considerable challenge of shaking up a legacy network. In recent years, Ogilvy’s home base had not won significant new business, and office politics had divided management. While the agency garnered respect for its corporate image campaigns (IBM and American Express among them) and its CRM, digital and retail capabilities, Ogilvy’s creative generated little industry buzz. To outsiders, the place seemed stalled.

Internally, there had been a push to merge operations of the digital, relationship marketing and consulting business of OgilvyOne with Ogilvy’s advertising offerings—an effort that Young now says “misdirected the agency for a while.” He believed the company would get the best integration through specialization coming from the vertical strengths of the company’s marketing disciplines.

By all accounts, Young epitomized David Ogilvy’s ideal for executives who are “gentlemen with brains.” Yet he brought another asset: the perspective of distance.

“When I got here, Ogilvy felt old-fashioned—the advertising in particular felt old-fashioned,” Young relates. “There wasn’t a belief in [going after] new business. For a decade and a half, business grew strongly organically or came through connections. … New-business momentum has to come from the top, and I saw it as my job to make fundamental changes. It’s like a crusade, not a war.”

In a first for Ogilvy HQ, Young in 2009 reached out to intermediaries like the AdForum, a clearinghouse of agency data for marketers, inviting the group’s leaders for drinks and dinner in New York. Caffeine, a U.K. consultancy, also was enlisted to help Ogilvy brush up on its pitching skills. Young put execs through their paces in pitch rehearsals. No detail was too small.

“When he first came in, everybody was like, whoa,” recalls Lauren Crampsie, Ogilvy’s worldwide chief marketing officer. “He wants to know the big picture, but also every point beneath it. He has an incredible amount of discipline—it’s hard to believe a person who is a global CEO can be involved in every aspect of a new business pitch.”

In an example of the most un-Ogilvy way of doing things, Young rolled the dice in 2009 by resigning the agency’s DHL business to pursue UPS’ global account. It was Young’s first new-business pitch as CEO, and even he wondered how a natty Brit by way of China would fare in a roomful of American clients. He needn’t have worried. Ogilvy won the UPS business, and subsequently a string of global assignments from the likes of Kimberly-Clark (which consolidated its business at the agency in 2010), S.C. Johnson and Philips.

“You feel Miles has come into the job and retained the essence of what Ogilvy is—he quite understands the agency’s understanding of applied intellectualism,” says Clive Sirkin, senior marketing officer at Kimberly-Clark. “But he’s got an intense focus on clients’ business. He knows Ogilvy makes money when its clients make money. Miles comes across with incredible grace, but you know he’s a street fighter—a well-dressed street fighter—but one you want on your side.”

In the global review of S.C. Johnson’s business, which stretched from 2010 to 2011, Young played to his strengths, keeping his finger on the details while thinking about the big picture. For nine months, he spent fully half his time on it, culminating in a nine-hour pitch with nearly 40 client personnel and 36 Ogilvy people in the room. In the end, the agency split the creative prize with BBDO, with the rivals sharing total revenue of about $50 million to $60 million.

Greg Paull, a Hong Kong-based principal of R3: JLB, the consultancy that managed the search process, says Young was instrumental to Ogilvy’s success. “We ran the S.C. Johnson pitch, which was their first review in 56 years, and it needed someone with Miles’ patience and resilience to win that type of assignment,” says Paull.

Creative (Back In) Control

While new clients have taken to the changes under way at Ogilvy, the agency’s work has begun to attract industry notice. Last year, Ogilvy & Mather won 83 Lions at Cannes—earning Network of the Year honors—and was named the most effective agency in North America at the Effies. Colleagues say Young has a particular interest in all that creative output. In fact, Ogilvy became one of the most awarded agencies in Asia on his watch.

Inside Young’s tony brownstone, his esthetic sense is clear. His handpicked art collection is tastefully arranged among the books, artifacts and genteel furnishings of an Oxford-educated world traveler. From Young’s kitchen (by Ogilvy client Ikea), the sound of vegetables being chopped and the smell of food being prepared fill the air as a Chinese cook works his magic. (“Miles runs the best Chinese restaurant in New York City,” says Spencer Osborn, Ogilvy’s managing director of global brand management.)

Young was born in Carlisle, Cumbria, a stone’s throw from Northwest England’s Lake District, the only child of a poultry farmer/seed salesman father and a mother who hailed from a farming family. After majoring in history at Oxford, Young broke into advertising at Lintas London in the early ’80s, working on Unilever ice cream brands, before joining Allen, Brady & Marsh, where he first honed his new-business skills at an agency known for winning accounts with live jingles.

In 1983, he joined Ogilvy & Mather in London and quickly made his name by pitching and winning Guinness. “He was quite terrifying to work with because he was so ferociously intelligent and well-prepared,” recalls Andrew Robertson, then a 22-year-old media planner and now the global CEO of BBDO. “I always knew I had to have done my homework when I went into a meeting with him. He had a folder for the Guinness presentation with a script written for it. I had never seen anyone do that before.”

