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All change at RKCR/Y&R as Sharpe takes CEO reins

Jon Sharpe, currently chief innovation officer at RKCR/Y&R, is replacing Ben Kay as CEO. Kay is moving to owner WPP in a global planning director role.

unnamed-4Sharpe (left) joined Y&R in 2012 and led the successful repitch for the BBC account earlier this year. He was also responsible for the integration of digital agency Saint into the agency and the launch of Spark Plug, which offers tech start-ups space at the agency to help on client business.

Before joining Y&R Sharpe was CDO at M&C Saatchi and founder of digital agency Play, which was acquired by M&C Saatchi. Prior to launching Play he was CEO at Itraffic and MD of Agency.com.

Sharpe says: “RKCR/Y&R has a fantastic heritage of doing great things for great clients with great people. In the three years I’ve been here, I feel that every day. So I feel privileged to take on the CEO role, honoured to continue working with Mark Roalfe, and excited to lead the charge as we help our clients drive results and build their brands.” Roalfe, the second ‘R’ in RKCR, is chairman and ECD but is stepping down from the latter role. Sharpe is looking for a new ECD and also a CSO who will report to him.

In his new role of planning director at WPP Ben Kay will report to WPP group planning director Jon Steel. With Steel he will work for group agencies and clients and work on global client initiatives for CEO Sir Martin Sorrell. He has been at Y&R for 11 years, originally as a planner. He has been CEO since 2011.

Y&R has struggled since the adam&eve breakaway in 2008, removing much of the agency’s top management and, latterly, several of its biggest accounts including Virgin Atlantic in 2014 and Lloyds Bank this year. It has also lost JLR’s Land Rover to in-house agency Spark44 and Vodafone to WPP sibling Grey. On the plus side it retained the BBC and won Baxters and Emirates.

Key to the management changes is the loss of Lloyds to what is now adam&eveDDB and the UK’s hottest agency by some distance. Lloyds was the source of the original spat between Sorrell and A&E, which resulted in a costly out of court settlement for the new agency (WPP accused A&E of soliciting the business, which they denied then and now).

Lloyds Banking Group then moved its Halifax brand from DLKW Lowe into A&E and hired the agency to produce its 250th anniversary advertising before the pitch for the main account was announced. So it’s pretty clear where Lloyds’ affections lay and hard to see what CEO Kay could have done about it. That didn’t stop Sorrell assembling a WPP top team, including personnel from Grey and 49 per cent owned CHI & Partners to try to keep the business.

This, in turn, led to rumours that Sorrell was trying to persuade CHI founder Johnny Hornby to merge his agency with Y&R and take the top job.

That notion seems to to have been kicked into the long grass, at least for now.

Trying to re-invigorate the agency through Sharpe and his new team (admittedly yet to be determined) looks a more sensible measure. One thing WPP might look at, though, is why Y&R seems to be such fertile ground for breakaways. The A&E departures were followed by those of CEO Richard Exon and ECD Damon Collins who eventually set up Joint in 2012 (the two allowed time to elapse before setting up, no doubt wisely given A&E’s experience). While Joint hasn’t taken business from Y&R it represents lost senior talent, instanced by its work on Amazon Prime and TSB.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.
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