Burnett execs go to 'Billville' to learn from a former rival

By Published on .

As president-creative director of Fallon McElligott during the 1990s, Bill Westbrook raided Leo Burnett USA's client roster. Now he's helping Burnett rebuild it.

Mr. Westbrook-part of the Fallon team that wrenched away longtime Burnett client United Airlines-has tried his hand as a hotelier, developer, winemaker and pet-food entrepreneur in the four years since his retirement from Fallon. Now he finds himself acting as the pitch guru to his former rivals.

"It is interesting" to be working for a one-time fierce rival, acknowledged Mr. Westbrook, 60. He doesn't participate in pitches, but helps plot strategy, write presentations and coach presenters.

His secret? A knack for thinking strategically, but telling an agency's story simply, said Mark Goldstein, global chief marketing officer for Interpublic Group of Cos.' Lowe, New York. "Bill is a breathtaking presenter," said Mr. Goldstein, who was chief marketing officer at Fallon during his tenure. "He knows how to get you hooked in and paying attention."

Before leaving Fallon in April 2000, Mr. Westbrook had always been open about retiring and pursuing other interests, including running the Hope and Glory Inn, a bed and breakfast he opened 11 years ago in the small Chesapeake Bay town of Irvington, Va. -inspired by John Irving's "The Hotel New Hampshire." After his official departure, he continued working on a marketing-company concept for Fallon and its new owner, Publicis Groupe.

But life took an unexpected turn. In May 2000, his youngest son, Cabell, then 28, had heart surgery; an aneurysm was found near his heart. "After that [the consulting job] didn't seem worth it," Mr. Westbrook said.

As Cabell recuperated, he and his father started Scaredy Cats, a company that made dog biscuits shaped like freaked-out felines.

Mr. Westbrook has found plenty of other things to keep him busy in Irvington. He's a partner in a new winery. And he and a partner have started a community of 19 new houses in Irvington called Vineyard Grove.

"I'm still really a creative director," said Mr. Westbrook. "I love concepts and I love projects."

His project these days is a consultancy called No Fences that conducts presentation workshops. Mr. Westbrook and Burnett connected more than two years ago through a Burnett executive who has a home near Irvington. Burnett executives started making the pilgrimage to "Billville" to attend his workshops.

Nearly 200 Burnetters have made the trip. He wouldn't go into specifics about what he covers in his coaching, and asks his students not to repeat what they've learned.

His involvement picked up last year after Burnett hired Ben Kline as chief marketing officer. Mr. Kline, who had worked with Mr. Westbrook at Fallon, asked him to consult on new business.

isn't it ironic?

There's more than a little irony in Mr. Westbrook helping Burnett. When he joined Fallon in 1993 from the Martin Agency, his mandate was to bring in blue-chip clients. Burnett's clients seemed ripe for the picking.

"We kept hearing some of their clients were unhappy," recalled Mr. Goldstein.

In 1996, Burnett stole United Airlines and Miller Lite from Burnett. McDonald's Corp. picked Fallon over Burnett for its new (since discontinued) Arch Deluxe. Those were huge wins for Fallon (though United is the only one still at Fallon) and huge blows to morale at Burnett.

"It was a very tough time," said Cheryl Berman, top creative at Burnett and chairman of Leo Burnett North America.

And clearly Burnett hopes Mr. Westbrook can help. He notes that Ms. Berman has said, " `It's better to have him on this side of the fence than the other.' "


Name: Bill Westbrook

Age: 60

Who: Mr. Westbrook Fallon in 1993 as president-creative director. He later headed Fallon's New York office. Besides consulting for Leo Burnett USA on new business, he holds seminars, does voice-over work and runs a variety of businesses in Irvington, Va.

Battling for business: "An agency is never better than it is in new business. Everyone is brought together for common purpose, there's a goal line, there are enemies, strategies, hopes, fears, breakthroughs and finally, a great moment of performance."

Giving it up for the client: Mark Goldstein, a colleague of Mr. Westbrook's at Fallon, recalls: "He and I were in a presentation to United Airlines when one of the clients said he liked Bill's tie. In one motion, with one hand, Bill took the tie off and gave it to the guy."

Most Popular
In this article: