Can Brit Nick Brien and Swede Linus Karlsson turn round the archetypal American agency McCann?

Put it like that and the probably answer is no but new McCann Worldgroup CEO Nick Brien is nothing if not ambitious and newly-appointed creative director and chairman (of McCann Erickson New York and London) Linus Karlsson (left) has been brilliant in his native Sweden, at Fallon and then at Mother New York which he helped to start with long time partner Paul Malmstrom (who’s staying put, perhaps wisely).

In the drama series Mad Men agency Sterling Cooper (home to Roger Sterling and Don Draper) is bought by McCann (in the 1960s the biggest agency and agency group in the world). Creative wizard Draper isn’t having any of this, referring to McCann as a ‘sausage factory,’ and so indy agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is formed.

There wouldn’t have been too many dissenting views at Draper’s description from those admen in the audience, even 40 years later.

So Brien, who made his reputation in media, latterly by revamping the agency’s media offering as Mediabrands, and Karlsson, whose famous work includes campaigns for Diesel, Miller Lite, the NBA and Target, will have their work cut out.

But is it do-able? In particular can one creative director be parachuted into an agency behemoth and make a difference, however much support he may get from his boss who has as much riding on the appointment as he has.

Arguably the only creative directors to put their personal stamp on all an international agency’s output have been the ones who are, or at least started as, owner managers. To an extent Karlsson was one such, as is Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s John Hegarty and Del Campo Saatchi’s Pablo del Campo. Back in the mists of time Bill Bernbach and Leo Burnett clearly were. A bit more recently you had Jay Chiat.

If the creative director’s the owner then some of his or her DNA goes into the fabric of the agency. McCann has always managed without. In a way that was its point; it was proof that you didn’t need a stock of creative geniuses to be a hugely successful agency.

From time to time McCanns has fallen prey to the temptation to try to sprinkle a little stardust on the sausage factory, most frequently in London.

In the 1970s, arguably the heyday of London advertising, three agencies clustered around the junction of Charlotte Street and Howland Street, then a dowdy area between Fitzrovia (haunt of poets and heroic drinkers to the north) and Oxford Street and Soho to the south.

One was Collett Dickenson, the 1960s palace of creative varieties, one was Saatchi & Saatchi (the newest of the three but the one with the biggest logo on the door) and the third was McCann.

At the time McCann was the biggest of three and was making a determined effort to unseat J. Walter Thompson as the biggest in the UK. Chairman was Nigel Grandfield, an account man who frequented upscale Berkeley Square club Annabel’s and who was married to famous Sixties model Sandra Howard.

Grandfield was not noted as one of business’s intellectuals (there were a few of them around at the time) but was a formidable and ambitious account man. Supplying the creativity and brains were creative director Barry Day and research director Ann Burdus.

Day, famous for his mutton chop whiskers (this was the hirsute 1970s and Barry didn’t have much hair) was an assiduous self-publicist (like others at the time including Charles Saatchi he took pains to win the good opinion of trade magazine Campaign) and cheerfully fronted an array of work that included Martini’s famous ‘the right one’ and ‘I’d like to teach the world to sing’ for Coke.

Day hadn’t written these but he was good at persuading UK clients and subsequently international clients that this was what sold lots of their products (as indeed it did).

And the person with the numbers to prove it was researcher Ann Burdus, who had trained as a clinical psychologist (advertising was awash with psychologists at the time) and then become the research boss at a number of agencies. Burdus was elegant and urbane but not at all what clients expected from an advertising agency (she was a woman for a start).

They made a formidable trio and almost made the top spot. But Grandfield fell out with former London boss Phil Geier, an American, who was then embarked on the path that would see him emerge as the big boss of owner Interpublic.

And the 1970s was the era of new creative agencies in London, the most spectacular example of which was the office down the road on Charlotte Street occupied by the Saatchi Brothers, Tim Bell and, soon, a money man called Martin Sorrell.

Grandfield set up his own agency with two colleagues, creative Andy Rork and account man Graeme Collins, eventually to be bought by Saatchis which was rather keen to get its hands on the Tesco account.

At which point the ever-pragmatic (although not always realistic) Charles Saatchi came up with what remains the most enduring model for big ‘creative’ international agencies.

Essentially he divided the agency into two. On the one hand there was the creatively daring ‘nothing is impossible’ Saatchi with long time creative creative director Jeremy Sinclair presiding over a gaggle of accounts that made Saatchi famous (among them the Silk Cut cigarette account overseen by Charles himself), won loads of awards but didn’t make much money (apart from Silk Cut). Many of the accounts were charities.

In the 1980s the legendary Paul Arden emerged to take charge of this side of the agency.

On the other was the sizeable chunk overseen by Andy Rork, which included Tesco, then noted for its back to basics approach to advertising.

Charles wanted to own the biggest agency in the world and he recognised that he wouldn’t do that by unleashing hard-to-please creatives on big advertisers who required their ads next week not in half a year’s time.

He also knew that he needed to be big in the US and the most successful agency in the US was McCann.

But, in the meantime, McCann in London (sans Grandfield) was falling back. Day was now floating around the world schmoozing clients and fire-fighting (be warned Mr Karlsson). So in the 1980s McCann decided it needed some creative stardust to keep up with the Saatchis and other pushy newcomers like Gold Greenlees Trott, WCRS and Simons Palmer.

And it chose a creative from Benton & Bowles called Don White to effect what it hoped would be a creative transformation. White’s credentials for such a daunting task were unclear but, as a self-publicist, he put Barry Day in the shade.

Outrageously gay before the term was invented (or in wide currency anyhow) he once sent out a Christmas card of himself, naked apart from a strategically-placed bottle of Bollinger.

In his short reign he managed to spend copious amounts of the agency’s money, some of it on creatives, much of the rest on more champagne and other goodies.

But the expected creative transformation never arrived and, in truth, it was never going to. McCann, everybody said with some justification, just didn’t get it.

So, 20 years later and on a far larger scale, are Brien and Karlsson doomed to fail too?

Nobody’s suggesting that Karlsson is a figure of fun like White was but putting a big logo that says ‘creativity’ on the side of the agency only works if some of it at least really is creative (as some of Saatchi was). No matter how good the individual concerned may be.

Karlsson apparently plans to form a ‘creative collective’ of the best talent in the network (and no doubt some new talent) to try to ensure that his creative makeover becomes a real transformation.

This is how the Publicis Groupe-owned Saatchi & Saatchi operates under Kevin Roberts (a former client), with some success it must be acknowledged.

But McCann is a much tougher brief.

Old hands around the network will say, “we don’t need all this, we’ve tried it before and it didn’t work.” And McCann remains the biggest single agency network in the world so they have a point.

But CEP Brien presumably isn’t doing this simply because he’s fed up with others deriding his creative work. He must think it’s what his clients really want too.

Here’s an example of what he and Karlsson are up against.

On the McCann London blog there’s a glowing account of its “brilliant” campaign for the AA featuring comedy actor John Cleese. It’s called Faulty Showers (corny but not bad) and the blog boasts that the campaign only took two and a half months from pitch to going on air.

Karlsson would have taken a bit longer. And that will be the problem even if it’s also the solution.

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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.


  1. Avatar

    Fun and highly informative. Love hearing the backstage history of UK advertising. More please sir!

    Best regards
    David Vawter

  2. Avatar

    Who the hell is Stephen Foster and what right does he have to write about things he clearly knows little about?
    Actually this is more in relation to his ‘Mad’ article.