In 1990, Young moved over to run Ogilvy Direct—a daunting shift given that he really knew nothing about direct marketing. (Colleagues saw it as a career setback: “Miles, you’re being sent to Siberia to lick envelopes,” he recalls one saying.) After the agency won IBM’s global business in ’94, Young and his team encamped to Paris, where they set up a European hub for the client and Young became chairman of the direct unit.

In 1995, then-worldwide CEO Charlotte Beers summoned Young to a meeting in her London hotel room. Squeezed into the corner of a sofa where Beers dominated the space, the boss asked if Young would run the shop’s Asian operations. He had 24 hours to decide, lest he overthink it. Even as he exited Beers’ suite, Young, who had never even visited that part of the world, knew he was going to take the job. Not that it was an easy call: By that point, Young, a member of the Conservative party, had become active in London politics, heading up a local council, and the move would require him to resign from 23 positions associated with various boards, committees and charity groups.

By then, Ogilvy had 20 people manning mainland China out of Hong Kong and another 12 each managing Beijing and Shanghai. Young—sitting in his tiny Hong Kong office, filled with the smell of Chinese sausages wafting up from the street—began to envision an expansion that would eventually create a group of 4,100 employees working on behalf of some of the region’s largest marketers, including IBM, Lenovo, Unilever, China Telecom, Intel and Nestlé.

“One of the things Miles always had was a very clear company strategy and the belief you have to stick to it,” says Paul Heath, the shop’s Asia-Pacific chairman. “There may be bumps in the road, but if you react to every little thing, it will distract you.”

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Young, who had no experience in direct marketing before running that operation in Europe and who had never been to Asia before leading the region for 13 years, rose to the challenge when offered the opportunity to relocate to the U.S., yet another market that was alien to him. He took Ogilvy’s top job in January 2009 and that same month began streamlining New York-based senior management, with John Seifert, then Ogilvy’s chairman of global brands, becoming head of North America. Seifert replaced the duo of Carla Hendra and Bill Gray. Gray retired later that year while Hendra went on to start OgilvyRED, a strategic services consultancy that includes new Ogilvy marketing resources like sustainability practice OgilvyEarth and Islamic marketing unit Ogilvy Noor.

Young also has begun building a new generation of management that cut its teeth outside New York. A year ago, he named Lee Newman, managing director of Wieden + Kennedy, Amsterdam, president of the Chicago office, and last August, Adam Tucker, managing partner of AMV BBDO, London, joined as New York president. And as Sorrell pushed for the appointment of a big-name global creative director, Young early on recruited Tham Khai Meng, his creative partner of eight years in Asia. They now share an office and even a long, glass table that functions as a desk. Intense loyalty is one of Young’s key traits.

Agency factions were told by Young to pull together. “There were a lot of politics in the organization and I don’t believe in that at all,” explains Young. “We’re all one team batting together and I’ve made that message crystal clear.”

No Apologies

As the fates would have it, Young took charge of Ogilvy at the beginning of a sobering industry contraction in America, as the Great Recession took hold and every agency, including Ogilvy, shedded staffers. More fundamentally, however, the global boss says the company had to make cuts “to renovate basic skills to be more appropriate in a digital age.” To that end, in early 2012, the Ogilvy Group cut 3 percent of its U.S. staff, or 60 people, with New York taking the brunt. Like many companies, Ogilvy also has offshored its financial operations to India, eliminating hundreds more jobs in New York.

Says one agency insider: “With Shelly [Lazarus], it was like a family at Ogilvy. She sent Christmas cards, personal notes. But this is a new era in the business, a new era at Ogilvy. Miles is more like Martin [Sorrell] in his tone of leadership: He’s demanding, insistent of results. In the context of where we are, this is not a warm-and-fuzzy world. But that kind of management is still unsettling, especially to Americans. He may not be warm and fuzzy, but he understands what matters.”

Young makes no apologies, but attempts to explain the shift. “The difference between the American style of management is that it’s more laid back and the British are more hands-on,” he says. “That was definitely a change for the organization.”

Along with that change in style come expectations of newfound momentum. “Miles comes out of Asia, where things happen fast and they happen first,” says Khai Meng. That imperative is clear to Ogilvy veterans in New York. “Miles lived through the explosion of Asia,” Hendra says. “It’s like going through the university of what you need to know about the future.”

Clearly, mature markets like the U.S. don’t move at the same pace, particularly amid economic doldrums. Still, Young, at 58, has found traction in his first four years at the helm, navigating not only the new business landscape but also the institutionalized halls of HQ. And North American chief and Ogilvy lifer Seifert, for one, believes Young can successfully balance the shop’s past strengths with his mission of reinventing it for a changing industry.

“Miles’ arrival was a moment of reset at the company, and we have to go to a different place as we should,” he says. “Ogilvy in North America has to be as vital as any other part of the world and for a while it felt stagnant. Now we have momentum.”