The Agency Issue

Post-recession Wren Is 'Energized,' Everywhere

Omnicom Chief Is out Visiting Agencies and Clients as He Tries to Position Company for a Global, Digital Future

By Published on .

It's been a tough few years for the ad business, but one person who's decidedly less stressed these days is John Wren.

John Wren: 'I have to say I feel pretty energized right now.'
John Wren: 'I have to say I feel pretty energized right now.'

The 58-year-old, Brooklyn-raised chief of Omnicom Group is sporting a slimmed-down look and spending a lot of time on planes -- the price you pay for more face-to-face meetings with clients and agencies, which in his case, are spread across more than 100 countries. Mr. Wren is also in the midst of a global review of business operations that will shed slow-growth, nonstrategic assets.

By his own admission, Mr. Wren is more hands-on than he was three years ago and feels "pretty energized now." He'd also tell you that after 27 years of working at Omnicom, 14 as CEO, he's having fun again.

Ad Age spoke to Mr. Wren about his heightened visibility, brand Omnicom and how long he plans to hang onto the reins at the second-biggest advertising holding firm.

Ad Age: We've heard in the past several months from folks within Omnicom a lot of talk about how "Wren is back." You've been back out making visits to your agencies and have a stepped-up public persona, speaking at the 4A's last month and the ANA Financial Conference in Phoenix in May. What's up with you being everywhere?

Mr. Wren: I have been more visible both internally and externally in the past 24 months. The reasons are straightforward. We have just been through the worst recession in our lifetime, and I have asked our people to adjust and, in some cases, reinvent their business models. As head of the company, it is important that I am visible and available to help, support and reassure our teams that our strategy is the right one. Omnicom is also expanding in a lot of new areas, technologies, geographies. I am driving a number of these initiatives and want to do what I can to ensure our success.

Ad Age: What's the next month look like for you? Where are you headed?

Mr. Wren: If you are referring to my schedule, I plan to be at the ANA in Phoenix, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia between now and Memorial Day.

Ad Age: You have long stated the philosophy that a holding-company brand should be less important than its agency brands. Do you think the holding company brand is in some ways increasing in importance?

Mr. Wren: Our philosophy has not changed. The agency networks are still the star. In our view, the stronger our brands are, the stronger the holding company will be. The holding company is there to make the brands stronger, individually and collectively. How? There are some things that can be done faster and better by the holding company than they ever could by the individual companies. Omnicom University is a great example of that. So are the partnerships we recently announced with Microsoft, Google and AOL.

Seven years ago when we really wanted to ramp up our capabilities in China, each of our divisions will tell you how much it helped to have holding-company focus, presence and resources in the region. ... Our approach will always emphasize finding the best mix of agencies for our client first, while still delivering the benefits of an integrated holding-company relationship. Oddly enough, in almost all instances, the holding-company solutions requested by clients have resulted in an ever-expanding lead agency model.

Ad Age: Four years ago in Ad Age you said you won't be CEO when you're Martin Sorrell's age. He was 61 at the time, you're now 58. In your words, you said "you have to create ideas, revenue in order to do this job well. There'll be a moment, and I don't know when that will be, when I -- or someone else on the board -- will say the same old juice ain't flowing." Do you still see yourself stepping down in the near future?

Mr. Wren: I must have been in a reflective mood in 2007. I am honored to have my job and to work with the other incredible people throughout Omnicom. I have to say I feel pretty energized right now. I am proud of the way we managed through the recession and I am excited about the opportunities we see. So I am focused on taking advantage of this moment. Never forget, however, that I do serve at the pleasure of the board of directors.

Ad Age: You have said by next year you intend to return margins to 2007 levels. Yet a lot has changed since 2007 in terms of procurement and client compensation. How does an agency holding company grow margins in 2011 when clients certainly aren't paying more for services?

Mr. Wren: A lot has changed since 2007. Technology has completely changed our industry. New markets are starting to have a much larger impact on our business. And the pace of change is speeding up. We know that clients are focused on getting everything they can from what they spend.

So our challenge is to deliver more value for less money while keeping a close eye on our margins. We have to innovate. We have to be aggressive in managing our own costs. And we have to think about new ways of partnering with our clients to create that value.

Most Popular