WPP’s global creative boss John O’Keeffe tells Ad Age what WPP’s holding company gong at Cannes means to him

WPP won the first Cannes lion for holding company company of the year this year, a vindication of former BBH creative director John O’Keeffe’s input as WPP’s global CCO since he joined in 2008.

Among others in what he calls the ‘commentariat’ we have rather mocked this achievement, saying WPP should bloody well win, given all those companies.

But O’Keeffe is a decent man and his views are interesting:

“Ad Age: Do you think you were influential in WPP netting its first holding company award?

Mr. O’Keeffe: I’m a practical person — the kind who likes putting up shelves — and I have been able to help in a practical way by putting Cannes top of the agenda. I’m not a luvvie, I do my job and go home to my family, but I have a good track record and I can recognize a good idea.

When I see brilliant thinking, I want it to get public recognition, so I suggest that it’s entered at Cannes. We have the WPP “Whipped Cream” awards every year, and when I see the great work there, I know that we are miles better than we are given credit for. So I do my best to make sure the best work gets entered at Cannes.

I focus on Cannes, because it’s the only truly global show. It’s a moment in time across disciplines and it captures everything — it’s not like the Gunn Report where you can do one half-decent ad and be ranked top.

Ad Age: What does a holding company chief creative officer do?

Mr. O’Keeffe: I’m busy now writing a lot of emails to everyone to thank them for their work. I don’t want to do a broad-brush congratulations; I want to thank specific people. Martin [Sorrell, WPP’s chief executive] is very good at sending out notes to everyone saying “well done” — it’s good management. And today I’m having lunch with [U.K. advertising legend] Graham Fink [a former colleague of Mr. O’Keeffe’s and Ogilvy China’s new chief creative officer].

I’ll do specific projects and give practical help with pitches. I still love to be up to my elbows in the creative department; it’s where my heart is. I also have the chance to do other things, but if you leave that aspect behind altogether you’re really off the pace.

If a relationship breakdown or a misunderstanding happens I get to see both sides, and I can usually pull it together to mend things relatively quickly. I don’t come in the big “I am” and force my ideas on people, but I can make suggestions that bring new energy into a situation so that something good happens.

I can tell you what I don’t do. When a 25-year-old creative in Shanghai has a great idea for a Samsonite brief and his creative director says “Yes,” it’s nothing to do with me. That story is about China and the confidence of the industry there.

And I don’t roam the globe giving warmed-up speeches. That would be dull.

Ad Age: What are you doing to up the ante when it comes to creativity for WPP agencies?

Mr. O’Keeffe: Omnicom has always been the cool creative holding company, and WPP has always been the well-run bean counter. There’s a drip, drip effect from the commentariat, and over time people start to live up to the presumptions.

I have helped the group re-find its mojo, although it may just be a coincidence that I turned up at the right time. We have built momentum and we are pumped up, because good news breeds more good news. JWT, Shanghai, is a beacon to rally to, and we’re pleased and proud — but we’re not complacent.

The overarching reason I’m here is to remind everyone how good they already are. I would be pleased to have that chipped into my tombstone.

Ad Age: Do you get involved in recruiting talent to WPP?

Mr O’Keeffe: I’ll be asked to meet someone if I can be helpful, and I’m sometimes asked if I have a point of view on a person. There’s nothing mysterious about that. The way to recruit the best people is to make sure our business is the best it can be.

Graham Fink becoming CCO of Ogilvy China is a big moment in the history of Ogilvy and of WPP Group. I was a cheerleader in the background — he’s a great guy and you never sense that he’s anything other than a bundle of positive energy. You just have to stand back and watch the fireworks.

Ad Age: Did you enjoy Cannes?

Mr. O’Keeffe: I am of Irish ancestry and not a sun worshiper. For me it can get too hot. It’s a good place to meet new friends and say hello to old friends, but my focus is on the work.”

Interesting stuff, particularly what he says about M&C Saatchi creative director Graham Fink deciding to become CCO of Ogilvy & Mather in China. This had lots of people scratching their heads in London. Had Graham tired of Chinese food in Gerrard Street? Was it the 50 per cent tax rate in the UK? Or a quip that a headhunter took at face value?

OK, it was probably the money.

As for the rest of it, it doesn’t sound as though O’Keeffe is the sort to go and shake his CEO Sir Martin Sorrell by the lapels and say, “stop bean counting Martin.”

But he wouldn’t have a very long career if he did.

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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.