TBWA’s Revolving Door Welcomes Its 5th Leader

The leadership churn at the New York office of TBWA\ Chiat\Day continues with the installment of Robert LePlae as North American president. Although his role is broader than his predecessor’s, LePlae last week became the fifth executive in six years to lead the $800 million office.

Historically, TBWA\C\D in New York has been plagued by a revolving door of accounts and executives. Since 1999, New York has had five office chiefs (Mary Maroun, Carl Johnson, Shona Seifert, Brett Gosper and LePlae) and four creative chiefs (David Page, the team of Patrick O’Neill and Dallas Itzen, worldwide creative director John Hunt and currently, Gerry Graf). Accounts have come and gone, but there’s been more stability since the 2003 exit of Kmart; and this year, the shop held onto Nextel while gaining the lion’s share of ad duties out of the client’s merger with Sprint.

LaPlae, who will relocate from Los Angeles to New York, said his immediate priority is to “make sure I have a clear understanding of what we have, what’s working and what’s not working, and laying out a plan.”

In his first meeting with the shop’s 256 staffers last week, the 45-year-old Detroit native, a client-friendly insider who has worked at TBWA since 1998, struck an optimistic note, pointing to “good work, good clients” and “some talented people in a lot of areas.”

Later, when asked about the revolving door, he said, “We’ve always been looking for the silver bullet, that one person who is going to come in and save the day,” adding he hoped to “get away from the savior mentality, gel as a team and have common goals.”

Since May, LePlae has been president and CEO of TBWA\ California, overseeing the Los Angeles and San Francisco offices. Before that, dating back to January 2002, he was president of Los Angeles—a job that Carisa Bianchi now holds. Regarding a replacement, a TBWA rep said, “We have great management in place, and there’s been no decision on what we’re going to do with that role.”

Sources said LePlae’s shift East was encouraged by worldwide chairman and CCO Lee Clow. As North American president, LePlae will oversee more than 1,100 staffers in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and four offices in Canada. In addition, he’ll serve on TBWA’s eight-person executive committee, the decision-making body of the $9 billion global network. He reports to worldwide CEO Jean-Marie Dru, as did his predecessor, Gosper, who left for McCann Erickson two weeks ago.

“N.Y. is already a strong office—just look at the Nextel and Mars work,” said worldwide vice chairman Tom Carroll. “With Robert coming in, it’s only going to get stronger because he’s a great manager and he knows TBWA.”

Colleagues describe LePlae, who has close ties to Nissan, TBWA’s largest client, as effective, aggressive and ambitious. He’s credited with helping to rebuild a once tenuous relationship with Nissan, having moved to Tokyo in 2000 to set up a joint venture with Hakuhodo to service the carmaker.

Jan Thompson, vp of marketing for Nissan North America, described LePlae as a “good friend to Nissan and critical to its growth for a long time,” adding, “If anyone is going to put a mark on the agency, it will be Robert.”