Exec brings global perspective to joint venture with Hakuhodo

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John McNeel has spent much of his time thinking about Mars, not the planet but the privately held, fiercely independent conglomerate which sells food like M&Ms and Uncle Ben's for people and Pedigree for pets in 65 nations.

As TBWA's global account director, Mr. McNeel has helped align the agency planets around Mars, and redefine the TBWA network as a global organization. Under him, the business grew from about 3% of TBWA's business to the agency handling almost half of Mars' nearly $500 million account, and it is now TBWA's No. 2 client behind Nissan.

Mr. McNeel, 50, last week was promoted to president-CEO of G1 Worldwide, the Tokyo-based joint venture between TBWA and Hakuhodo. G1 handles global advertising for Nissan Motor Co. and works with a number of TBWA-aligned agencies, including media-buying arm OMD, Tequila, and the Designory. TBWA's "Shift" tagline has become entrenched in the Nissan culture.

Mr. McNeel's peripatetic style-he spends 80% of his time on airplanes-brought both the Mars and TBWA organizations face to face. "John will do things like go to Hong Kong for a day," said Robert J. Gamgort, president, Masterfoods North America, preventing "great thinking from getting lost" in large, unwieldy global organizations.

`WRONG-HEADED'

Traveling is second nature to the man who's flown nearly 250,000 miles so far this year. When he's not in the air or working on Mars, he works with an advertising industry group seeking to improve America's image abroad, especially in the Middle East. Although he's been in the ad business for more than two dozen years, Mr. McNeel believes the traditional weapons of a marketing war-ads, slogans, logos or even a TV channel-will not help America out-reach Osama bin Laden in shaping the hearts and minds of Arabs. In fact, he calls America's marketing since the Sept. 11 terrorist attack "wrong-headed."

"Quite simply, more slogans and more seductive images are the last thing this troubled region needs," Mr. McNeel wrote in a recent article in the International Herald Tribune.

On his numerous trips to Cairo and Dubai, Mr. McNeel, a board member of Business for Diplomatic Action, a group spearheaded by DDB Worldwide Chairman Keith Reinhard, takes time to sound out Arabs on their views. His findings are unsettling.

"Although the degree of rabid anti-American sentiment would seem to have subsided somewhat since the days not too long ago that saw angry crowds ransack American fast-food outlets in Beirut and Cairo, bitterness and frustration continue to lie just beneath the surface," he said. "Most worryingly, even the generation of young Arab professionals-many of them Western-educated, some even working for or with American corporations-seem to have lapsed into an entrenched cynicism about what is seen by many as American hypocrisy or, even worse, outright duplicity."

His advice: Don't waste taxpayers' money on an ad campaign or even a satellite channel, both of which are seen as "feeble, if richly funded, attempts to spin the truth so that an American perspective is cast in the most positive light."

That runs counter to what he's spent almost 20 years advising marketers to do. After college and a brief stint as a reporter, Mr. McNeel responded to an ad in The New York Times and took a job house-sitting the summer home of Broadway lyricist Michael Stewart in Cannes, where he met his wife to be at a cafe. When the gig was up, he took a temporary typist job at Ted Bates, adding his own scripts to a batch intended for a presentation. A few days later, he was hired as a copywriter.

From 1982 to 2000, Mr. McNeel held ad jobs in France, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, primarily at Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide where he rose to chairman-CEO of their Middle East operations and helped found the Middle East Advertising Agency Association. Along the way, he worked for Jean Marie Dru, now CEO of TBWA Worldwide, who later recruited him to TBWA to head the Mars business.

Just Asking

Did you ever eat dog food, the legendary requirement for the agency executives on the Pedigree account? "I've crunched the occasional kibble. It's not too different from dry cereal. Mars is proud of their products and believes they are fit for human consumption. But I'm not sure I'd dig into a can."

How do you avoid jet lag? "When I go on a long-haul flight, I adjust to the time zone in the destination from the moment I leave. I have a good exercise regime. Even though I rack up 400,000 [airline] miles a year, I bike about 4,000 miles a year. And I don't make the trip all about the meeting. It's very easy to live in `air world' where you go from plane to hotel. Get a sense of the culture, go to a local restaurant, or walk around a city. It recharges the batteries."

In addition to English, how many languages do you speak? "I'm fluent in French, functional in Turkish."

How about Japanese? "I don't yet."

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