Q&A With Y&R CEO David Sable

David Sable, Young & Rubicam’s fourth global CEO in eight years, is no stranger to the WPP Group shop, having worked there early in his career. That was 17 years, ago, however, and since then Sable has distinguished himself primarily as a direct marketer, given his 11 years at sister shop Wunderman. (He also has held account management roles at WPP public relations shops Burson-Martsteller and Sudler & Hennessey.) At Y&R, Sable inherits an agency from predecessor Hamish McLennan that in recent years has been bitten by client defections (7Up, MetLife) and strikeouts in big reviews (UPS). In an interview with senior editor Andrew McMains, the 57-year-old leader discussed his management challenges, why he’s not a “kumbaya guy” and why he thinks merging Y&R and Wunderman would be a mistake.

Adweek: What are your priorities going in?
Sable: There is a perceptual issue that has to catch up with reality. [Global chief creative officer] Tony [Granger] and Hamish have done a really admirable job of creating a creative renaissance here and driving a creative renaissance. The problem is that the market hasn’t caught up with it yet. . . . [Also,] new business is critical. In our business, you’re only as good as the last new business you won.

What else will you focus on?
How the network works and comes together. The greatness of Y&R back when I was last here was that when you looked at Y&R versus the competitors . . . we were nine times out of 10 the best, most powerful, largest local agency (in local markets). And if we weren’t No. 1, we were No. 2. The power of that is that when you talk to global clients, there’s nothing better than to have strong local roots in a network.

Anything else?
Training is really important, but it’s not about training in a vacuum. It’s about training people so that when you get off a plane and walk into any office anywhere, people talk the same language, they understand the same things. They’ve got their local twists, their local spins—they should. But that feeds up to the total culture, the totality of the culture. That’s what makes great global companies.

Do you expect Y&R and Wunderman to work more closely together?
I look at how can we help the Y&R guys understand that there are solutions to client problems inherent in Wunderman that they probably haven’t thought of just because they’ve never been trained by it. They haven’t seen it. Particularly around data, there are some amazing opportunities.

For example?
The whole notion of how you use data to inform insight is huge. Behind that is really transactional data, which is what Wunderman is about. Real stuff that people are doing. . . . [Also,] one big piece of the Wunderman proposition are the global platforms that we’ve built for clients and our ability to help distribution of advertising and other assets. . . . The next time we go and pitch a global piece of business, that’s front and center to the new proposition. 

There has been talk in the past about combining Wunderman and Y&R. Would you take a look at that?
Never. I’d be against that. I was against that when I was at Wunderman. I’m against that on this side. I think it would be a big mistake.

Because you’re homogenizing an offer. I think [Y&R and Wunderman] do two different things. Clients want to work in the best in class. If we combined them, we would water down the value proposition of both. So, I would never do that. [Wunderman CEO] Daniel [Morel] and I have been nuts about this for 11 years. There’s no way. We’ve been looking at the success at Wunderman versus the companies that have done that, where they’ve combined those things and created one company. It’s very clear to us—just talking to clients, looking at the business that we’ve won, looking at the business that we’ve taken away from other people—why it’s critical to have best in class on all sides of a pie.