Does Your Agency Need a 'Chief Transition Officer'?

Position Holders Work to Iron Out Wrinkles That Come With Challenging Account Switches

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While many agencies were feeling the sting of the recession, December 2009 was celebratory at PHD: The Omnicom media firm had reeled in the $400 million-plus Unilever China account.

But not long after the Champagne buzz wore off, reality set in. Over the first six months, the firm needed to hire more than 100 execs for the business, seamlessly transfer work to avoid a "dark period" sans marketing and, in the midst of it all, introduce a major campaign for Unilever's Clear shampoo .

Anna Chitty, chief transition officer at PHD.
Anna Chitty, chief transition officer at PHD.

As a fix, the agency anointed Anna Chitty, U.S. director of business development and marketing at PHD, with the new title of chief transition officer.

On her shoulders was the responsibility of ensuring that the account made a smooth move to PHD from WPP's Mindshare. "We had a very short window that was made available to us. ... It took 100% of my time," said Ms. Chitty. "I moved into a role working with the media director of Unilever China and alongside my CEO at the time to work through the many layers of the business."

Ms. Chitty won over her bosses because of an earlier OMD post she held in China overseeing the transition of the new Intel business. "The difficulty over there was building teams very quickly," she said. "It was pretty tough. We were working with our team internally to build and marry global analytics models with [those of the incumbent], so we could be consistent with observations in the market and make sure local teams had their analysis on time."

That data piece is a key reason the account switches in adland have become far thornier today compared with just a few years ago.

Brandon Cooke of McGarryBowen
Brandon Cooke of McGarryBowen

As an official post, a chief transition officer is very rare, and may only be applicable for big accounts and the biggest shops in the business.

However, the need for agencies to review internal processes for account transitions is vital, no matter what the shop's size -- especially because clients need it to happen faster than ever to ensure there are no gaps in their communications with consumers.

"Verizon is probably the biggest transition we ever handled, and the client told us that it was one of the quickest transitions they ever had," said Brandon Cooke, director-new business development at McGarryBowen. "It was 60 days."

That success is something the agency uses as a selling point. "That's part of what we use from a new-business standpoint when we talk to clients -- a transition plan day-by -day," said Mr. Cooke. "The most important point to remember is to listen to what's important in the afterglow of a win, and make sure it's all accounted for on a weekly checklist until everything is sufficiently transitioned over."

"I've run into [the chief transition officer] title a couple of times, but normally on the more complex and bigger pieces of business, especially in a heavily regulated industry where a specialty is required and where fine print is so important," observed Casey Burnett, lead consultant and director of West Coast operations for search consultancy Roth Associates.

Mr. Burnett thinks media agencies, in comparison to creative agencies, are more prone to create such a role. It comes in handy in identifying a single person to handle everything from file transfers to hiring talent, so senior account supervisors can devote time to the client and get up to speed on the new piece of business, he said.

"Because it's right at the onset of a relationship, if something like a transition goes poorly, it could be a sign of things to come -- and could scare a new client in terms of their relationship with their new agency," said McGarryBowen's Mr. Cooke. "You've sold them, but now this is the first impression they are getting of day-to-day reality of working with one another and if you don't get it exactly right, you put that business at risk."

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