Bcom3's Haupt proves it's the quiet ones you have to watch

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Roger Haupt isn't high profile, but that doesn't mean it's safe to underestimate him. It's not.

The Bcom3 Group CEO is British-born, though he's lived in the Midwest (Chicago to be precise) since the early `80s and is now a U.S. citizen (his speech tinged with only a trace of an accent).

His bio boasts he's lived on four continents and speaks three languages. As president-chief operating officer of Publicis Groupe, the role he assumes when the sale of Bcom3 to Publicis is finalized in June, it's a safe bet he'll split his time between two of those continents-shuttling between New York, Paris and Chicago. He also needs to add a fourth language to ease communications with his French counterparts.

A soft-spoken 54-year-old, with receding silver hair parted to the side and a quick, crooked smile, Haupt has long been on the fringes of the agency aristocracy. When he took over for Rick Fizdale at the helm of Leo Burnett Co. in 2000, the reaction of observers was, "Who?" Few knew. Since most assumed he was there only to calculate an exit strategy for a dinosaur agency, they didn't bother to research the answer.

A few weeks ago, I asked one of the business' most influential players if I was right to be impressed by Haupt. His reply: "I have no idea. I've never met the man."

The sale of Bcom3 to Publicis and the alliance with Japanese ad giant Dentsu, all engineered by Haupt, formed the fourth and final continent of the reconfigured agency world. As Haupt becomes the No. 2 at No. 4, he has the opportunity to finally take a seat at the head table. But he seems just as likely to disappear in the shadow of his dashing, spotlight-loving boss-to-be, Maurice Levy.

"Clearly, I'm not comfortable with it," Haupt says of a public role. "I'm an inside guy; I do better one-on-one."

Haupt does his best to avoid media interviews, but he is actually quite good at informal, off-the-record chats. He comes across as bright and witty, sharing business insights and tales from the backroom, hinting at a shrewd long-term strategy even as he avoids specifics. One observer likens him to a crafty poker player.

Despite his low-key style, Haupt has had a hand in reshaping the ad business. Burnett could have dropped to has-been status; instead, it's part of a global marketing powerhouse that will rival the Big Three. Haupt's greater contribution could be the relationship he patiently forged with Dentsu-disproving the theory that Westerners can't crack the Japanese code. The Denstu alliance could give Publicis a meaningful edge over rivals if it figures out how to export Japan's cultural and technological innovations around the globe.

"There was a lot of hard work going into that" relationship, Haupt says, noting there is skepticism about doing business with the Japanese. "Could you actually get to know these people and earn their trust?" But once you do, he said, sharing an off-the-record anecdote to back up his point, there is a big return on the investment and loyalty is rewarded: "There's an awful lot we can learn."

The challenge is to translate potential into reality. Haupt knows size isn't a strategy, and says Publicis' priority will be to differentiate itself from rivals. "We are a different company with different origins and we need to think about how we put that difference to work for our clients," he said. "How do we take our diversity and line it up and make it real for our clients and our people?"

Those who still think Haupt won't come up with the answer haven't been paying attention.

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