Stringham Returns to Young & Rubicam Brands With Media on His Mind

Q&A: New CEO Looks to Streamline Planning, Creative Within Company's Holdings

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NEW YORK ( -- A lot has changed since Peter Stringham left Y&R North America six years ago. When the former CEO decamped in late 2000 to join HSBC as chief global marketer in London, Y&R was independent and regarded as a powerhouse. Today the ad agency needs revitalization, and Young & Rubicam Brands -- parent of Y&R, Burson-Marsteller, Mediaedge:cia, Landor and Wunderman -- lacks a visionary leader to position it for success in a fast-changing industry.
Peter Stringham, CEO of Young & Rubicam Brands
Peter Stringham, CEO of Young & Rubicam Brands

That will be the job of Mr. Stringham, the 57-year-old CEO of Young & Rubicam Brands, who explains why he's opted to return and offers Ad Age reporter Lisa Sanders his take on media, advertising's future and other hot industry issues.

Advertising Age: Young & Rubicam's gotten more negative press than positive in recent years, and its issues in North America, particularly at Y&R, are well-documented. What's more, WPP CEO Martin Sorrell has a reputation as being a tough boss. Why take this job? What do you see as Young & Rubicam's strengths? What are its weaknesses?

Mr. Stringham: Young & Rubicam Brands has had its troubles, but it has really come back along way already. Wunderman, not long after I left in 2000, had a hard time because they tried to move too quickly and forgot to mind their knitting. They threw away a big part of their legacy, moving away from direct mail into consulting and changing their name. Now they're back on track. You've got to give [Wunderman Chairman-CEO] Daniel Morel a big vote. He's done a great job.

Burson-Marsteller went through a rough patch but now has had successive quarters of growth. Even the ad agency is actually in better shape than it was. Hamish [McLennan, CEO of Y&R] has done a good job. You have to give Ann Fudge [former CEO of Young & Rubicam Brands and Y&R] some credit; Y&R is in better shape than it has been. Still, I'm not going to pretend it is all perfect. I love a challenge. That's part of the reason to do it.

AA: And Mr. Sorrell?

Mr. Stringham: In terms of Martin, while I've heard the stories of him as a tough boss, I've not seen it personally. My relationship with him has been as a client, true -- maybe he's nicer to clients [laughs]. I'm very good friends with many people at other WPP companies -- Steve Hayden and others from Ogilvy and, of course, many people at JWT, MindShare and RMG. They all say the same thing: He's very focused on detail. He's very determined. He drives hard. On the other hand, they say he's incredibly fair, straightforward and honest. I like all those things -- forthrightness, honesty, driving hard. I don't think we'll have a problem. We might have differences of opinion, but that's to be expected.

AA: In 1991, you ran Baker Lovick in Toronto, and a Canadian newspaper credited you with reinvigorating the agency by, among other things, "adopting a British approach to designing advertising that packs more punch" and hiring an account planner -- an innovative move back then. What are the major transformative trends in the business now?

Mr. Stringham: The whole issue of media being central to everything. One of the things I did shortly after we won [Ad Age's] International Agency of the Year in Canada was to merge Baker Lovick/ BBDO with McKim Advertising. As a result, we wound up with a freestanding media agency, McKim Media, so BBDO Canada was essentially the first big agency in North America to take media outside. It was very successful.

The question now, though, becomes the need to keep media closer to the creative process. I think that's part of the current model we need to question. We found at HSBC that trying to figure out where media planning for online should be handled is really, really tough. What happened was we simply had to find the best talent in different places in different markets. In some places it was MindShare; in others, it was RMG or JWT. Media and channel planning is evolving so rapidly, it is just not clear-cut. There's a lack of consistency and a lack of communication in the debate about who should own it. At Young & Rubicam we have to be very sure we are working closely with Mediaedge while ensuring they maintain their independence.

AA: In recent years, some in the industry have argued there is no real need for an entity called Young & Rubicam Brands. Since 2000, several of the executives at the helm of Young & Rubicam Brands have also been CEO of Y&R, the advertising network. Why have the "Brands" entity, and why split the roles between two executives, Hamish McLennan for Y&R and you at Young & Rubicam Brands?

Mr. Stringham: What we haven't done as well as we should have done in the last few years is to operate as one group of companies. Back in the days of [former Young & Rubicam chiefs] Ed Ney and Peter Georgescu, there was a strong person running each of the companies, and then a chairman. Over the last few years, a number of predecessors have tried to lead both brands and advertising. I think that's hard to do, and, especially in this day and age, that's not really the way to do it. Clients want neutrality, and part of my job is to get the group of companies to work together toward clients' real needs.

AA: You've said that to succeed, one's got to be ruthless in focusing on the issues. What are your top three priorities for the coming year?

Mr. Stringham: I've got two overriding issues: One, how do I bring together this group of companies in such a way as to maximize all of them? The difficult part there, for any parent company, is there are times that they have to go to market alone, sometimes in smaller partnerships, and at times altogether when clients ask for the whole offering.

Why have a Young & Rubicam Brands when we've also got a holding company in WPP? There are hundreds of companies under WPP's umbrella, and only a few clients want them all. At HSBC, though we asked for a holding-company pitch, what we were looking for, and what Martin made us, was a very particular offering of specific resources. Working with that, we found that though we had good talent, the issue was to ensure people maximized the relationships.

Similarly, it is up to us to teach everyone at Young & Rubicam Brands what the power of working together is and how to do it, how to recognize opportunities for the client. Do the account executives at the ad agency know when to pull in Wunderman or Burson? Does Wunderman know when to call in the ad agency? It doesn't happen enough, or with enough consistency.

Second: Are we strong enough across the board in every company in digital? The answer is no, because no one is. The single biggest problem is just finding the right people. I don't think the future will be in freestanding digital agencies that do everything separate from advertising, PR and the other disciplines. I don't think the answer is to have a separate digital agency in a group of companies. Each company has to learn to work in this space. Burson has developed a tremendous understanding of the world of blogging. Wunderman has both grown and acquired strengths. But we've got to accelerate our growth in every Y&R Brands company.

AA: What is your position on the question of media: Should it be inside the agency or separated from it? Why?

Mr. Stringham: Media companies should remain separate from creative agencies for a number of reasons. They are so big now, so powerful on their own. How you would unravel them, I don't know -- it'd be difficult. More importantly, clients gain the advantage that big media institutions can bring to bear. Then, looking at how big Google is already, having some clout in the online space as well as traditional media is not a bad idea. But I want the media-planning exercise to be really tightened up among our companies. One of the best solutions is to make sure people are physically close enough to ensure that they meet together regularly. How media planning evolves will be interesting to watch. Will we end up having people in creative agencies who are creative channel planners, or will those people be in the media agencies?
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