You could imagine how such a quote might rattle Omnicom bigs
and, during my reporting, I found no one within the holding company
who disputed that. (An Omnicom spokeswoman declined to comment for
this story, citing the corporate policy against talking about
personnel matters and litigation.)
But Ms. Arnell said that Peter, done with managing the
day-to-day affairs of the agency, left on his own and installed
her, then its chief strategy officer, as his successor. That this
doesn't jibe with Mr. Arnell's own legal complaint, in which he
refers to his own termination, is chalked up by Ms. Arnell to his
legal strategy. "It's pretty obvious to me that somewhere between
his decision to leave and his exit something didn't go right," said
His lawsuit was filed in early February in New York state court.
Basically, it claims Omnicom has been holding on to a number of his
valuables, some of which were paid for as business expenses. These
include, as the complaint states: "rare, unique, one-of-a-kind
signed artist's volumes, volumes of important works of
architecture, [his] personal creative portfolios."
In a conference room with a pedestrian view, Ms. Arnell told me
she views Arnell Group itself as a client. One of her first
undertakings as CEO was a redo of the company logo, switching
typefaces from helvetica to trade gothic. Much more important, the
agency is scrambling to find itself a new positioning and raison
d'etre post-Peter. Probably the central decision was to ditch any
pretense of being a design shop and focus wholly on advertising and
brand strategy, Ms. Arnell's charge over the years.
Product design, on the other hand, was Peter's ambition. By
2008, when he was named acting chief innovation officer at
Chrysler, then a major Omnicom client, he'd designed Pepsi cans and
bottles and fire extinguishers for Home Depot, earning plaudits
around the industry. Returning to Chrysler, where an ad starring
Celine Dion had previously gotten him fired, offered him redemption
and a much bigger stage as a designer, not to mention the chance to
help the struggling automaker at a crucial part in its history.
Back then he told me, "This is a line in the sand where I take my
rightful place as an industrial designer. We've had the integrated
model from the beginning, but it's always been living in this high
state of disbelief. When we talked about Pepsi and about Home
Depot, no one believed it."
As quotes from businesspeople go, it is striking for its blend
of braggadocio and insecurity. And that is very Peter Arnell. He
was a master of self-mythology, by turns brilliant and
Ms. Arnell couldn't have been more different, rarely warranting
public attention until she became CEO. She joined the agency in
1988, the year she married Peter. The two met when he was doing
some work for Tina Brown's Vanity Fair, where she was an associate
editor. Six months later they were married. And four months after
that, Ms. Arnell was pregnant with her first of three children. She
eventually began freelancing for Arnell Group, working on the Donna
Karan account that got the agency much of its early fanfare.
Ms. Arnell, who has a geology degree from Skidmore College,
describes herself as "writer at heart." She was recently accepted
into Sarah Lawrence College's graduate creative writing program and
said she's considering the offer. Besides writing, she views her
strength as brand strategy, which is what the agency will focus
Ms. Arnell won raves from Charles Gibb, president of Belvedere,
who plans to stay the course. "We're delighted with their strategic
thinking, and we have no intention of leaving. Peter was an
important part, but the team is very strong." Mr. Gibb gave an
Arnell-created campaign that broke last spring some credit for the
brand's double-digit sales growth, especially over the past six
months. That focus on brand strategy and content is exciting to the
senior management team below Ms. Arnell. When I visited the office,
she left the room to chat with five of her top deputies for about
an hour. A composite view of their attitudes looks like this: On
the plus side, the agency has a well-known brand with good case
studies in packaging, design and advertising. Mr. Arnell's
departure offers the opportunity for the people who have done the
day-to-day work over the years to step up and gain some attention.
The agency is, moreover, structured to be integrated, without silos
between departments, something that many marketers like. (At one
point, Ms. Arnell told me, laughing, "I take credit for completely
creating the notion of 360. For years, you've heard all this buzz.
We've always done it. We were one of the original integrated
agencies." This was perhaps the only time she channeled her
There's also a sense that the extreme ambitiousness of the
Arnell project might have sometimes been a distraction.
"We're about storytelling," said Executive Creative
Director-Senior VP Michael Norton. "When you start with product
development there's not always a story. We're still going to do
innovation and that might have to do with a new product, but we're
not saying we're going make the product for you."
Chief among chores for the agency is finding a way to attract
marketers without Mr. Arnell's charms. "That's our biggest
challenge," said Bill Visone, CFO and exec VP. "The business came
in through Peter's relationships. But the story of the Arnell brand
and his legacy is that there's more to it than Peter's
relationships and his contacts. The pipeline is getting better.
We're hearing a lot from old clients."
The new growth approach means that Arnell will have to pitch
competitively for new business, something it hasn't done much of
historically. When it has, however, it's had some success, as with
Belvedere. With that comes the pressure to reach out to the
consultants who run so many agency reviews. Typically, the agency
hadn't bothered much with them. Mr. Norton, who's helping to lead
the new-business effort, said he recently called one who said,
"Really? You want to talk to us now?"
Ms. Arnell and company better hope they listen because you can't
imagine the agency's corporate masters will let things go on very
long if no business comes in, especially given the vote of
no-confidence from GNC. When I asked Ms. Arnell how long she
expected to have to pull off this turnaround, she said she thinks
she has about two years. Others familiar with how Omnicom works
said it might be the sort of thing that's evaluated on a quarterly
basis, but that a full righting of the ship won't be expected
overnight. Said one executive familiar with the matter, "They'll be
looking for some evidence of progress."
If a humbled approach counts as evidence, consider at least some