The youngest-ever CEO of BBDO Worldwide, the U.K. national has been likened to a political campaign--44 years in the making. Replete with calculated spontaneity, incredible smarts and equal parts charm and wit, he is putting them all to work as he steers one of the country's largest advertising agencies into the 21st century.
BBDO has long been characterized in the U.S. by its domination of the Super Bowl extravaganza, and its unerring focus on "the work, the work, the work," which tended to be translated by onlookers to "the spots, the spots, the spots." So remaking the giant shop, where godlike TV creatives have reigned for decades, and infusing it with the bigger marketing ideas, interactivity, savvy use of PR and events that are transforming the marketing industry will be a challenge. The smart money, however, is on Mr. Robertson--a man for whom success is an exclamation point rather than a question mark.
"He has an overwhelmingly clear vision. He is a success. It's his whole reason for being. It is what defines him. He can't conceive of its not happening," said Carl Johnson, a friend for 20 years and the founder of Anomaly, a private marketing-communications firm in New York.
`get new dogs'
To clients, bosses and many friends, Mr. Robertson is generous and accessible with a thundering laugh you hear down the hall. To those who don't fit his plan, he is frosty, cutthroat and a master choreographer--and everything from the books on his nightstand to his trademark suspenders feed that image. But even they say he's a hoot, too.
Under his charge are 20,000 employees in 77 countries and 290 offices. Worldwide revenue last year totaled $1.3 billion and supplied about 15% of parent Omnicom Group's income. Mr. Robertson has engineered staff shuffles across the U.S.--BBDO's largest market--as well as Europe and Asia. He wants subordinates to focus on results and to build client business amid new technology, globalization and heightened pressure from competitors and shareholders. Major clients include DaimlerChrysler, Visa International, PepsiCo, Gillette Co., GE and Cingular.
"The way to change the culture is to give him the ability to remake it. Not remold old dogs into new dogs. Get new dogs," said a former BBDO leader. "He has been given a free hand to do what needs to be done. Things will change. People who are too stuck or too belligerent, he'll get rid of."
His tipping point came last year when he watched his adolescent daughter sit with a laptop computer, simultaneously checking out various Web sites, watching TV, talking on her cellphone, playing computer games and instant messaging friends. "New technology was allowing her to move from something that wasn't rewarding, stimulating or engaging, to something that was, at the touch of a button," he said.
Adapting the agency to a new marketing reality, however, will require more than just a changing the guard. Mr. Robertson must land multimillion-dollar accounts to fill blank roster slots in categories such as airlines, financial services and high-tech. He aims to increase efficiency as well as partnerships with sibling Omnicom shops and expand BBDO's services. In some countries, that will mean developing capabilities such as sales promotion, direct and Internet marketing. Elsewhere, it will mean making offices work more closely.
"He's capable of doing it because he's clever and has the right vision. He's relentless and ruthless in bringing about change. He has to make it successful, therefore he will," one friend said.
Before being named worldwide CEO, in addition to the presidency, Mr. Robertson earned his stripes at BBDO North America. His three years leading North American operations were bumpy. The agency missed out on big pitches such as Delta Air Lines, E-Trade Financial Corp., Bank of America and Nikon Corp. Long John Silver's walked away, as did KFC and Tostitos, part of PepsiCo's Frito-Lay. Consolidations cost it Unilever's Caress and Masterfoods' Skittles, though the candy conglomerate handed it additional business in September. Domestically the agency, however, said it picked up $300 million this year in new clients such as DirecTV and the California Lottery. New business came in from existing clients as well, including GE, FedEx, Gillette, Pepsi, Pizza Hut and Bayer.
Still, forwarding BBDO's image will be a big job. "Andrew is very aware of the expectations, the challenges, the pressures that exist in a fast-changing industry. If anyone can sort it out, it will be he," said Bill Katz, who retired as president-CEO of BBDO New York under Mr. Robertson's watch.
A consultant who knows BBDO pre- and post-Robertson suggested its poor record with brand-new prospects stems from executive creative directors, in New York especially, who acted like rock stars and treated potential clients like boneheads. That changed this summer when Mr. Robertson flexed his tanned bicep and fired Ted Sann, New York's chairman-chief creative officer. It was a public, defining gesture that sent a clear signal BBDO would change, and Mr. Robertson was man enough to do it.
"If it's a choice of his career over your needs, you're going to lose," said one person who has worked with Mr. Robertson.
