Jail for Shona? How a star fell

By Published on .

Shona Seifert's precipitous plunge from grace is all but complete: The one-time industry star, her reputation already in tatters, now faces the very real prospect of time behind bars.

Ms. Seifert and Thomas Early, both former Ogilvy & Mather executives, were found guilty of conspiring to defraud the government on its Office of National Drug Control Policy account. Ms. Seifert and Mr. Early, who both plan to appeal the verdict, face up to five years in prison. A sentencing hearing is scheduled for May 16.

Her fate at her current employer, the New York office of TBWA/Chiat/Day, where she has been president since leaving Ogilvy in 2002, has not yet been settled. The conviction and the two-week trial in which she testified in her own defense leave an otherwise gleaming resume with a black mark that may be impossible to erase.

"Right now, she's guilty until proven innocent," said Tom Rosenwald, a partner at executive recruiting firm Ray & Berndtson. "Her references will have to be of the highest quality for her to continue her career."

In Ms. Seifert's case, the stinging irony is that she was undone by the very account that exploded her profile in the industry. Prior to the ONDCP account, the Surrey, England-born Ms. Seifert enjoyed a fast-moving, globe-trotting career at the WPP Group-owned Ogilvy, including tours in London and Singapore after starting her professional resume at Nestle in Germany.

In 1998, while working in Ogilvy's New York office as executive group director, she was a key player in the pitch for the ONDCP business, largely a media buying and planning account that, while not terribly profitable, was high-profile, had a $150 million a year media budget, and came with a good cause. By all accounts, she threw herself into the business, working 18-hour days and demanding the same of her staff. This helped consolidate her growing importance in the venerable ad agency's flagship office and made her a favorite of its president, Bill Gray.

But it's that same dedication that might have led her to get tangled up in the contractual thicket of the ONDCP account, a massive government account that by the summer of 1999 was causing major headaches for Ogilvy. During the trial, federal prosecutors argued that the account was projecting a $3 million revenue shortfall. Several former Ogilvy media staffers testified that Ms. Seifert and Mr. Early directed them to inflate the number of hours worked on the account or to revise already-submitted time sheets so the agency could bill for more labor costs in the hope of making up for that shortfall.

"She took incredible pride in running her businesses well and profitably," said a former colleague of Ms. Seifert's at Ogilvy. "I can see her taking on the challenge that making sure ONDCP paid for all the time that was worked. That was probably stupid knowing how strict the government is, but I very much doubt her thinking was that they'd fraudulently invent hours that never existed."

on leave

Now, as she awaits her sentencing, Ms. Seifert remains on leave from TBWA and it's unlikely she'll return to the agency. At TBWA, Ms. Seifert was responsible for helping to bring in the New York office's biggest account, Nextel, but her tenure there has also been marked by some controversy. Executives close to the agency say Ms. Seifert forced a great deal of turnover upon arriving, including moving aside staffers with seniority.

Last summer, Brett Gosper, an executive at Interpublic Group of Cos' McCann Erickson, was brought in as president of TBWA's New York Group and assigned a broader set of responsibilities that include a direct report to Worldwide President-CEO Jean-Marie Dru. In the agency's hierarchy, Ms. Seifert reports to Mr. Gosper

A TBWA spokesman declined to comment. Ms. Seifert declined to comment. Her attorneys did not respond to interview requests.

When Ms. Seifert left Ogilvy, she received a plaque from Alan Levitt, a media director for the White House's anti-drug ad account and one of her most important clients. Attached to the memento, whose script commemorated Ms. Seifert's hard work on the landmark social-marketing program, was a piece of coral. At the time, the coral was meant to symbolize the vicious political ecosystem of which she was a part while working on the controversial account. "Alan used to say we were like fish swimming in a coral reef and there were sharks all around," she testified during her criminal trial.

Looking back, that simple token seems foreboding.

Most Popular
In this article: