Player Profile: Fitzgerald is shaking up status quo at Mullen/LHC

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It pays to be nice to the guy in the mailroom.

The new head of Mullen/LHC began his agency career pushing a mail cart at BBDO Worldwide before taking top jobs at some of the country's largest agencies. President-chief operating officer of the Winston-Salem, N.C., shop since July, John Fitzgerald is shaking up agency doings and suggesting big clients make even bigger strategic shifts. Bucking the status quo comes naturally for this intense thinker whose clients have included some blue chips such as AT&T Corp. and Coca-Cola Co.

A native of Queens and Long Island, Mr. Fitzgerald entered agency life in 1971 after having spent a summer delivering mail at BBDO. "As I walked around the agency, I recognized that it was probably the most dynamic, interesting environment filled with colorful, intelligent people," he reminisced.

Now 54, with leadership at McCann-Erickson Worldwide, Saatchi & Saatchi and Ketchum USA on his resume, he is taking on a different challenge. Mullen/LHC, which had been a stand-alone shop within Interpublic Group of Cos. until being absorbed into Mullen in January, this year has parted ways with long-term clients and laid off 30 people, about 20% of its staff.

Mr. Fitzgerald said moving from McCann, now the country's No. 3 agency brand, to Mullen, the country's 31st, is no step down. "Mullen is one of the hottest, most contemporary, in-step agencies in the industry, relative to satisfying the needs of clients in today's chaotic business climate," he said.

In 1971, a B.A. in marketing from Pace University fresh in hand, he joined Ted Bates, where he spent a decade, finishing as senior VP on M&M/Mars' candy and snacks business. It was onto Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos, Boston, and then head of North American operations for Ketchum for two years and Interpublic flagship McCann-Erickson. After four years stateside, he became president-CEO of McCann's Japan office, its largest international operation.

Back in the U.S., Mr. Fitzgerald was chief operating officer of Saatchi & Saatchi for about a year until his entrepreneurial tendencies took over. It was 1996 and a heady time for dot-coms. Over the next four years, he helped found three Internet-related companies, all of which focused on customer relationship management.

In mid-July, Mr. Fitzgerald and Mullen CEO Joe Grimaldi, friends since the '70s at Bates, started talking about the vacant LHC presidency. A couple of weeks later, Mr. Fitzgerald was on the job. Mr. Grimaldi, to whom Mr. Fitzgerald reports, said his new hire is perfect to lead the agency because of his innovation, electrifying personality and deep experience.

"John is an excellent leader who has the ability to inspire people to be able to do excellent things," Mr. Grimaldi said.

At Mr. Fitzgerald's behest, Mullen/LHC by mid-August had instituted programs to make staff more pro-active in building clients' business. He also had suggested strategic shifts for one of the agency's biggest clients-one resistant to change, said Denzil Strickland, executive-VP creative director. "It was a tremendous display, not only of intelligence but of tremendous courage."

Mr. Fitzgerald's words belie the electricity he brings to clients and personnel alike, say colleagues. "He's been more than a breath of fresh air. He's been a human tornado," Mr. Strickland said. "He has tons of energy and has galvanized not only the account group but the entire agency."

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