TBWA Prepares for a New Era E03IPO29

While every agency has its own culture and cast of characters, the story of Michael Greenlees’ dismissal from TBWA could serve as a cautionary tale for most any CEO.

At first glance, the move by Omnicom CEO John Wren to remove Greenlees as CEO of TBWA Worldwide last Tuesday seemed straightforward. Greenlees’ track record for winning new global business—one of his mandates—was spotty. And Omnicom appeared to take a proactive approach in trimming a high-level salary as the market braces for more bad economic news. But nothing is that simple.

Some say Greenlees was doomed from the start: taking the helm, in TBWA Worldwide, of a network that had been cobbled together from a number of different shops run by iconoclasts with healthy egos. His job was to build a cohesive network from that loose federation while overseeing TBWA International’s Jean-Marie Dru, a man with comparable experience; creative leader Lee Clow, the most highly decorated talent in the U.S.; and president of the Americas, Bob Kuperman, an outspoken veteran of the former Chiat/Day.

“It was an impossible job from the start,” said one colleague.

Said another, “You put together more than a few mega-egos and agendas … and this is the only possible outcome. Someone will be out in the cold.”

But what made Greenlees most vulnerable, or expendable, said observers, was that he was not closely aligned with any particular client.

What’s more, Greenlees had butted heads with some colleagues over his plan to make New York the gateway of the worldwide network. New York and Los Angeles had a history of competing rather than collaborating, and Green lees’ plan to elevate New York further insulted the Chiat\Day legacy, said sources. Clow is said to have balked at the notion, raising his concerns to Wren on at least one occasion recently.

“It’s not that Lee doesn’t want the entire network to do well,” said one executive. “But you can’t diminish or dismiss the importance and influence of the Los Angeles office, or Chiat\Day, or Lee himself.”

While he knew his style and ideas were not universally embraced, Greenlees was confident entering his third year. In 2000, the network added nearly $1 billion in new business to reach $6.5 billion in total billings. Revenue was up 15 percent during that period, and since his arrival in May of 1998, billings had grown 27 percent.

In a statement, Wren said Greenlees had completed his task “to bring together the different agencies that make up the network into a unified group with a common culture.” As for Clow and Dru, who was named Greenlees’ successor (see box), Wren said: “TBWA has two of the most talented and visionary leaders in the industry.”

Clow, for his part, was deferential—if not effusive—toward Greenlees in an internal memo to staffers.

“He has helped us have one of the smoothest and most efficient mergers in our industry’s history. We have merged not just functionally but emotionally around the world,” said Clow.

He added: “This is the beginning of the next chapter in our history—one I believe will be the most interesting and exciting yet,” before concluding, “We’ve taken long enough ‘merging.’ Now we must get to work at living up to who we say we are and delivering on what we say we do.”

Said one observer: “You need to [satisfy] at least one of three constituents—your clients, your people or management.” In the end, it appears Greenlees underestimated the importance of all three.

—with Al Stewart

and Noreen O’Leary