Y&R's master strategist

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On bad days, Mike Dolan finds consolation in recalling the challenge of his tenure in the late '80s at Continental Can Co., a maker of food and beverage cans. "Nothing compares to that," said the chairman-CEO of WPP Group's Young & Rubicam, who Nov. 1 picked up the additional duties of Y&R Advertising CEO.

As corporate exec VP at the can maker, then undergoing a financial restructuring, Mr. Dolan was squeezed daily, negotiating prices between aluminum suppliers like Alcoa and such customers as Anheuser-Busch Cos. and PepsiCo. Profit margins were thin. "Just a fraction of a cent change in buying aluminum or selling cans meant the difference between profit and loss," he said.

More than a decade later, after a stint as CEO of Snack Ventures Europe, jointly owned by PepsiCo and General Mills, and serving as chief financial officer and then chief operating officer of Young & Rubicam, Mr. Dolan heads the world's No. 9 U.S.-based agency network. He faces numerous challenges, from an uncertain political climate to one of the worst years in advertising business history.

But the born-and-bred New Yorker who earned a Ph.D. in medieval literature from Cornell University said, "I love advertising. I love the clients. I love the people." So much so that he opted not to exercise a multi-million dollar exit package secured in WPP's 2000 purchase of Young & Rubicam and available to him this fall. Instead, he's negotiated a new multi-year deal to continue at the helm. Mr. Dolan, 54, is now also responsible for Y&R Advertising following last month's departure of CEO Ed Vick, 57 (AA, Oct. 22; AdAge.com QuikFIND: AAM70W).

Among clients and colleagues, Mr. Dolan is known for a strategic mind. Merrill Lynch & Co. equity analyst Lauren Rich Fine said Mr. Dolan watches well-run companies and "follows suit." Colgate-Palmolive Co. VP-Global Advertising Emilio Alvarez-Recio said: "The man understands strategy more than most people know how to spell it."

Mr. Dolan will have ample opportunity to put those strengths to use. In recent years, the agency has lost key clients; it must build business at a time when marketers are paring budgets. In 2001, Y&R lost the $80 million non-U.S. work of UAL Corp., the $80 million American Home Products' Advil account and the $20 million Adobe business. On the plus side, Y&R has won the $125 million Ford Motor Co. Jaguar account and $90 million VeriSign business.

His approach thus far is simple: 50% of his time is spent with clients. On many of Y&R's major accounts, including Colgate, AT&T Corp., Xerox Corp. and Ford, Mr. Dolan said, "I mentally think of myself as a member of the agency team."

That attitude can pay off. AT&T, for instance, recently consolidated its $125 million consumer services business with Y&R. "Mike has delivered in the past for us," said Betsy Bernard, president-CEO, AT&T Consumer Services, explaining the reason for the move.

Mr. Dolan is also focusing internally. "He has to rally the troops and keep the best people," said Linda Srere, former president of Y&R Advertising. Since Y&R's 1998 initial public offering and subsequent purchase by WPP, numerous senior executives have departed, including former CEO Tom Bell, former North American Chairman Peter Stringham and more recently Ms. Srere and Mr. Vick.

Now, Mr. Dolan, one of the few original senior executives left since the IPO, is setting expectations for current management. Said Mr. Dolan: "If it is good for me to spend 50% of my time with clients, then it is okay for the rest of our agency leaders to do so, too."

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