My old friend Howard Bell, who retired as the president of the American Advertising Federation in 1991, has cautioned new retirees not to be influenced by the old guard. "There are always people who long for the good old days, who will tell you that you did a better job than the person currently in charge. But you don't want to look over the shoulder of your successor. Everybody does things differently and, you hope, better," Howard told me last fall.
Ironically, the mandate given Bill Lynch and Jim Jenness, the CEO and chief operating officer who were asked to walk the plank, set them up for their downfall. They were asked to rein in the agency's free-spending ways, and they apparently were very successful in that undertaking-too successful for their own good. "People started feeling pressure on their little territories," I was told, and it's easy to see how they would long for the good old days.
The old guard was only too happy to listen is the way I size up the situation. It would have been easy for the Burnett board to tell Bill Lynch and Jim Jenness to lighten up a little if they had been overzealous in their cost-cutting. But that wasn't the agenda. It was that the men involved would forego their retirement and take over. Some think it's also an opportunity to "cash in and cash out" by taking the agency public.
Burnett's generous retirement plan for its top people gives executives a five-year deal in which they're paid an annual consulting fee and gradually eased off into the sunset. But that set-up allows key executives to hang around while they wind down their careers. The new guys now running Burnett had plenty of time to decide they weren't ready to retire-and to listen to complaints about top management.
The way Messrs. Lynch and Jenness were asked to vacate the premises was certainly not typical of Burnett, which has always tried to keep the outside world from knowing the intimate details of its internal affairs. And it was certainly not typical to have them walk into a board meeting, with a lawyer in attendance, and sign a severance agreement on the spot.
The official announcement of the Burnett board's actions, sent to agency employees, contains a laundry list of failings. "We need to accelerate our response to the challenges inherent in the changing dynamics of our industry, e.g., the increased demands of our clients, the unbundling of agency services, and the rise of specialists. We need to rebuild the spirit of our people and reignite our creative focus. Those concerns are felt broadly and deeply across our organization. Bill and Jim believed it was time for leadership with a different orientation."
That last sentence seems like an unnecessarily harsh statement-making the former honchos admit they weren't cutting it.
Why did this happen now? My bet is that the deposed management was about to regain the United account, and the new guys will now be able to take credit for that stunning event.
As a longtime Burnett exec told me: "There's a lot of greed involved here. Not only money greed but power greed."