Is McCann’s Nick Brien really the most interesting man in advertising?

Well Forbes writer Avi Dan thinks he is anyway, as he explains here.

Nick Brien is considered by many as one of the smartest people in advertising. He also has an unorthodox background for a CEO of an ad agency. While most agency CEOs climbed through the account management path in ad agencies to the corner office, Brien is a former media agency executive, more familiar with buying ad time than creating ads. Yet, it is perhaps this different background that helped him land the CEO job at McCann, one of the oldest agencies on Madison Avenue. Brien was brought in to turn around McCann’s lagging operation, vital to to the success of its parent, Interpublic, as it accounts for nearly 40% of its revenues.

Once Brien assumed the helm, it was a foregone conclusion that he will apply shock therapy to the sleepy McCann. He brought in Linus Karlsson from Mother, a ‘hot’ boutique agency, as creative director. In a highly unusual arrangement, Karlsson will oversee creative in two offices, New York and London, simultaneously. Brien installed Gustavo Martinez as head of European operations, and unlike other regional heads, Mr. Martinez will not be based in London, but in Milan. “We decided, ‘Let’s pick a different market, let’s mix it up a bit,’” Mr. Brien said. “Maybe in a year after that he goes to Berlin or Hamburg. He’s going to be very mobile”. He recently added another highly respected industry executive and the founder of Tribal DDB, Matt Freeman, as vice-chairman and chief innovation officer, pointing out that Freeman is at the intersection of media, creativity and technology, and hinting that McCann’s approach to brand building will be anything but traditional.

Of course, at the end of the day what matters is the agency’s scorecard on retaining and winning business. The results so far are mixed. The agency lost some key business last year, but now seems to start turning things around, retaining the $180 million US Army account, and making the finals of the $300 million Burger King pitch.

What makes Nick Brien so interesting is his vision about the business. At last year’s Advertising Age’s ‘Media Evolved’ conference he noted that when he started in the advertising business, it was about strategy meeting creativity. But that’s now evolved into strategy meeting creativity meeting technology, and this new equation creates a whole new fusion in terms of ingenuity, creativity and possibility that he calls Media 3.0. “The individual businesses have to understand that we are thinking strategically and creating experientially. We aren’t just in the storytelling business, we are in the community-management business,” Mr. Brien said. This is the kind of inspired thinking that is needed to help the advertising industry out of its identity crisis, and Mr.Brien may be just the person to usher in a new era.

Interesting stuff and Brien has certainly done well, partly by being one of few media directors of his generation not to have a complex about the way agencies were dominated by account men and creatives, who most of the media lot thought were tossers.

And it almost certainly helped that he made his name at Leo Burnett in London which was always a bit calmer than most other agencies, despite a few shortcomings. When Brien rose through the ranks the agency was run by Jeff Fergus, a notably civilised and shrewd manager.

And Burnett always seemed to manage to put its clients first, a surprisingly rare quality at the time (and maybe since).

Brien has got to live up to his publicity of course and, as Avi Dan points out, the new relationship with former Mother creative director Linus Karlsson is key.

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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.