Near-perfect pitch count for McCann

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Imagine if baseball star Mark McGwire batted .917 for the season. Or if golf phenom Tiger Woods hit a hole-in-one 11 times. Or if, in yesterday's Super Bowl, the St. Louis Rams scored 77 points, all on touchdowns.

That's essentially the rate of success McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York, had last year with a U.S. win record of 11 for 12 on new business pitches.

The team, led by North American chief Don Dillon, New York Chairman-Chief Creative Officer Nina DiSesa, Exec VP-Chief Operating Officer Eric Keshin and Exec-VP New Business Director Marjorie Altschuler, added more than $800 million to the shop's coffers.

So not only is the $20 billion giant the biggest agency in the world, Advertising Age also deemed it the U.S. Agency of the Year of 1999.

It wasn't just the continuing onslaught of new business wins -- E.I. du Pont DeNemours & Co., Lowe's Cos., Microsoft Corp and Avis Rent A Car among them -- that gave it the nod.

A revitalized creative product, aggressive integrated marketing efforts, creation of a separate U.S. media buying unit and a visionary management team combined to make McCann an unbeatable agency in the last year of the millennium.

Tangibles aside, McCann has something else that attracts attention. Insiders, clients and observers all say the same thing: This agency has chemistry.

TEAM RULES

There is no "I" in McCann. And that's the way they like it at the 98-year-old agency.

"There are stars, but it's not a culture of stars," says Worldwide Chairman-CEO John J. Dooner Jr., whose performance at the helm of McCann has put him in line to succeed Phil Geier as chief executive of parent Interpublic Group of Cos. "If someone is self-serving and driven by ego, this is probably not the place for you. By and large, it's a family with a shared dream. We share the vision of creating a legacy."

That kindred-spirit concept may sound old-fashioned in the kill-or-be-killed ad world, but for McCann it seems to be the key.

"There's chemistry there. We've had some good chemistry with our team and their team, but you also get the sense they really enjoy working with each other," says Maria Miller, Avis senior VP-marketing.

Consultant Judy Neer, exec VP at Skip Pile & Associates, which handled the Avis review, adds, "They're incredibly buttoned up and prepared, and really enthusiastic . . . There are new business teams that come in, and they cut each other off. The McCann team finishes each other's sentence -- in a good way."

Of course, team play doesn't exclude thriving egos. "Agencies, by nature, are made up of big personalities and big egos," says Ms. DiSesa. "We have big personalities and big egos, but the management is different. We all could be stars on our own, but we all choose to work together to make a bigger impact."

Other agencies sometimes refer to McCann's team spirit in a different way. "Hooligans" and "thugs" are among the words used by execs at rival agencies, usually after they've lost a pitch to McCann.

"I don't mind being called hooligans. Creatives are attracted to that kind of reputation," Ms. DiSesa says, only half-kiddingly.

At a recent informal group discussion with Ms. DiSesa, Mr. Keshin and Nat Puccio and Suresh Nair, co-exec VP-strategic planning directors, the group joked and laughed about the monikers. A later meeting with North American Exec VPs Mark Stewart (media), Jonathan Cranin (creative) and Eric Einhorn (strategic planning) included cigars and more good-natured joking.

The teams act more like good-natured siblings than workmates.

At the first group gab, Mr. Keshin brought up the Lowe's pitch. The client wanted to see how the McCann process worked. Mr. Keshin came up with the idea of showing Lowe's how the agency could take a fictitious product and come up with a strategy and creative executions -- within eight hours.

QUICK RESPONSE

"It was meant to show . . .once you got the process right you can react quickly," he says.

Ms. DiSesa jumps in, adding, "But what they took away from this `experiment' was we can do anything. We can do ads in an hour!"

Defending himself (and laughing), Mr. Keshin says that three days before the pitch, Ms. DiSesa fought the idea. She finally agreed, but asked him to downplay the part about doing ads in one day.

Mr. Keshin recalls, "So I told her, `I promise you I will not position it that way. I promise I won't do that.' So we get in the meeting and I said, `Look, we're going to do a little exercise,' and Nina jumps in and says, `Yeah, we're gonna show you how we can do an ad in an hour!' "

The room erupts in laughter as Ms. DiSesa protests over the din, "That is totally out of context."

So is McCann good or just lucky? The answer is some of both.

The lucky part is that the agency's team approach and heavy-duty strategic blueprints are in synch with clients' needs.

On the other hand, the talented creative, account and strategic staffers already at the agency -- not to mention those clamoring to get in -- are just good.

Consider the mix of luck and talent in the Du Pont win. Just 24 hours before the final pitch, inspiration struck in Mr. Cranin's shower.

McCann had lucked into the pitch via an errant phone call. A Du Pont executive called a McCann staffer by mistake, thinking he was still at another agency. Not one to let an opportunity pass, the new McCann employee rallied others, and the agency talked its way into the pitch.

LEAPS AHEAD

With only two weeks to prepare, the new business team immediately went to work on strategy. It came up with the positioning, "Great leaps for mankind,"

which also was functioning as the tagline for the final presentation. Messrs. Nair and Puccio were uncomfortable with that: They believed the positioning should be an overall theme, not a tag line.

Still, time was short and that's what the team agreed to pitch.

Until the shower.

After toweling off, Mr. Cranin called an early morning meeting and proposed the new tag: "The miracles of science." The group began to debate. But they knew that with the time it would take to change everything, they had exactly 30 minutes to "lock and load."

Messrs. Puccio and Nair weighed in with a quick yes. Messrs. Dillon and Keshin and Ms. DiSesa thought it was a courageous move but wondered if it might be too much. Mr. Cranin kept at it, and with minutes to spare, the group agreed to go for it.

Later, when the line was unveiled at the pitch, Ms. DiSesa swears Du Pont's CEO gasped.

It's that kind of risk-taking with creative that seems to be paying off.

For two years, MasterCard's "Priceless" was the shining jewel in the creative crown. And while the evolution of that campaign remained strong in 1999, McCann added some new client gems.

The Du Pont corporate spots, plus Agilent's appealing "Genes" and Lowe's quirky lighting ad, "The better to see you," stood out. The latest Motorola work dropped the big themes and scenery for charming ads showing geeks paging friends to gawk at actress Yasmine Bleeth, and giant black birds landing on an invisible wire.

FUTURE CHALLENGE

Top management may see some changes in 2000, but a succession plan is in place. Jim Heekin, who headed up the Europe/Africa/Middle East region, moves to worldwide president-CEO. Mr. Dillon heads to Europe to fill Mr. Heekin's shoes.

"McCann is where it is today because it has the willingness to evolve with the marketplace and invest in it," Mr. Dillon says. "Now we attract the talent we need to be the best. We'll maintain that by whatever's necessary. If it changes, we'll change."

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