TBWA London places big bet on Souter

The news that Peter Souter has been appointed to the top slot at TBWA London opens up a lesson in agency management worthy of a case study on what not to do. Not about Peter, by the way, nice bloke and I wish him every success.

The real story is about the history that has resulted in a great agency name going up and down the league table like a roller coaster.

Our agency, Simons Palmer, was approached in 1996 by Omnicom with the idea of acquiring our business, merging with TBWA, and our team basically being in charge. We completed the deal in April 1997 and both agencies moved in to a new building together in late 1997. All went pretty well with a few glitches but almost a perfectly handled merger all round.

The cultural fit was very good and for us, working with the likes of Chiat Day in LA, was exciting and provided us with access to a bigger world. In return our merger in London created a top 10 agency with a strong creative reputation and a great client list.

However some of the early experiences should have been a warning of things around the corner. One of them was Bill Tragos (his opening line was usually ‘I’m the T in TBWA’) who was heading towards retirement but behaving as though it was still his business. His style was confrontational, Greek emotion combined with New York ‘in your face’ verbal unpleasantness.

TBWA held a global conference in LA which was very uplifting as we were meeting some smart, talented people from around the world. I had been asked if I could get a journalist from London to speak at the event on the topic of press relations, the do’s and the don’t’s. Caroline Marshall from Campaign agreed to the trip. She complimented Simons Palmer on being excellent at managing its press relations and rubbished TBWA. Bill Tragos came storming out of the conference room at the next break, attacked me verbally in front of an astonished crowd and said something like “You got your f***ing girlfriend to come here and stroke your f***ing c**k”. Charming and alarming.

We moved in to the new London building in October 1997 and in February 1998 I took a call from John Wren, CEO of Omnicom, to say he was meeting Mike Greenlees to discuss buying GGT Plc. My heart sank, possibly the worst phone call I could have anticipated, and only five months after finally getting the two agencies in to one building. It spelt TROUBLE.

Thinking ahead during the contract negotiations I had a clause drafted that would compel Omnicom to buy us out if they acquired another advertising agency in London that affected our situation as we had 40% of the consideration held in shares of the enlarged business. 60% had been paid in cash on completion. The GGT move triggered this clause, and Omnicom to their credit honoured the obligation without a quibble.

During the negotiations between GGT and Omnicom Mike Greenlees managed to leverage himself in to the role of CEO of TBWA globally, finally ousting Bill Tragos. For me it was out of the frying pan and in to the fire. Mr. Greenlees had been my boss at GGT and we didn’t part on the best of terms, that’s another story.

This resulted evenutally in eruptions with people like Lee Clow, creative supremo of Chiat Day and Jean-Marie Dru of BDDP Paris to mount a ‘it’s him or us’ pressure offensive on Omnicom in relation to Mike Greenlees. I think Carl Johnson joined the pressure group as he was by then CEO of TBWA New York. Anyway they won and Mike was put out to grass in upstate New York.

You can see where this is going; politics diverting energy and focus from running a class ad agency.

The resulting second merger with GGT was superficially well handled but behind the scenes the self-serving politics were awful. GGT was smaller, financially challenged, riddled with unpleasant politics and with a general whiff of nasty back stabbing behaviour.

There are many more anecdotes, far too many to repeat, however the general drift is a business that began to lose the plot on leadership, good corporate governance, continuity, succession planning and a lot more besides.

Eventually the trio of me, Carl Johnson and Simon Clemmow all left the business for varying reasons; all within two years of the merger. Other talent also left, for example Robert Senior and Michael Wall left to start Fallon. The team who had been together as a banded pack for a long time slowly broke up and went their different ways.

Since then the revolving doors of the CEO slot have kept moving over the years including people like Gary Lace, Steve Henry, Paul Bainsfair plus many more, maybe a new one every 18 months or so for over a decade. One of the good guys lost elsewhere was/is Neil Christie who has made a great job of W&K London; I never understood why Neil wasn’t given golden handcuffs at TBWA to lead the business.

What this has inevitably led to is a lack of leadership continuity over the years. Compare this with AMV/BBDO, another Omnicom agency, who have remained at the top of the industry over the same decade with totally consistent top management. Colin Gottlieb has been at the helm of OMD Media for a similar amount of time and managed to develop and build that business across EMEA.

TBWA needs a period of solid stability combined with some clear principles that define the brand in the UK advertising market. Somehow the internal politics need to be exterminated and a strong, integrated management team committed to the longer term. It takes a great deal of effort to build a 1st division advertising agency although, as can be seen, not too much effort to destroy one too.

I genuinely wish Peter Souter my very best wishes for the next chapter in TBWA’s life and I hope he can assemble a team of good people around him.


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