O’Keeffe Defines WPP Role

NEW YORK Reactions to WPP Group’s hire last week of John O’Keeffe have ranged from curious to concerned. But the incoming worldwide creative director said that WPP agencies need not worry.

“I don’t see my role as in any way being the boss of anyone in particular in the group. I’m working for WPP. I will help out where I think I can help out,” O’Keeffe said today. “It has always been my style to delegate to smart people. The smartest leaders are the ones who find smarter people than themselves and give them as much of the credit as is possible and deal with a lot of the responsibility.”

In a statement about the hire, WPP CEO Martin Sorrell said that O’Keeffe will “accelerate” the process of building creative capabilities across all disciplines and “help us ensure that creative capabilities and resources are at the heart of what we do.” The 45-year-old creative leader will be based in London and report to Sorrell. He’ll start in early September.

Given that WPP’s major agency networks already employ global creative leaders, some sources wondered about the specifics of O’Keeffe’s role. Even though Neil French held the position of WPP worldwide cd previously, he was part-time and internally focused, as was his successor, Robyn Putter, a worldwide cd at Ogilvy & Mather. In contrast, O’Keeffe will be full-time and focus primarily on clients, according to a WPP representative.

In fact, some sources suggest that the impetus for O’Keeffe’s hire can be found on the client rosters of WPP and his former employer, Bartle Bogle Hegarty.

As executive creative director of BBH London, O’Keeffe oversaw a creative staff of about 65, in what had become primarily a management role, though he maintained contact with clients such as Unilever and Diageo, both of which are key clients of WPP’s JWT. BBH and JWT also share a client in Vodafone.

Before ascending to the ecd role in 2000, O’Keeffe was a cd known for award-winning work on Levi’s, Audi, K Shoes and One2One. He had worked at BBH since 1990.

“He’s an incredibly visionary kind of bloke” who’s “brilliant” at grasping the big picture, said one source.

In O’Keeffe, WPP has selected a creative leader at the prime of his career who was attracted by the opportunity to work on a bigger stage after 18 years at BBH, which has six offices around the world.

“Somebody said, ‘Well, you are butting up against the ceiling there, aren’t you?’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s a Sistine Chapel, so I’m very happy with it,” said O’Keeffe. “I was having quite a nice time. Some tremendous people here. So, I suppose it would take a kind of a Sir Martin Sorrell to invite you to breakfast and sort of proffer an opportunity like this to make me do it.”

Colleagues describe O’Keeffe as direct, articulate and deft at managing campaigns that span multiple countries and regions.

“It has become a global industry now and more often than not you’re dealing with briefs that cross many boarders. And that requires a tremendous resilience in creative people — greater understanding, greater patience and understanding how to play the long game,” said BBH worldwide cd John Hegarty. “All those things are vitally important. And those are skills that John developed over his time with us. I’d like to say they will hold him in great stead.”

WPP positions itself as a parent company that seeks to “add value,” in contrast to holding companies such as Omnicom Group that generally focus on touting the capabilities of their various agency brands. As such, the O’Keeffe hire jibes with the company’s practice of adding senior talent to its top ranks, be it a worldwide cd or top planning consultant Jon Steel.

WPP also has embraced the concept of the holding company pitch, typically pulling together resources from multiple shops to win large, global accounts. A prime example is the creation of Enfatico, the new agency devoted to Dell. Other examples include Team Samsung, Team HSBC and Team Detroit, the grouping of six shops — including JWT, Ogilvy & Mather and Young & Rubicam — at a single office in Dearborn, Mich., on behalf of key global client Ford.