'Natural leader' aims to turn shop around by focusing on new business

By Published on .

At Fallon Worldwide, they called him Sparky because he was always raring to go early in the mornings when others were still groping for coffee.

Now, Rich Stoddart, president of Leo Burnett USA, will need to channel that energy to turn around an agency that since 2002 has weathered a sale to a holding company, management upheaval, client defections and anemic growth. Advertising Age estimates Burnett's revenue was flat last year at $362.7 million, and Publicis Groupe admitted in a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that the shop's revenue declined, though it did not specify by how much.

To fuel growth, he's increasing emphasis on new business and collaborating with sibling agencies Starcom MediaVest Group and Arc Worldwide. His move also comes at a time when the agency is changing the way it goes after business. Rather than merely cranking out campaigns, it's using its formidable research base to position itself as a vendor of ideas-marketing and otherwise-that drive clients' business and potentially redefine categories.

Mr. Stoddart wouldn't discuss the strategy directly. "We clearly are putting more emphasis on making sure our understanding of the clients' business and the context they operate in is something we deeply understand," he said. "Part of that is leveraging our research capability."

But he was clear about the goal. "Growth is the mandate," said the 42-year-old executive, who started his marketing career on the account side at Burnett and since his return five months ago has been involved in every new business pitch. "I didn't come here to shrink."

It's too early to tell whether he can fulfill that charge. Turning around agencies is a tough job-as is persuading prospects that troubles are in the past. And the tradition-steeped 70-year-old Burnett, founded on long-lasting monogamous relationships with clients, also must adapt to a world where clients increasingly work with multiple agencies. That means it must compete against not just mainline agencies but smaller, nimbler shops such as Mother.

On top of these tasks, Mr. Stoddart needs to defend the crucial $200 million U.S. Army account, now amid a protracted review, and land a new top creative to replace longtime executive Cheryl Berman.

The big question is whether Mr. Stoddart has the right stuff to lead the agency. Part of a youth movement in ad-industry leadership, he's enjoyed a successful career to date. He won plaudits as an account manager at Burnett and in 1995 joined Fallon where he rose to director of account management. He later joined Ford Motor Co. as manager-marketing communications and his tenure included highlights such as a deal to integrate Ford's brands into Fox's "24."

`CAN-DO ATTITUDE'

Of course, no single person can turn around an agency. But executives who know him say he has the leadership skills, a relentless work ethic and an ability to rally people and generate enthusiasm. "He brings this can-do attitude," said Pat Fallon, chairman of his namesake agency. "He makes things fun for people" and has a "natural leadership ability."

So far, there's little sniping at him by current or former Burnetters. And if that wasn't unusual enough, several praised him for his habit of walking the agency floors-a welcome break from tradition with the agency's top management.

Mr. Stoddart has things besides accessibility going for him. While Burnett has lost plenty of clients over the years, it has an enviable roster including Philip Morris, McDonald's, Procter & Gamble, Disney and Kellogg. It also has a deep well of talent.

Moreover, the agency has racked up a string of wins-albeit most of them relatively small for an agency of Burnett's size, such as ConAgra's Pam or PetSmart-over the past 18 months. Since his arrival, Burnett has landed on the rosters of spirits company Diageo and, after a four-year absence, Coca- Cola Co. It's now pitching Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co.'s Life Savers business.

Still, "have we won the big one yet? No," said Mr. Stoddart. "That's an area of focus."

Just Asking

What one thing in your career do you wish you could do over again? "The Miller Lite `Dick' campaign. We did some brilliant work, but it wasn't consistently brilliant because we never really had a tight, focused strategy."

How has account management evolved from the time you entered the business? "Account people today have to know more about the marketplace and the business and are expected to execute faster and better than ever before. That said, it's still fundamentally about simplifying problems and relentlessly boiling things down."

Does your experience on the client side help you as an agency executive? "I understand that their world is bigger than the moment the agency walks in and says, 'Boy, we licked the brief, and we've got the creative work for you today.'... I walked into the office every day worried about one thing: ROI.

Have you driven a Ford lately? "Actually my wife drives a Ford and loves it. I have to admit I drive a Cadillac now. ... Leo always believed in buying your clients' products. Makes pretty good sense to me."

In this article:
Most Popular