Summary List PlacementOgilvy, founded by copywriter David Ogilvy in 1948, became one of the world’s best-known ad agencies over the past 70 years thanks to long-running campaigns like Dove’s “Real Beauty” and “Don’t Leave Home Without It” for American Express.
But like many other traditional agencies, Ogilvy has been caught in the crosswinds of a rapidly changing industry as marketers move money away from the print and broadcast ads that made its founder famous.
Last June, Mark Read, CEO of the advertising giant WPP that owns Ogilvy, picked Deloitte consulting vet Andy Main to chart a new course as the agency’s new global CEO — but there’s wariness of the new direction.
Main is focusing on five areas: advertising, public relations and influence, experience, growth and innovation (essentially consulting), and health. The agency created a new internal tagline “Let’s be giants,” based on a famous David Ogilvy quote, in January, to encapsulate its new direction.
Main says creative is still Ogilvy’s “first and foremost focus.”
“It’s hard to deliver growth if you’re not creative,” he said. “The creativity helps us come up with the big ideas, create the big ideas and then scale the big ideas.”
But 11 current and former employees said there’s been a lack of communication and coherence around Main’s plans, causing tension between leadership and the agency’s rank and file. The uncertainty has led to a string of recent departures in the US creative department, six people said.
One strategist said they learn more about their own company from anonymous networking app Fishbowl than from Ogilvy management.
“People are jumping ship left and right,” said a creative-side staffer. “Juniors who don’t even have another job lined up are quitting.”
Broadcast dollars are going away
Ogilvy used to be one of the most powerful advertising agencies, but today, it’s the last legacy brand standing at WPP after Read merged old-school agencies with newer digital counterparts to create mashups like VMLY&R, Wunderman Thompson, and most recently, AKQA Group.
Insiders peg Ogilvy’s decline to 2017, when it lost one of its biggest and oldest clients, American Express, worth an estimated $70 million to $80 million a year.
Ogilvy had worked with American Express since the 1960s and produced campaigns including the “My Life. My Card” ads in the early 2000s starring Ellen Degeneres and Tiger Woods. One exec said they haven’t seen any meaningful effort by leadership to replace the account.
A former executive said Ogilvy New York went from more than 1,500 employees to around 400 over the past five years. Ogilvy is also leaving its longtime headquarters on Manhattan’s West Side for a building that houses other WPP agencies, prompting some concern of further possible downsizing.
Not a typical ad agency leader
Main comes to the creative agency after an extensive career in consulting. He’d been with Deloitte Digital since 1999, running it since 2014 and leading its expansion into advertising creative with the acquisition of several agencies, most prominently Heat in 2016. That trend has gained momentum with competitors like Accenture Interactive buying up high-profile agencies like Droga5 in 2019.
He’s been heavily involved in the day-to-day since joining Ogilvy, even while he runs the New York-based agency from his home base in Boulder, Colorado. He’s encouraged employees to text him on WhatsApp, participates in every pitch, and even sent 10 alternate taglines for a campaign for client IBM. Employees see him as much more accessible than his predecessor, longtime CEO John Seifert, who one exec described as an unapproachable “ivory tower.”
He’s also made big hires like Devika Bulchandani, who helped turn around rival IPG-owned ad agency McCann, as CEO of North America and global chairwoman of advertising; and BBDO’s Danilo Boer and Marcos Kotlhar as the new chief creative officers for Ogilvy’s New York office.
“I love being in the pitch,” Main said, adding that perhaps he was “trying to express my inner David Ogilvy” when he proposed the IBM copy.
Main says he’s not just looking to cut costs
Some tension is inevitable when a consulting veteran takes control of a traditional agency, though, and some insiders believe Read and Main see Ogilvy’s greatest opportunity in public relations and consulting.
Main said in an interview with Insider that he’s not a “corporate” guy looking to cut costs.
He said his priority is to grow the business, vowed to”definitely” look to replace American Express with another big creative account, and said the agency would still be producing big broadcast campaigns.
As for claims he hasn’t been transparent about plans for the agency, he said they’ve been communicated to the entire staff in various global town halls.
Main said he’s taking a more expansive view of creativity beyond TV ads to include “creativity in technology and how a business organizes itself. What I do is grow businesses.”
Main said he envisions tripling the PR division globally — which, in the US, had dwindled in recent years to a small, politically-connected group based in Washington, DC, that focuses on federal contracts and marketing for The Washington Post and occasional consumer brands like Five Guys.
He hired Edelman veteran Julianna Richter in December to run the PR practice, and said the agency recently scored a big new PR client he declined to name thanks to its new strategy.
Insiders believe Ogilvy plans to acquire some small-to-midsize communications firms in the coming months, a return to a prior acquisition tear.
To expand the consulting business, Main will look to Ogilvy Consulting Worldwide CEO and 25-year company vet Carla Hendra and about 200 executives worldwide who helped develop its new strategy.
Hendra told Insider that Ogilvy would position itself as “an agency of growth, not an agency of record,” referring to traditional, multi-year contracts between a brand and agency that are fading as more marketers work on a per-project basis. Hendra also said she’s looking to expand the consulting division’s leadership and global footprint.
One former executive said he could imagine Ogilvy serving as the consulting hub, or a liaison of sorts, for all of WPP, complementing the digital and creative services of entities like VMLY&R and Wunderman Thompson. Under that scenario, Ogilvy would assess clients’ business problems and assign other agencies as needed.
Main said that scenario is a “fairly good representation of our value proposition but it’s not the sole proposition.” He said he’s focused on “growth,” however that takes shape for clients.
And in a move that’s likely to be controversial, he said he’s also looking to shift Ogilvy to get paid on performance versus fixed fees and hourly billing — a model that agencies typically push back on out of fear of being exploited by clients.
Will it be enough?
Despite an ambitious start, insiders expressed skepticism of Main’s ability to make the changes people are itching for.
The agency needs buzzy clients to get its sex appeal back, said one former executive, pointing to current accounts like Philips, Nationwide and Citizens Bank as “mayonnaise on white bread.”
Another exec said they feel like they are constantly seeing “a revolving door of C-suite people” who “come in and say ‘we’re going to change'” but find change harder than expected. “I fully think Andy has the will and ambition,” said this person. “The main thing we’re struggling with right now is the work; it’s project by project.”
Others are willing to give Main a chance.
John Kerr, the former CEO of Deloitte Consulting, said he is confident Main can turn Ogilvy around, having built Deloitte Digital from a small team into the “heart” of the consulting business that now represents $5 billion of revenue.
“Andy engages well with people. He is open to new ideas, which is how Deloitte Digital was created. He leads by focusing on clients and getting teams around him to help solve client problems. He likes bringing teams together with different perspectives,” Kerr said.
Main, for his part, seems determined to prove the skeptics wrong.
“If I got a dollar for every time someone said ‘five years ago we tried fill in the blank,’ I could probably throw a party for many people,” he said. “When I look at it, I believe the ability to execute has not been a strength of the business. All I can say is that when I say I’m going to achieve something, I mean it.”Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: A cardiologist revealed the truth behind red wine’s health benefits