Why John Wren Picked Chuck Brymer to Head DDB

A Frank Interview With the Omnicom Group Chief

By Published on .

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- In a move that surprised many in the ad industry, Omnicom Group President-CEO John Wren last week tapped an unfamiliar name, Interbrand Group Chairman-CEO
Omnicom Group president-CEO John Wren
Omnicom Group president-CEO John Wren
Chuck Brymer, to succeed the late Ken Kaess as DDB president-CEO. He isn't, however, unfamiliar to Mr. Wren, who made it clear in a rare, frank and sometimes scolding interview with Advertising Age's Matthew Creamer that people who don't understand the appointment don't understand where the agency business is going.

Why do you think Chuck Brymer is the right guy for the job?

Chuck is a great senior executive who's got a tremendous track record and history with Omnicom, through Interbrand. He's very young and a very solid guy who possesses all the necessary skills to be CEO of a multinational company. He built Interbrand largely from scratch and he's been doing that for 20-odd years and [has been] CEO of the company since Omnicom bought it. There's not a place on the planet where he's not comfortable, working with very senior clients. He's absolutely ready for this responsibility.

How long has he been on your radar screen as someone who could take on a bigger operational role?

Since 1992. I met him when I was in London and deciding whether or not Omnicom should invest in or purchase Interbrand. Chuck was running North America.

When was the decision made that he would become successor to Ken Kaess?

I spent a great amount of time with Ken over the last six months. Ken and I covered just about every topic known to humanity, business and otherwise. Included in that were several lengthy conversations about the attributes of what he saw his successor -- if there was going to be a successor -- needs. We discussed candidates and he wholeheartedly endorsed this. It's very much a continuation, with Chuck having a lot of the skills that differentiated Ken in him being very successful. First and foremost is the culture, and safeguarding the culture of the company while advancing the brand. That was near and dear to Ken's heart and he did a good job furthering the culture. He knew Chuck very well and was in wholehearted agreement that Chuck would cherish that and work with the team that Ken built.

I'm guessing you won't tell me the names of the other candidates ...


Some in your company were surprised that you didn't pick someone with more of an ad-agency-proper background, someone who cut a bigger public profile in the business.

With all due respect, I have to bring you up a little bit short in thinking about the ad-agency-proper, as you would put it, the idea that magazines like yourselves and your competitors are the voice of what's happening in marketing today. You're not.

The last thing I wanted -- and what anybody else wanted -- is an agency. DDB, through Ken's leadership, went much further than being an ad agency in terms of what it's capabilities are, in terms of what it does currently for clients and what it'll bring for clients in the future. In the case of Ken, his celebrity really came for a lot of different reasons. He's most noted for the things he did with working for 4A's and whatnot. When you look at what he really accomplished, he made DDB globally more of a communications company with greater resources than just what a traditional ad agency would have.

DDB's revenue is only 50% what you'd refer to as advertising and 50% marketing services. The fastest-growing part of that is based on the fact that a good idea can come from anywhere, including the tea lady or a guy in the direct-response unit or a person in the retail-activation unit. I wasn't looking for somebody who was famous in advertising and for that to be the reason to lead the company Ken created. The two don't match.

That said, was it a virtue that he didn't come from the ad agency business?

No. Can I ask you a question? What do you mean by the ad-agency business?

In this case, I'm obviously referring to the large, global ad-agency networks.

I'm not trying to be difficult. You're really wrongheaded about it if you look at it on a global basis. This is marketing services, not advertising. It's a point I'm railing [about] with you and it's a point I make in front of every group I can. It's an opinion I share with [Group Chief Executive] Martin Sorrell, who tries to make the same point about WPP.

My question, too, is not just about the kind of client work that's being done, but also the size of the business, with DDB being significantly larger than Interbrand.

It's not about that at all. It's about a belief system about people, product and profit. It has to do with leadership that has to come from the idea that a good idea is the center of what we're doing for clients and the medium and the craft changes client by client, situation by situation. What these groups are is marketing-services-slash-advertising companies, not the reverse. Chuck certainly understands the value of an idea and is less concerned with the medium in which it gets expressed.

The fact that somebody comes from a traditional ad background, who fills the pages of the trade magazines in the United States, is not even a consideration for someone in my job. Interbrand happens to be in the business of branding and in the business of ideas. There's no variance here. It's just that nobody saw it coming. That's what the shock of this is about. I didn't bring in somebody from one of my widget companies.

Tell me more about how you came to notice him.

I was in charge of DAS back then and now I run Omnicom -- and, by the way, that's a story you missed about someone who wasn't famous in the ad agency business. There's a whole process that goes on with my board of directors. There's anywhere between 30 and 50 individuals who are brought to the attention of the board. Their careers are vetted and so forth in executive sessions between me and the outside directors. Chuck for a long time was at the very top of that list. This wasn't something I pulled out of my hat. The wonderful thing about Omnicom is if I fell over and slumped in my tea, my board of directors knows exactly what to do. The same is true throughout the significant jobs in the company. It's not just me picking somebody. These people are vetted and prepared. ...

This place isn't run as if it was an ad agency, that is, a cult of personality where you have a drama. We've institutionalized our processes to take hard looks at people and bring them along. Chuck was always on the sidelines. There was an article in Campaign recently about succession at the holding-company level. We didn't seed the names, but they listed possible successors of me, as well as Sorrell, which they didn't have any answers for and for [Interpublic Group of Cos.' Chairman-CEO Michael] Roth, which they didn't have any answers for, and [Publicis Groupe Chairman-CEO Maurice] Levy, which they didn't have any answers for. And they gave odds, which only the Brits would do. They had [Omnicom Vice Chairman] Michael Birkin, [ BBDO Worldwide President-CEO Andrew] Robertson, [Omnicom Chief Financial Officer Randall] Weisenburger, Chuck and even Ken. It's less than a mystery. Since I'm not going anywhere, we found a place where he could better serve the company -- unless I fall over in my tea.

What do you think of those odds?

Oh, pretty good.

Not about falling over in your tea, but the odds listed in Campaign?

Oh, I'm not commenting on that.
In this article:
Most Popular