Paul Simons: why does the CEO’s door keep revolving at Ogilvy London HQ?

Cheryl-OM-008Reading the news about Cheryl Giovannou (left) departing Ogilvy after two years in the CEO chair provoked two reactions: who? And not another one.

Apart from the avuncular Rory Whatsupmykilt the top brass of Ogilvy in London tend to be a little anonymous. Cheryl is a new name to me, I’m sure my loss and not hers. However she is one of numerous names that have graced the revolving doors of Cabot Square, Ogilvy’s current London HQ, over the years.

Ogilvy in London is not part of the mainstream local firmament, but it is a very important hub for a global network. One of the top creatives said to me in New York: “It must be frustrating running a branch office,” which just about summed up the reality of the wider business interests of the agency. This inevitably leads to a key CEO question: “What’s my job?” This question was never answered for me in my time as chairman and CEO despite numerous requests for a job description.

Ogilvy changed towards the end of the ’90’s as important and defining clients walked away to pastures new. The loss of Guinness, Ford, and numerous other clients saw the demise of a proud English advertising agency of the old school and the subsequent morph in to an international business dominated by American clients.

During the discussions I had with New York and London, both with Ogilvy and WPP, there was a strong desire to rebuild creative reputation and capture more prestigious local clients. The word ‘revolution’ was uttered several times but I couldn’t see how this could be achieved with the dominance of US clients.

Moreover Ogilvy had a matrix management structure which means lines of reporting up and down are ambiguous, hence it is too easy to get the wrong message. There’s a WW1 classic example of the sent message being: “Send reinforcements, we’re going to advance,” whereas the received message is “Send three and sixpence, we are going to a dance.” I went to a few dances by mistake over the years. I witnessed numerous errors resulting from accountability confusion. It was always too easy to move the scenery around and transfer responsibility elsewhere.

This is where it gets confusing however, because the Ogilvy network appears to be doing very well and has picked up many accolades in recent years. So it works, warts and all. It is after all too easy to pick on the things that need improving and not appreciate the good parts.

In the end it probably boils down to how people fit in with the juggernaut of Ogilvy Inc. Some do of course, such as Annette King, now very senior as UK group boss. We met 14 years ago when the poor lady had to meet numerous people in the recruitment process to join Ogilvy.

I think Ogilvy is either a very long round the world voyage or jump ship at the first available port. In terms of career a mid-term stay, say 4-6 years, happens less frequently. it’s get out as soon as it looks OK on the CV or you are in it for the long haul.

I have to say the reach of Ogilvy is pretty impressive, as the name clearly goes beyond the world of advertising. Although I was there for just three years, and it is now quite a long time ago, the agency name is always referenced if I’m being introduced at say, a conference.


  1. Dear Paul Simons. I like that you have a valid opinion here but why haven’t you updated your blog since January 29th 2014?

  2. It’s been a while since decimalisation, but the misheard message used to be ‘send three and fourpence…’

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