Mr. Sann, a great copywriter and the poster child for mass marketing and glossy celebrity ads, declined to comment. But the move stunned the agency, the industry and even Pepsi-Cola North America--a client that joined BBDO the year Mr. Robertson was born and now controls $286 million in measured media that flows through Omnicom. The soft-drink concern curtly said it expected the agency--ahem--would continue to provide the creative it had come to expect.
loyalty or talent
Confidants said Mr. Robertson later confessed he wished he'd handled it differently. But others said he's too smart to have stumbled. It is, after all, easier to ask forgiveness than permission. It is also worth noting that as Pepsi itself has been at the vanguard of seeking new ways to reach the consumer, some within the Pepsi organization might welcome a media-agnostic thinker like Mr. Sann's successor David Lubars. "It was wholly calculated and essentially part of the plan. He'd weighed the risks," a former colleague said.
Some wonder, however, whether Mr. Robertson got his comeuppance this autumn when Diet Pepsi, the country's No. 6 soda, went casting about Omnicom for creative ideas. Pepsi wouldn't say why it went to other agencies within the network beyond saying it wanted to explore more capabilities of the holding company.
A former BBDO executive said Mr. Robertson is to be respected and feared. "You just know what he did to Ted, so you can't trust anything at face value." Well, probably only two people know exactly what he did to Ted, and neither is talking.
Mr. Robertson is not one to confuse loyalty with talent. "BBDO is about building brands, yes. But as for the needs of clients tomorrow, Andrew is up on that--to modify, change or correct. He sees the big picture. He's a shrewd businessman. He knows what he wants, and he's going to get it," said the head of a sibling shop that shares clients with BBDO.
Before pulling the trigger on Mr. Sann, Mr. Robertson had lined up Mr. Lubars. Then the lead creative from Publicis Groupe's Fallon Worldwide, Mr. Lubars oversaw innovative marketing such as BMW Films, VF Corp.'s "Buddy Lee" ads and Citibank's series of ads offering pithy life advice such as "Success is just around the corner. Turn often." The two met in 1995 when Mr. Lubars was a rising star at BBDO, Los Angeles, and Mr. Robertson was at AMV/BBDO in London. They weren't close but when Mr. Robertson called Minneapolis, told Mr. Lubars about his vision, the Brooklyn native packed up his family.
"He's like working with a creative, but business insights come out," said Mr. Lubars, BBDO North America's chairman-chief creative officer. "He has an extraordinary mind combined with a tireless ability to execute, which allows him to turn ideas into realities with great consistency. [It's] rare to find that combination--in basketball it would be like being an equally great scorer and defender."
Daryl Evans, Cingular's VP-advertising and marketing communications, said the "uniquely art-directed" Brand Andrew is partly responsible for Cingular's annual revenue having rocketed to $15.4 billion in just three years. Cingular launched in October 2000, tapped BBDO that month and last year spent $622.5 million in measured media.
A "uniquely art-directed" Brand Andrew is not necessarily what you'd expect of a kid in the 1970s who wanted to be an engineer like his maternal grandfather. A winter training program outside London cured him of those aspirations, but Andrew Robertson did make his mark. He tells of a shopping center in suburban Windsor where, thanks to his engineering skills, drivers can't park without clipping their left tire. "He's so confident, he doesn't mind laughing at himself," Mr. Johnson said.
One friend said the shtick is part of the brand: "Nothing is an accident. Nothing is unplanned. [Everything was designed] over a long period of time. Like his suspenders, a long time ago he realized he needed to have a single look. It was like `what should that look be?' He's a master of personal development. Nothing is sacrosanct. Nothing is spared."
bringing ge to life
Born in Zimbabwe and reared in South Africa and England, Mr. Robertson earned an economics degree from London University. He travels on a British passport and speaks Afrikaans, Zulu and Latin. He lets on that other languages would be more useful, but you get the message that his perspective is quite worldly. He is largely why BBDO snagged GE work in Europe, Japan and China, according to Judy Hu, the company's global executive director-advertising and branding. She said Mr. Robertson helped launch the current "Imagination at Work" campaign as well as expand GE's reach from TV to outdoor, print and the Internet.
"His frame of reference is the world," she said. "As we expand into Asia and Europe, that is something that is critical for us--to have that global perspective. ... He's wonderful at trying to expand and broaden communication plans to go beyond advertising." GE spent more than $1 billion in global measured media in 2003, according to the latest Advertising Age figures.
Andrew Hawkins, managing director of Doner, Cardwell, Hawkins in London, has been friends with Mr. Robertson for two decades. "The point of the Andrew Robertson brand is he's better at most things than most people. He improves people around him through sharing of insight. He's able to help and advise."
Mr. Robertson is nothing if not determined. When he ran the 1999 New York City Marathon, his left knee went out at mile two, and he was hobbling by mile 14. By the time the ordeal was over and he crossed the finish line seven hours later, he'd seen the backs of 31,000 fellow runners and couldn't bend his leg.
