When Annette King shocked Adland by leaving Ogilvy & Mather for Publicis Groupe last year, more than a handful of would-be chief executives had their eye on the prize. Rumours of who would fill her boots – by no means an easy task – were plenty.
Last Monday, after nearly six months, the wait was over. Michael Frohlich, the newly-minted UK chief executive took up his post.
The path from PR man to advertising executive is, it’s fair to say, not one well-trodden. But does that matter?
“I would hope that you would ask the same question if a customer engagement person was sitting here,” he chuckles, sipping tar-black coffee, early last Thursday morning.
“The reality is, we’re all in the communications business, and we’re all trying to come up with big creative ideas that move our clients’ businesses forward in a positive way. So yeah, traditionally, going backwards, you could say that these roles were filled by advertising people. But the world’s moved on.”
He’s already got the London advertising executive thing to a tee – well-spoken, well-dressed, with clear-rimmed glasses. No white trainers though.
While the higher profile of his new role, he says, is taking a bit of getting used to, more pressing is the changing face of the ship he is steering.
Ogilvy, seemingly like every other big agency, is going through a major consolidation.
“It’s about taking all of the different parts of Ogilvy – which are slightly disparate, slightly siloed in some cases – and putting them all together into one single Ogilvy. So one brand, one business, one profit and loss. One complete integrated business.”
The consolidation is, Frohlich says, reflective of the changing needs of Ogilvy’s clients. Whether challenges over short-term revenue-driving versus long-term brand and share value building – or the increasing likelihood of being knocked off-course overnight by some cataclysmic event in the Oxfam vein – there are many bridges to cross.
And that’s without mentioning the economic and geopolitical uncertainty surrounding Brexit.
“Last year at Davos,” he says, “they asked chief executives what kept them up at night. The first thing they said was that they’re worrying about how to ‘flex in a world of flux’. And I think that couldn’t be any more truthful this year. Because you just don’t know what’s around the corner. We as an agency, particularly an agency that provides all the different capabilities that a client will need, we have to able to flex in that world.”
Words often synonymous with “consolidation” are “downsizing” and “job losses”. I’m told with good authority that when a company-wide gathering was announced at the Sea Containers last week, whispers of “redundancies” filled the room before staff found out they were meeting the new boss.
But this consolidation scheme, says Frohlich – which has been running for 18 months already – isn’t about cost-cutting. The firm is going from strength to strength, rumoured to be outpacing the New York office.
“This is a growth strategy. It’s about putting our clients at the centre of the business, reflecting what our clients need. We need to be, and often are, breathing with them, so we’re actually responding to the pulse if their businesses.”
The move is reflective of wider consolidation at WPP, Martin Sorrell’s bellwether network, of which Ogilvy is a key part. In what is hoped to be a sign of improving industry conditions, investors piled back into WPP last week, following a disappointing 2017.
Big is beautiful
The current wave of consolidations has reignited the debate about agency size and scale. Having worked in both behemoths and boutique firms, Frohlich insists the big networks are primed to shine.
“Small agencies are often looked upon as being agile, because they can move really quickly. Everyone’s saying that’s the way to go. I’ve run and owned a small agency, and actually, I totally disagree. As bigger agencies, we can respond more quickly to our clients because we have more depth and breadth. Because we’ve got scale of people, we can deploy some of the best people in the industry from one side of the agency to the other to deal with a client’s problem, without the whole agency flipping and falling over and dying.”
Frohlich adds that the might of a network is a competitive advantage which independents and management consultancies simply can’t replicate.
Having access to Group M, WPP’s primary media buying and planning agency, pays for itself.
“M platform is the largest singular view of the world. It has billions of live profiles of customers that you can analyse and adapt. It’s truly amazing. And we use it – it’s not an Ogilvy thing, but it is a WPP thing – and we can use it. That’s the beauty.”