Can U.S., French cooperate? Ask Euro's Bob Schmetterer

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As I write, it is Bastille Day. But on these shores there is little celebration, for the French-American relationship seems broken. But not in my heart (some of my happiest moments are spent in France). Nor in Bob Schmetterer's life.

Mr. Schmetterer since 1997 has been chairman-CEO of Euro RSCG Worldwide, the global marketing communications network, and, since last December, the president-chief operating officer of its holding company, the utterly French Havas. Running a non-U.S. company has been "a magical part of the journey" that's taken him from a small, New York-ish advertising partnership to the leadership of a multinational operating in more than six dozen countries.

By anyone's definition, his work environment is diverse. The Havas board alone, on which he serves, boasts four Americans, one Belgian, a Brit and a French chairman-CEO. I asked how he learned to manage, up and down, in such varied surroundings. "When I grew up," Mr. Schmetterer said, "the agency business was a one-man band: `I want Bill Bernbach,' `I want Carl Ally,' `I want Ed Ney.' The first thing I thought was. `This [Euro RSCG] isn't a one-man band."'

He next convened a senior leadership meeting of the 25 people he'd heard were the best in the company. It was held at the U.N. Plaza Hotel. "I thought it an appropriate place," he recalled over a recent lunch. The gathering helped establish a 100-day agenda, a concept he borrowed from U.S. presidential politics.

He has repeated the manager meeting every 100 days since, expanding it to include Euro RSCG's 100 top executives, and he began to bring in thought leaders with reputations in management, leadership and the arts to address the group. By 2001, he began to realize, through these meetings, that his company's core competency was not creative advertising; it was creative thinking. That led the management group to grapple with implementing the long-touted but still-elusive vision of integrated communication-a necessity for Euro RSCG if it is to emerge from the pack of larger "mar-com" conglomerates.

Young & Rubicam "got it right in the 1980s, with the `Whole Egg' concept," Mr. Schmetterer said. "But they didn't organize to execute it." Out of their retreats, his team designed ways to streamline its business units and to put senior managers on the same incentive plan. "Suddenly, this word `collaboration' went from a nice idea to something real." Begun in the U.S. last year and in France this year, the new structure is soon to be rolled out in the U.K. and other Euro RSCG territories.

His team's work recreating Euro RSCG led him to write the highly regarded book, "Leap: A Revolution in Creative Business Strategy." You've heard of airplane reading. Mr. Schmetterer's book is airplane writing, composed during the 38 weeks he spent traveling last year. It's also a rare book by an ad executive that's not about advertising. It's about ideation: the development and implementation of strategic concepts across a company's usually rigid boundaries.

Having incited change at the top, Mr. Schmetterer now faces the even more daunting task of sewing it into the very fabric of the company. That means persuading people to think differently about their skills. "Copywriters and art directors were taught a craft, and for years they've made their living from reels and books," he said. "You need to teach them to think about making ideas interesting."

If they can persuade Americans to return to french fries, I'm all for it.

Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is director of intellectual capital at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.

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