Mad Men writers lash McCanns – why does everybody hate the world’s biggest agency?

Well probably because it’s the biggest. But in the last episode of AMC’s Mad Men ad drama character Kenneth Cosgrove opined thus: “It’s the worst agency I’ve ever seen. The worst. My mother was a nurse at the state hospital and that was the last time I saw so many retarded people in one building.”

A bit strong surely, but this is fiction after all. But it’s not so far from the way that many agency folk see, and have always seen, McCann-Erickson, the jewel in the Interpublic crown and the agency that handles many of America’s biggest accounts including Exxon, Coca-Cola and Microsoft. Nestle is the foundation of its European business.

And when it handles these in the States it also handles them overseas, wherever Exxon or Coke planted their flags so did McCanns.

But popular it ain’t. One reason is that its creative work is widely derided, thought to personify the broadsword rather than the rapier. Creatives, and creatively-minded account men, could never work out (or chose not to understand) how its lumpen ads won the support and huge budgets of the world’s biggest companies.

Its fortunes in the UK are quite instructive on this score. In the 1970s it became one of the biggest UK agencies on the back of a number of inspired appointments; it hired Ronnie Kirkwood, a delicate flower in truth, as creative director, the last person you would have expected to find at macho McCanns. But Ronnie did the business and was succeeded by the equally flamboyant but much more robust Barry Day, who positioned himself cleverly as adverts’ resident intellectual.

American boss Phil Geier was sent over to earn his spurs in the colonies and got the agency moving, later to be rewarded with the top job at owner Interpublic. Geier was succeeded by debs’ delight Nigel Grandfield whose haunts were Annabel’s and the Clermont Club.

But Grandfield, never far from a large whisky and once married to model Sandra Howard, now Mrs Michael Howard, was brilliant at dragging in the clients and he hired a formidable raft of clever account men including Graeme Collins, Graham Hinton and Alban Lloyd.

So McCanns added the likes of Tesco to Esso (its British incarnation), the other American clients and Martini. Its ‘the right one’ campaign for Martini summarised the McCanns of that era, it was glossy and vapid at the same time but Martini became a huge brand.

Grandfield and his cohorts eventually went their own ways but McCanns stayed on even though it signally failed to replace this crew with people of similar stature.

A few years ago Rupert Howell, an A-grade schmoozer, was recruited as boss but failed to make much of an impact. But it didn’t really matter, McCanns cruised on.

And it still does, which is probably why everybody hates it so much.

Now McCanns Worldwide is run by Nick Brien, a former UK media director who probably wouldn’t have made it over the CEO’s threshold in the Grandfield era, being a media man. But the world has changed and Brien has proved himself an adept manager and Interpublic operator.

As for the Mad Men diatribe, it’s strange in one way because Sterling Cooper, the Mad Men agency, surely has to be McCanns. Creative director Don Draper is straight out of the McCanns book (American version). He’s brilliant at producing solutions for clients that are just risky enough to intrigue and challenge but hardly likely to frighten the horses. In this he’s an atypical creative director (who, mostly, don’t see clients as the point of the exercise at all).

But he’s typical McCanns and that’s why the agency works despite a large part of the world saying it’s rubbish.

McCanns’ only real problem is that the rest of the Interpublic group isn’t half as good at doing what it does as McCanns is.

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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.