Mitchell eschews soft, fuzzy for solid research at Ogilvy

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You can bet that the planners working under Colin Mitchell at Ogilvy & Mather, New York, will be doing any number of activities for clients, from running focus groups to analyzing survey data to talking about business challenges. But one thing they will not be doing for the new chief strategic officer is trying to figure out whether IBM is more like a rose or a daffodil.

"When I look around the planning community, it's veered into a very soft, fluffy area," the recently promoted Mr. Mitchell said. "A disproportionate amount of planning time is spent speculating if the brand were a flower then what kind of flower would it be. Not enough is spent on things like thinking through the client's business problem or how the cultural context impacts the brand."

Although Mr. Mitchell has inherited one of the more vaunted planning outfits in the industry, with often-lauded work for clients like BP and Cisco as well as Big Blue, he's clear about what he wants to achieve. He wants to make WPP Group's Ogilvy the leader in a planning philosophy that's oriented around thickly detailed research and a real understanding of the client's business in an environment where, as he puts it, "too many planners now rely on a few focus groups and an article they'd read in the Sunday style section as the basis for their insight."

shoes to fill

Besides that lofty ambition, Mr. Mitchell has big shoes to fill. He replaces Tony Wright, who left more than two months ago to turn around Interpublic Group of Cos' Lowe Worldwide as its president-CEO.

Mr. Mitchell, a five-year veteran of the agency, will oversee a reshaped planning offering that has rolled up within the department several disparate consumer research planning groups and consultancies. The unit, now known as the Ogilvy Planning Syndicate, encompasses the Discovery Group, which takes an ethnographic and anthropological approach to consumer behavior, and the trendspotting group Crystal, as well as demographics, analytics and research experts. These groups, which have been added to the agency in recent years, provide research that determines marketing strategies and the shapes of media plans and creative.

"We're trying to build from having specialists to having units we can deploy to have almost consultancy-like engagements rather than just meet particular moments of truth in the life of a brand," he said.

Mr. Mitchell, who was born in Scotland, began his career at BMP DDB, London, often described as the birthplace of planning and an agency where research was at the center of operations. Nine years ago, he came to the United States to work at Angotti, Thomas, Hedge. After a short stint, he went to Cliff Freeman & Partners, then at the height of its creative renown.

He joined Ogilvy in 1999 and, working with Mr. Wright, he helped to bring more specialists into the planning department. Mr. Mitchell also carved out a reputation as a methodical researcher capable of disappearing for long stretches to work on a problem only to reappear with a versatile solution.

"There are some planners who have an interesting idea, then they're happy to walk away from it. They think the job is done," Mr. Wright said. "The thing that marks Colin out is that he likes to figure out exactly how the idea is going to work with all the brands in the client's stable."

Mr. Mitchell, described by Mr. Wright as a "taciturn Scot," fesses up to being obsessed by the idea of order. "Part of what I love about planning is looking at the world through these lenses of demographic analysis, for example, and seeing order in chaos. You look out your window in Manhattan and see this thronging mass of people, it seems like chaos. If you study the demographics, you see the shifting patterns."

Just Asking

Q: What was your first job like?

A: "For my first six years in advertising, I spent most of it on a train to places like Manchester and Birmingham and Glasgow, all these industrial towns. We'd go up there with ads and conduct focus groups in people's front rooms. They'd be recruited by housewives who would bring these women into the front rooms. You got to live with them in a very real sense."

Q: How hard did you work at Cliff Freeman?

A: "Some days it felt like a boot camp, some days it felt like a circus. They were very serious about comedy. They worked incredibly hard at it."

Q: Did you grow up in a typical Scottish town?

A: Put it this way, the town of Stirling boasts a castle and mist.

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