In 2005, I was hired by Interpublic Group of Cos. to be the global CEO of Foote Cone & Belding. The agency had lost hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue and Interpublic wanted to revitalize and reestablish the agency. After several months, it became clear to me that FCB needed a drastic change because it had lost its relevance with clients and would struggle against the competition given the new data and digital age emerging.
And so, I recommended to holding company CEO Michael Roth he merge FCB with Draft. With one caveat: make sure that the new agency is a merger of equals, not a takeover. I feared it would just become a bigger Draft.
With the recently announced departure of one of FCB's oldest and most prestigious accounts -- SC Johnson -- plus other once-FCB clients like Diet Coke and several Kraft Foods brands, it seems that fear has become a reality.
SC Johnson was much more than an important client and key source of revenue for DraftFCB. It was, for decades before the merger took place, the glue that held FCB together. People who worked there can attest that it was always the account that loomed in the background; before every major decision made in the agency we all first pondered: "What will SC Johnson think?"
Few know much more about SC Johnson beyond the way it portrays itself in its corporate campaign, as a nice Wisconsin-based "family company." True, it's a family company, but that family when dealing with FCB was more like Tony and Carmela Soprano than it was June and Ward Cleaver.
In many ways, SC Johnson was the yoke around the neck of the agency. It was extraordinarily strict about conflict issues, forcing FCB to have to drop valuable accounts like Clorox, and drop out of important reviews such as a global opportunity a decade ago for Bayer's business. Even other shops within Interpublic were pressured to give up accounts because of SCJ; see the McCann-Reckitt saga. SCJ also involved itself in situations that weren't normal for a typical client, such as the internal politics of the agency. It was willing to support and facilitate the ambitions and agendas of certain people within the agency at the expense of others.
As his (very blunt) way of explaining to me the sort of control that SCJ had over us, I remember one of my managers once saying, "SC Johnson just loves to bitch-slap the agency and Interpublic." This behavior goes back decades to when Bruce Mason ran the agency. Maurice Levy (Publicis owned a big chunk of FCB) and the board was considering replacing him. But the board ultimately did not, fearing it would create trouble with its biggest client, SCJ -- such was the influence the company had over the agency. Had the board stuck to its guns and Mr. Levy gotten his way, FCB's fate could have been forever changed. It might have been a healthier global player. It might also have been a part of a French company instead of Interpublic.
Upon hearing last week's news, some people have commented that if FCB weren't merged it never would have lost SC Johnson. But that 's not true; SC Johnson in fact had a hand in orchestrating the merger -- similar to the way it influenced the decision with Mr. Mason -- that pushed the agenda of the people that worked directly on their business.
While there's no doubt the loss of SC Johnson's account to Ogilvy and BBDO will have catastrophic implications for DraftFCB and many, many good people will lose their jobs, there is some upside. With the bad sometimes comes the good and in this case a kind of "cleansing" that has been sorely needed at the agency for years.
The original idea of merging DraftFCB was the right answer. All of the accounts of FCB should have benefited from the new integrated agency, but many of the big important brands did not, and eventually left. Now SC Johnson has joined them. So with the account gone, it is a new day at DraftFCB and it is time to move forward. It's also time to drop FCB from the logo and call the agency what it has truly become: a bigger Draft. With SC Johnson gone, along with some other big clients and hundreds of people, there is no real reason to keep it.