Last week, she returned to help turn around WPP Group sibling J. Walter Thompson Co., which has recently picked up several new accounts after a series of bruising losses. Ms. Beers rejoins the agency -- where she began her career -- as chairman and will work alongside CEO Chris Jones. Both talked with Advertising Age Reporter Beth Snyder -- Ms. Beers from her office in New York, Mr. Jones via speaker phone from London.
Advertising Age: Please describe your new roles.
Charlotte Beers: The most important thing about the roles is they need to be complementary. I'm more interested, probably than anyone needs to be, in the philosophy of brands. And Chris has been really powerful at laying out processes. In doing these things together we are, Chris' words would be, transforming the brand JWT. And I am in love with this brand.
Chris Jones: As the CEO, I've got to make sure the operations of the place are running very well. We're both going to be very involved with clients. To be honest, if there were five of us, there would still be more than enough work to go around.
There's never a bad time to have a Charlotte arrive. But this is a fantastic time because we've sorted out a lot of the issues that I think were plaguing the agency 18 months to a year ago. And as the record of the last
two to three months show, the new team we put in place is beginning to deliver in terms of new campaigns and new clients.
Ms. Beers: You know I think what finally proved irresistible to me was that Chris moved to execute the idea that talent would be his first priority. He proved it by bringing in Bill Hamilton [president of J. Walter Thompson USA, New York] and Bob Jeffrey [chief creative director in the New York office]. They created energy and momentum and a passion for the work so that I come and offer just another dimension of talent.
AA: Chris talks about the new and reinvigorated JWT. How does Charlotte fit into that and will there be more people added to the team?
Mr. Jones: One of the things that really talented people do is attract really talented people, like moths to a flame. I think you can expect to see quite a long line of outstanding people joining J. Walter Thompson.
Ms. Beers: I think it's a great compliment to become a magnetic field for talent. But the other thing that's very attractive -- and I remember this from my other experience -- when I would bring in somebody great from the outside, they knew a whole team of people I've never met. I know some people and am excited about the cross pollination of people into Thompson.
AA: So Madison Avenue execs should be wondering who you're going to take away from them?
Mr. Jones: They ought to call their clients, I'll take care of their people. (Both laugh.)
Ms. Beers: Above all, we're going to be kind of oblivious to job titles. I can hardly ever remember mine.
AA: What kind of reaction have you had from clients?
Mr. Jones: We're going to get delight from the clients who know Charlotte and we're going to get intrigue from the ones who just know of her. This isn't about a revolution at J. Walter Thompson, this is all additive. This is all about what more can we do now.
Ms. Beers: If there was a client that signaled us that I was needed in some specific way, we would view that as added talent which I think is tempting. But if there is not any such signal, I will be moving on other situations.
AA: Your primary job then will be recruiting new clients instead of handling existing clients?
Ms. Beers: I think I have natural avenues to certain of our clients and if they're in the midst of a brand issue, I would be so interested. I'm likely to be involved brand by brand, rather than client by client.
Mr. Jones: There's no way we're going to say to a client, "No, Charlotte's busy doing something else." Our jobs are about growth -- and I don't mean literally new business. We're trying to grow the capacities of the company, grow opportunities for our people within the company, grow the reputation of the company, grow our current clients' business, as well as grow new business.
AA: Charlotte, you wrote a column for Ad Age in 1997 . . .
Ms. Beers: Oh dear, Chris, this is so embarrassing. I wrote my farewell to advertising column in their pages. (Both laugh.) Which makes it a little humiliating to be back again.
Mr. Jones: Well, Frank Sinatra got away with it lots more times than you've tried yet.
Ms. Beers: I know.
Mr. Jones: We'll dub that Charlotte's first farewell.
AA: Anyway, in that column you wrote, "Consensus is no substitute for leadership." How do you keep that from happening with this structure with two people working at the top?
Ms. Beers: I think there's a difference between collaboration and mutual support vs. decisionmaking. I'm heatedly in favor of occasionally making a decision. I think what will happen is, I'll be given the privilege of making decisions that are areas that become my province. And those you just agree to intuitively.
