British invasion in agency ranks points to talent deficit in U.S.

By Published on .

The british are coming" was Colin Welland's famous rallying call as he collected his Academy Award for "Chariots of Fire" in 1981. Hugh Grant, Anthony Hopkins, Ridley Scott and Catherine Zeta-Jones aside, he was wrong about Hollywood-but not Madison Avenue.

Since David Ogilvy arrived in New York, Brits in U.S. advertising are nothing new. More recently, we've seen Chris Jones, Michael Greenlees and Michael Bungey running worldwide networks, and at the local level: Jennifer Laing, Carl Johnson and Alison Burns.

Last week, Jerry Judge became the latest British CEO to face relocation to New York when he was appointed worldwide CEO of Lowe Lintas & Partners Worldwide. Although already Lowe Lintas president, Judge's move from London is significant, along with the news that Lowe Group founder Frank Lowe will step back from the role of Lowe Lintas CEO. Judge is smart, client-focused and possibly the funniest man in world advertising. He'll need that sense of humor in New York. Love or loathe him, Frank Lowe left huge boots to fill.

Judge becomes the fourth London CEO to move to the U.S. this year-with his own network's Paul Hammersley among them. Hammersley, an excellent people-handler, will seek to emulate his own success at leading the merged London office of Lowe Lintas to "agency of the year" status. The more problem-ridden North American Lowe Lintas agency will be a huge challenge.

Judge is soon to be a Greenwich, Conn., neighbor of another new Brit in town, Andrew Robertson. The latter left the sanctity of running Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO-by far No. 1 in London-to become president-CEO of BBDO North America and assume the onerous mantle of heir apparent to BBDO Worldwide Chairman-CEO Allen Rosenshine. Robertson is associated with the ad agency holy grail of new- business success and selling outstanding creative work. Abbott Mead also embraced integration as part of the ever-burgeoning AMV group. He knows BBDO is the big agency everyone loves to love, and is all too aware that some among his own staff will have coveted his job.

Nick Brien completes the new boy lineup. The former London CEO of Leo Burnett Worldwide is now the Starcom MediaVest Group's president of U.S. corporate business development-the kind of lofty job title he'd have made fun of back home. Brien was originally a media man and set up one of the early British media independents, BBJ.

There, in those career-in-a-paragraph synopses, lies the answer to "why so many Brits?" No offense to the above, but there is a talent shortage in the U.S., the result of losing so many executives in the last recession and the drip-feed of talent to management consultants and dot-coms.

Brits are user-friendly foreigners. We speak the same language, and the CEOs have shared the same multinational clients. They also have real experience in areas where U.S. executives are relatively lacking. Planning and media independents have long been facts of U.K. advertising life, as has a media environment that has long moved beyond an overreliance on spot TV advertising.

Since David Ogilvy, however, Brits have not made it in U.S. creative departments. The demands of running a 50-plus team creative department in New York are different from those of the boutiques in London's awards-obsessed Soho, where the multiple-choice creative solution is anathema. London creative directors also lack the frequent direct exposure to clients that is the U.S. norm.

More subtle, perhaps, is the role that real consumer insight and cultural understanding play in contributing to what makes a great creative. You only absorb the DNA of a culture by being immersed in it: It's as hard for an American creative in London to really understand "Coronation Street" and "Posh and Becks" as it is for a Brit to get Martha Stewart, corn dogs and Jesse Ventura.

So still more Brits will arrive at JFK airport clutching their political correctness handbooks. Expect senior media strategists and account planners-if there are any left in London to steal. As for London's cosseted creatives, the grass is almost certainly greener over there.

Stefano Hatfield is managing director and editorial director of Ad Age Global. His column will appear every other week in this space.

Most Popular
In this article: