In ancient Chinese rituals, straw dogs were used as offerings to the gods. During the ritual, they were treated with the utmost reverence. When it was over and they were no longer needed, they were trampled on and tossed aside.

It was in that spirit that my partners in the ad agency asked me to relocate to London in the spring of 1992.

Ours was one of America’s largest independent advertising agencies, despite being co-headquartered in Detroit and Baltimore—two cities not exactly synonymous with the lore of “Mad Men.” We did, however, boast a London office through which we serviced the agency’s largest single client and one of the world’s truly global clients—British Petroleum. That we even had an account like BP was a tribute to the agency’s creativity and tenacity, as well as a perfect reflection of its unorthodoxy.

The manner in which we managed the BP account was certainly unconventional. Our London office had more in common with a service station than an ad agency—a couple account executives with a hot line to the Detroit mother ship and a gold-plated credit card. And, unlike the ad agency conglomerates that were our competitors, who had offices around the world through which to service the likes of BP, we had no proprietary office network—a problem we solved in typical entrepreneurial fashion by simply co-opting BP’s existing local agencies into revenue-sharing partners of our own. We’d create big brand image commercials that the locals would then execute in their respective countries. It was a beautiful and highly profitable arrangement held together, like virtually every aspect of our agency, by personality. In this case, that personality belonged to one of the agency’s five executive partners—a 40-something young man possessed of such a disproportionate dose of charm, talent, and likeability that he could literally “call in” his management of the London-headquartered BP from his office in Detroit. Unorthodox, to be sure, but it bears repeating, highly profitable—for the agency overall and the five executive partners (of which I was one) in particular.

It all moved along swimmingly until Mr. Disproportionate Dose of Charm made an egregious attempt to topple the agency’s Chairman and CEO in a move worthy of Tessio and the Tattaglias scheme to eliminate Don Corleone. To be clear, our CEO was no chess player like Vito Corleone, always thinking several moves ahead. Our guy was more adept in the shallows of checkers—a few quick jumps and “king me.” But he did keep his ear to the ground—an ear that was subsequently tipped off to the scheme by one of the agency’s other partners in an equally egregious attempt to feather his own nest. (There was a great deal of that in our agency.) The CEO’s resultant dilemma—fire “Tessio” and put the BP account (and the agency’s potential to create other lucrative international deals) at risk, or…well, there wasn’t really an “or.”

The CEO’s next move didn’t quite have the pizzazz of Coppola’s baptismal massacre but it was swift and unequivocal.  Only problem now—how to convince BP, and a considerable number of other key agency clients and prospects, poised to become important international players, that the agency could deliver more than phone calls and lunch out of London. Enter the straw dog—me.

So it was that, with the “utmost reverence,” I was asked to immediately, if not sooner, relocate to London to keep our global gold from turning into straw.

*  *  *

The agency’s London office was located on Margaret Street, a couple blocks down from the intersection of Oxford & Regent, in the crosshairs of one of the city’s busiest, and gaudiest, retail and commercial districts. The location wasn’t exactly the Madison Avenue of London but, then again, our London office wasn’t exactly an ad agency.

The building itself was a three-story walk-up. We occupied the rabbit warren of a second floor and, after I arrived, we also took over the third floor, which was basically a cross between Anne Frank’s attic in Amsterdam and Molly Goldberg’s tenement in the Bronx—two rear-facing rooms overlooking a concrete courtyard, bordered by a garment company’s manufacturing facility on three sides and our building on the fourth. This was my new executive perch. If I tilted sideways and looked out the window through the iron steps of the fire escape at just the right angle, I could see some sky. The room’s ceiling was so steeply sloped that a reasonably tall person could only stand upright in its center.

“You actually bring clients here?” I asked our very British senior account man. “Well, not up here, of course,” he replied, reminding me of the fine Conference Room one floor below—a cave-like rectangle so detached from the rest of “the office” that entry required a separate stairway and a numeric combination lock.

It was painfully obvious this was an office that would not impress a new business prospect, albeit it fine as the “BP service station” it had been for the previous four years. “We need to move,” I wrote my partners in my first status report. New digs, however, was just one of my agenda items. Resources—creative, marketing, media, production—the kind that define a credible ad agency and foster client confidence, were three thousand miles away…a bit of a tough sell, even to clients who already knew us. Then there was our lack of a European, not to mention global, network of offices.

So here I was, the fearless leader of an “international” operation that could produce virtually nothing on its own, manned only by Brits (a self-righteous society with limited interest in alternative views), one global client (BP) facing fiscal pressure for the first time in the agency’s tenure, one newly acquired “pan-European” client (Chiquita) wondering if the agency could really deliver “pan-European” service, one embryonic European client (Iams Pet Foods) still pissed off for being dissed a year earlier by our very British senior account man as “small beer,” and one unfortunately high profile UK failure (Clarke Foods). The exchange rate in London was nearly two-to-one in favor of British sterling and, while my wife and I would soon be living in a furnished flat in one of London’s best neighborhoods, the weekly rent was considerably higher than our monthly mortgage in Baltimore. Meanwhile, back on the U.S. home front, the agency’s internecine battles raged, but I had no time to worry about it.

BP’s business pressures and the agency’s recent management turmoil had shined a hard light on our London operation, its thinness of resource suddenly an issue…a point made very clear to me by my new BP client. “You haven’t taken a wrong step yet,” BP’s Advertising Director said to me over lunch late that summer, with a bit too much emphasis on yet. “We understand you’ve come over here to build the agency’s international and UK capabilities. That’s important to us…and to me,” he continued, making it perfectly clear that he needed ammunition to fend off competitive agency advances and his own management’s susceptibility to such entreaties, especially from the likes of the ever-present Saatchi brothers.

Three of my immediate priorities were: build a European network of proprietary agency partnerships; hire some multilingual Europeans; and, acquire or merge with a “real London ad agency.” While my American partners paid lip service to those moves (assuming I could deliver them with mirrors rather than money) everyone’s overriding interest was the BP account. It was what gave the agency international credibility and, even in its new belt-tightening mode, it remained a major contributor to agency profits. Lose the BP account and nothing else would matter.

My early days as international point man were a whirlwind of courtships: with existing clients and partners, who questioned the agency’s commitment to expansion of its service resources; with prospective clients and partners—would-be bellwethers of that commitment; with headhunters and talent scouts throughout the UK and Europe; with a U.S. agency staff arrogantly dismissive of any moves that threatened its control; and, with the London office’s very British senior account man, desperately seeking to retain the sense of power, importance, and impunity formerly provided by a supervisory cushion of three thousand miles and five time zones.

“Just be glad you’re not here” was the CEO’s learned counsel, as he continued to mediate the internecine battle for U.S. agency dominance between the separate, but not equal, fiefdoms of Detroit and Baltimore. Not that the outcome was ever really in doubt, despite the head of the Baltimore office furiously paddling upstream in his delusional efforts to build rapport with his opposite in Detroit, who merely toyed with his Baltimore adversary in a perverse executive version of rope-a-dope.

Over the next year, I hired a few Europeans, built a dozen new agency partnerships in cities across western and eastern Europe, and established a personal rapport with my key client counterparts, particularly an Australian named Chris who, like me, had recently been expatriated to London, in his case to head up BP’s global marketing. The relationship that Chris and I, and our wives, developed proved invaluable in staving off “an agency review” that was in the wind for much of 1993. But the project that consumed most of my energy, and generated the greatest frustration, was finding a London-based agency for acquisition or merger.

A friend of mine—pretty good guy, though he occasionally veered just slightly to the left of stable—liked to recount a story about taking his young daughter, perhaps eight at the time, to buy shoes. “She tried on damn near every pair of shoes in that store,” he lamented. “The first pair was ‘too tight.’ The second, ‘too loose.’ ‘I hate those,’ she announced without even trying on the third pair. ‘Awgh! That color makes me sick.’ On it went,” he said. “I got so exasperated, I took her home, chopped the toes off her old pair and said, ‘Here you go. How do you like these?” I couldn’t help thinking about that as I teed up possible London M&A opportunities for my partners in America. Nothing ever quite fit for them. It quickly became apparent that I was aiming too high, as they viewed every proposal through the prism of jingoistic control. No doubt that was why the agency had not successfully executed an acquisition in its 55-year history.

Several potential deals never made it out of London. One got as far as Arthur Andersen analysis. And two, I brought to America for principle player face-to-face meetings. The first of those was pretty standard fare…a small agency with about 20 staff, jointly owned by two 40- somethings with deep agency experience and a client list that spanned UK and European brands, as well as the California-based E. & J. Gallo Winery. My American partners liked the account guy well enough but pooh-poohed the work and chalked up the creative guy as a European taste fairy. True, he did own a truffle farm in the French Dordogne and he was prone to be a bit flowery in his language and haughty in his delivery, saying things like, “I’m off to make a movie (read: commercial) for Ernest & Julio (as in Gallo).” He was a perfect fit in London and Europe, but a bit of a stretch for the boys in Detroit. “Your partners don’t like the creative guy,” the agency’s CEO said to me by phone as I sat sandwiched between the two Brits in the limo that was taking us to the Detroit airport for our return flight to London. Our Pontius Pilate of a chief executive tended to deliver bad news from somebody else’s point of view, i.e., “your partners.”

The second deal I brought to America was less orthodox, but no less foreign. It involved two of London’s top agency talents.

One, a high profile creative director, formerly of Saatchi & Saatchi but now at another London-based agency network on an acquisition tear through the U.S., that network having lured him out of Saatchi with the offer of considerable freedom to pursue his goal of directing films, not just conceiving commercials. His credits included one of global advertising’s most celebrated brand image commercials—a British Airways spot, appropriately enough entitled “Global,” that featured sweeping visuals, stunning choreography, and a mesmerizing sound track to literally instill life and humanity to the British Airways logo. That commercial was simultaneously a brilliant work of art and an advertising communication of powerful simplicity.

The other fellow was currently Saatchi’s new business maven—a man with his finger on the pulse of every piece of international business in play (or soon-to-be in play) and the keeper of one of London’s (perhaps advertising’s) most impressive Rolodexes.

In November 1993, just before Thanksgiving, I took these two Young Turks to America to meet my four partners. We met in a Baltimore hotel overlooking the Inner Harbor, at whose eastern point stood Fort McHenry, marking a previous encounter with invading Brits. First, I laid out my case for the deal that would see the creative guru’s name sharing marquee status with ours…a bold new brand brought to life in a visually striking and graphically communicative logo designed by said creative guru. Then I turned it over to the two Brits. The new business guy mapped out prospects and strategies with authority and confidence. Then, the creative genius, literally deploying stick figure graphics, laid out his view of what was wrong with most agencies and what could be right with this one. Their presentation was brilliant. And it literally scared the crap out of my four partners.

The two Young Turks looked at our agency’s raw material and saw straw they could spin into gold. The four Old Ladies looked at the proposal and saw a threat to culture and control. The head of our Detroit office undoubtedly perceived it as a diversion in his quest to oust his counterpart in Baltimore who, in turn, couldn’t see how the addition of two such obvious players could enhance his own position. Our CEO, having spent the past year perfecting his Switzerland routine, stayed neutral. And the fourth member of the jury—the agency’s financial guy and the most duplicitous bastard I ever met—well, the only thing you could ever count on from him was that he’d try to screw you. Now I knew how Rumplestiltskin felt.

That night, after I sent the two London hot shots winging back to Heathrow, I lost myself in a “Dirty Harry” film and took inspiration from Inspector Callahan’s tendency to do things the old- fashioned way. Fuck it, I thought, I’ll just build my own damn agency. The next day, I returned to London and started applying band-aids: moving out of Anne Frank’s attic to more modern digs; hiring a “creative director” whose credentials were pretty basic but his ideas were sound and his mind was tough, thanks in part to growing up hard in Australia’s wild west town of Perth; adding a “strategic planner” (the Brits were very big on planners)—an American woman relocated to London by marriage, hers wasn’t the most innovative mind, but her logic and credibility were sound; and personally re-upping for an extended tour of duty in London beyond my initial “year or two” commitment. I didn’t exactly have much choice. At least, the agency’s very British senior account man finally saw the writing on the wall and resigned.

For the next couple years, that patchwork quilt served our London needs and, importantly, freed me to pursue the development of the agency’s European and global resources, thus reinforcing a bridge for other of our U.S. clients to evolve internationally with us. While the revenues generated by those international expansions may have been small, the strategic benefit of accompanying U.S. clients into new world markets was valuable as a defense against competitive infringements by other agencies.

Throughout this time, I, of course, stayed tuned to M&A possibilities in London, but with considerably less enthusiasm than I had initially applied. Hell, by the end of my first year in London, I had met with and assessed over 30 independent London agencies, while meeting with countless others (agencies and consultants) for perspective. The process didn’t do much for my waistline or liver, as most meetings took place over heavily-lubricated meals, but it gave me tremendous insight and entrée to the London advertising community’s key players and gatekeepers, not to mention name recognition at some of London’s most celebrated restaurants. (My access to tough tables—The Ivy, for example—used to seriously grind the gears of the agency’s very British senior account man. That was fun.)

The contacts I made through that process would yield dividends for years to come, especially in the case of “the ultimate London gatekeeper”—a woman named Lindy who, nearly twenty years earlier, had left a secretarial gig to open something called The Advertising Agency Register…basically a private screening room for clients in search of an ad agency. It was a beautiful arrangement…funded entirely by agencies paying hefty annual fees to have their videos (highly produced 10-minute documentary-type films) in Miss Lindy’s files and their names on her shortlist. Inarguably London advertising’s reigning doyenne, Lindy was special—possessed of a personality that charmed and assured, without the slightest hint of cynicism or self- importance. Despite the fact that mine was not one of the agencies that ponied up one of those hefty fees, Lindy became a great resource to me. I could only assume it was her version of taking in a stray.

*  *  *

The circuitous journey that was my first two years as international point man served only to increase my value to the agency—a value that would rise further still in the years to come. The straw dog had, indeed, been offered to the gods with the utmost reverence. The trampling and discarding bit would eventually happen but…that’s the agency business, and another story.



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