Mr. Jones: In my career at Thompson, ever since I became a manager, I've always had a partner. I really do believe in the power of at least two. That doesn't mean everything is a compromise. If Charlotte and I didn't feel we were both coming from the same place and heading in the same direction, I don't think either of us would have agreed to do this.
Ms. Beers: I think business is frozen by people who are leery of a clear, bold and brave decision. One of the great advantages you have in entering a company in this kind of transition, is it's an opportunity for making bold and big and brave decisions. It's rare to be in that position.
AA: Do the two of you have a chemistry? Is it an advantage to have a man and a woman?
Mr. Jones: I think if you have an affinity for the same things, if you care about the same things, you have the same basic priorities. And you see that your strengths are complementary. Then you've got the basis for a great partnership.
Ms. Beers: Chris has already passed my significant litmus test. He's really funny. And as far as I'm concerned, that's a condition for good partners. I think we divide naturally and complement each other. But it has to be fun. I've had a couple of lunches with Chris where we were courting a third person or doing some tough talking, and I love being in the game with him. He's funny, he's witty, smart as a whip . . . umm, I don't know how he dances.
Mr. Jones: I think that's something I'll keep from you.
(Mr. Jones at this point has to leave the call for a client meeting.)
AA: Charlotte, you wrote in the farewell column that part of the job requires you to go to plays, concerts and even hang out in bars. But you've also resisted the idea that your role is to be the client's hand holder. What's the difference between those things?
Ms. Beers: The idea of going to plays and experiencing creative art forms is to make you sensitive to the creative process. It has nothing to do with clients, although I love for clients to go through this same thing. As the world gets more data-driven and literally word-driven, I want to make sure we keep spirit and life and energy.
The other part of it is that I think people really misunderstand what client management is about. I personally think taking a client to dinner must be very low on their wish list. It may happen occasionally, but hopefully it's celebratory. There's nothing worse than discussing a difficult problem over a rich dinner.
AA: So how do you build those relationships?
Ms. Beers: You have to get to know one another on a real basis. That takes place sometimes in shorthand in the meetings, and for many people, through other events. I've always concentrated on talking about the brand in every conversation. I like to talk about business, I like to talk about the advertising business and I like to talk about the brand . . . To me, the client holds me accountable for a degree of involvement in his brand he cannot find any place else.
AA: Do you have a client wish list?
Ms. Beers: I guess I do have those and I guess I won't be reporting on those. (laughs)
AA: We had to ask.
Ms. Beers: I'm learning now where people's priorities are. We'll be very interested in clients who can help us make fabulous advertising. I think the first thing we would like is to grow [within] the huge corporations with whom we already have a dialogue. It's really a much shorter distance between successful advertising and profit to grow within your own home.
AA: One question that's probably on the mind of everyone on Madison Avenue: Why come back?
Ms. Beers: I'm hoping to bring less ego and vanity to this job (laughs). I do feel like I have less of a need to prove that I can deliver -- although some might argue about that. I think the reason is that I'm being offered a chance to do work I really, really love. I also get to come back to a company to which I have a debt of gratitude. When I was the first female senior VP at J. Walter Thompson, every single time I had an opportunity, they supported me. I was chosen repeatedly for typically male accounts. Now looking back, I know how rare that was. I'd like to make sure that I offer not only my contribution, but that I keep an eye on the women here and make sure they have that same access.
AA: So now that this is full circle for you, is this your last advertising job?
Ms. Beers: Of course it is! (laughs)
AA: Any idea how long you might stay?
Ms. Beers: Chris and I consider that very open-ended. The other day I found myself saying not less than five years. But we wouldn't want to put a tenure on it. I think it's pretty exciting that someone is moving from chairman to chairman of an advertising agency, and it's a woman. So what's the message? The message is women can do it. And the other thing is in an era when a woman and age seem to have certain more limitations than men, gee, I hope we're blowing