He had, however, raised $50,000 for a London homeless charity he'd launched. The genesis of the idea came one February night in 1999 when Abbott Mead Vickers was finalizing its sale to Omnicom for about $590 million in stock. Chief Executive Robertson, AMV Chairman Michael Baulk, board members, lawyers and investment bankers were working late, and Mr. Robertson made a fish-and-chips run for everyone. On his return, the man who would make a tidy sum on the deal had to step over a homeless man. Touring another homeless facility later, he ran into the man and his dog and wanted to do something. Three years later, the Big House opened with Prince Charles at the ribbon cutting.
Mr. Robertson started his professional globetrotting in 1982 at Ogilvy & Mather where he met his wife and--also importantly--Mr. Baulk. In the young media planner, managing director Mr. Baulk noticed the strategic skills, drive for results, confidence and energy that would set Mr. Robertson on the fast track. He steered him into account management and new business, where he cultivated clients as well as senior executives.
From there, it was on to J. Walter Thompson Co. where Mr. Robertson ran its biggest account, Kellogg Co. By 29, he was chief executive for the rudderless WCRS, which was hemorrhaging clients and wracked by infighting. Five years later, when he left for Abbott Mead Vickers, WCRS's new business was strong, and a stable management team was in place. As chief executive for AMV, a public agency with a strong creative reputation, he gained experience working with a board, helped structure its sale to Omnicom and again worked with Mr. Baulk. Godfather to one of Mr. Robertson's two daughters, Mr. Baulk said his one-time charge is compassionate but decisive and knows where BBDO's best interests lie.
As chief executive of AMV BBDO, Mr. Robertson was criticized as too harsh for its familial environment. Despite that--or perhaps because of it--he was on his way to heading BBDO North America by April 2001. The idea when Mr. Robertson landed as North American president-CEO was that he'd replace BBDO's legendary Chairman-CEO Allen Rosenshine, assuming there were no screw-ups. Mr. Robertson thrived where predecessors stumbled. He demonstrated an understanding of BBDO's combative culture and consolidated his power. An operations whiz, he forged relationships with major clients and John Wren, Omnicom's president-CEO. Despite consolidations and lost business, his units turned in relatively good financials while being squeezed by clients. He launched a direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical practice that netted six clients and an estimated $100 million in billings within a year.
In May, he was named to replace 65-year-old Mr. Rosenshine as global CEO, though Mr. Rosenshine remains chairman. As for claims that Mr. Robertson is calculating, Mr. Rosenshine would only say Mr. Robertson clearly understands cause, effect and consequences and doesn't suffer incompetence. "He is methodical, detailed, fast, articulate and knows how to laugh at himself and the vagaries of the business," said Mr. Rosenshine. "He calls me `boss.' I call him `chief."'
farmhouse and ferrari
Mr. Rosenshine joined BBDO when his successor was five. Sitting in his sleek white corner office--the same tone favored by Mr. Baulk--Mr. Robertson said he wants BBDO to create the most compelling commercial content in the world.
"It's all about `and' not `or,"' Mr. Robertson said. "I want to have the best television advertising in the world, the best radio advertising in the world, the best print advertising in the world, the best Internet and Web [abilities, with] tons of content and brand experiences. I don't know what it will be because it's not been done yet. I do know it will not be at the expense of brilliant television advertising because consumers aren't going to stop watching television."
Mr. Robertson expects to spend about half his time on the road, away from patrician Greenwich, Conn., where he lives with his wife, two daughters and son in a colonial farmhouse on a pond. Hobbies include his motorboat and attending the ballet, opera and theatre. His beloved red Ferraris--a marque also favored by Mr. Baulk--didn't make the trip and he now owns two Jeeps produced by mega-client DaimlerChrysler. Mr. Robertson's primary mode of transport will be airplanes.
"In a pitch, where some CEOs will say `it would be an honor to work on your business,' he'll make intelligent observations about the business. He's not an empty suit," the consultant who has worked with Mr. Robertson said.
Generating those observations has Mr. Robertson up by 5:15 a.m. By the time his driver picks him up at 6, he's often worked out and is already on his Blackberry with Europe. An early day at the office ends at 6 p.m. He meets clients on vacations and last week spent the eve of his birthday at a client dinner in Boston.
He has said this new job will lead him into the twilight of his career and has dodged suggestions that he eventually aims to run Omnicom. But for all Mr. Robertson's planning, staging and crafting, the realities and peculiarities of clients, his holding company, the advertising business and the economy could stymie his best efforts.
If success does not come from BBDO, it will come elsewhere.
"He will not ... get his gold watch from Omnicom because he has sat there for 20 years. He's a man seeking success. He is driven by self-success," another former BBDO hand said. "My guess is that if he's not successful in making their mission [work] quickly, he'll go and find somewhere where he can have a better chance of it."