David Lubars called me in the fall of 2007 at BBDO Toronto and said, “Come and work with me in New York.”
David led BBDO’s flagship New York office and headed their North American operations. He had been brought in by worldwide CEO Andrew Robertson to transform the New York agency from a place that only did celebrity-laden TV ads to, in David’s words, “a 21st-century version of a kick-ass ‘60s New York agency blowing minds with creative thinking and fresh ideas in every medium.”
“What do you want me to work on?” I said.
“Come and lead all things creative on our global P&G brands Gillette, Venus and Braun. And you get to work and live in New York.”
“We think you’ve got the right personality to build a global team, to get a lot of different people in different places working together. Yes, it’s a New York job but it requires a global, collaborative vision. The fact that you’re Canadian, or at least not American, is a big plus.”
Listening between the lines of what David was saying, I was reminded of that New Yorker cover with the famous Saul Steinberg map of Manhattan drawn from the perspective of a New Yorker – there was New York and then there was, well, not much else.
David needed someone who did not see New York as the centre of the universe. Who could look beyond the Hudson River and see more there there.
Interestingly, my counterpart on the business side of the account was Mat Mildenhall, a Brit. Having two foreigners run the biggest account in the network was evidence that BBDO NY was changing.
I started the job in January, 2008. The first thing that struck me was the size and scope of everything. Add another zero to every number and you get the picture. The revenue on the Gillette business was more than the total turnover at the largest agency in Canada. Somebody told me P&G made more than $1 billion in profit from the blades business alone. That’s profit, not revenue.
I inherited an office the size of a handball court and about 25 creative people on the New York team alone. We also had creative people based in Paris, London, Mexico, Toronto, Singapore, India, well, a lot of places Steinberg never showed on his map. The problem was nobody talked to each other. People weren’t working together for the good of the brand and the client. Under the P&G model of BAL (Brand Agency Leader supported by partner companies in various disciplines) success demanded that everyone worked as a team. For me, this wasn’t about finding the right structure or process; it was all about embracing the right attitude. If you want to work together, you’re halfway there. Canada didn’t invent the concept of UN peacekeeping for nothing.
We began doing Workouts to fast-track creative development. These were the brainchild of Peter Souter, the then-head of AMV BBDO in London. We’d take a dozen creative people from every discipline and part of the world, a planner and a couple of business leaders to a quiet place and lock them away for four or five days to hot-house ideas for difficult problems. We did Workouts in London, Singapore, Cape Cod and Rhode Island in my first year. People outside of New York liked being included and listened to and a lot of very smart work emerged much to our clients’ delight. It was a new way of working.
Then something terrible happened in the fall of 2008. We were hit by the biggest recession since 1929. The fallout in our New York agency was appalling. I think we went from around 1,000 people to a little more than 500 in a year. My New York team of 25 was reduced to seven. By the end I was writing half the material on Gillette. And that’s never a good thing.
For all that, it was one of my most rewarding career experiences. I learned and grew a lot. I got to watch first-hand some great talent in action. My P&G clients impressed me: intelligent marketers who, to a person, were respectful, fair and decent.
It’s not only Canadians who are nice. There are good people everywhere. You just have to want to look for them.
Jack Neary is the client development director at MacLaren McCann