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How Brendan Ryan Got His Groove Back

The CEO of advertising giant FCB Worldwide tells how his company bounced back after a huge client defected. Learn why he salutes smart memos and a stringent no-jerks policy.

Even now, almost half a year later, J. Brendan Ryan looks as if he might spontaneously combust when he thinks about November 3, 2000. His lanky frame tensing, his dark eyebrows twitching, he says that it’s hard to remember a worse day in his professional life. “I’m trying to think of one,” he fumes. “You have no idea how upsetting this was.”

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On that day in November, Ryan, the CEO of ad agency FCB Worldwide, got the news that the company’s marquee account, DaimlerChrysler, was being taken over by rival agency BBDO Worldwide, a unit of Omnicom Group. A 20-year relationship with the auto maker was over, taking with it a billion-dollar account and substantial revenues (the Chrysler business constituted 9% of sales made by FCB’s parent company, True North Communications). The event was the single most dramatic account loss in the history of advertising — and it had happened on Ryan’s watch.

No matter that it was more about cost cutting than creativity. Chrysler had asked both agencies — who had shared the business, with BBDO doing mostly Dodge advertising and FCB doing Chrysler and Jeep — to come up with a pitch explaining why they should be the one left standing. The issue, Chrysler said, was cost. Both agencies pulled out all stops to keep control of the business. But Ryan, a tough-talking New Yorker, says that FCB’s pitch also addressed things that Chrysler could do on its end. “FCB indicated that we did not think it was wise to consolidate the business. We thought that the client was better served by two agencies,” says Ryan.

Wrong answer? Apparently. Chrysler decided to give the business to BBDO, and Ryan had to pick up the pieces. He still smarts when talking about it. “Fundamentally, the business was purchased,” he says. “And that’s allowed. But what just truly pisses me off is when people suggest that we lost the account. We did not lose the account. We did a superb job on that account by any measure, and the client chose to go with a holding company that frankly, was making financial decisions that, even today, I’m not sure were terribly good. So there we were.”

There they were. In the soup. Yet what is amazing about the setback is what didn’t happen. Ryan didn’t sink into a defeatist mode, nor did his troops. Clients didn’t defect. In fact, FCB rallied to land two major accounts at the end of the year, a continuing consolidation of much of Kraft’s global business and a comparable consolidation of Samsung’s global business — which together brought in some $500 million in billings. And with a string of victories in the months beforehand — Compaq, Taco Bell, Boeing, Avaya Communications, and Kraft’s crown jewel, Jell-O — FCB was able to end 2000 up rather than down.

How did Ryan, a career ad guy who got started working the Stove Top Stuffing account at General Foods, keep it together? Start with the memo, an inspired bit of writing that managed to set just the right tone. Ryan uses global staff memos as a way to motivate the company, but to call those compositions simply “memos” vastly undersells their passion. Dictated into Ryan’s omnipresent tape recorder (he says that he can’t write fast enough), they are much more. This memo was a call to action.

Dated the Monday after the news came out (Ryan says that he had to calm down first), the memo was equal parts sad, profane, and fighting proud. “The first thing to say is that I am personally terribly disappointed in this decision. That’s an understatement,” he says, before launching into a spirited defense of the Chrysler team. “Having been in the room, that damn pitch was superb. We didn’t lose the pitch!”

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Ryan then moved from venting to motivating. He discussed the wins so far that year, as a way of reminding the group that there was still a lot of progress to be made. “Now what about FCB going forward? Does this mean we should all hang our heads, fold our tent, and start holding out tin cups? Shit no! We have a client list that’s second to none. And we’ve just added a whole slew of excellent new ones.”

Ryan says that the point wasn’t just to soothe egos — the point was also about being honest about the magnitude of the problem. “There’s a fine line in writing those memos. Some companies say, ‘Oh well, it wasn’t our fault. We did everything perfect. And, oh, it doesn’t matter anyway. We’re just fine.’ Bullshit. People are not that stupid. If they hear those things, they’ll say that you’re idiots. You’ve got to fess up that a setback was a kick in the chops. But at the same time, you can’t accept that the setback happened because your team is a bunch of blockheads.”

Ryan’s memo was a big hit, generating 10 times the usual number of responses from staffers. But it wasn’t only about morale: Ryan and David Bell, chairman and CEO of parent company True North, had to take calls from existing clients worried about whether the Chrysler situation boded poorly for them. “Losing a high-profile account has the potential to plant doubt in the minds of other clients, both existing ones and those in the process of choosing whether to work with you,” he says. For the Samsung pitch, in fact, FCB had used Chrysler as a case study of what the agency could do. Now what?

Ryan had no choice but to be honest about the problem, while at the same time explaining how it might work to the client’s benefit. “Samsung asked about Chrysler, and we explained the decision-making process that had happened,” says Ryan. “In fact, in some curious way, we turned lemons into lemonade by pointing out that we have infrastructure in a lot of countries around the world” — with resources that could get started immediately. “That information,” he says, “blunted the issue.” On December 7, a little more than a month after the dismal event in November, FCB won the Samsung business.

Finally, according to Ryan, the resiliency of FCB’s employees — a skill that he thinks is critical in this business — helped the company move forward. FCB people need to be two things: terrific at what they do and not “shitheads.” That’s exactly the way Ryan expresses it all over the world: “Don’t be a shithead. That phrase translates really great everywhere. As much as I am wearing a black shirt today, there are too many people in our industry who are endlessly clad in black, who think big thoughts and haven’t touched Earth in five years. That’s not what you need. You need people you want to be with. Who get it. Who work hard. Who can have a good laugh and be resilient.”

That resiliency is coming into play again today. Even though FCB closed what should have been a disastrous year up 11% in billings, in March, True North announced that it was merging with the Interpublic Group of Companies Inc. — a $2.1 billion deal to form the largest advertising and marketing communications firm in the world. FCB will remain an independent group within Interpublic, and Ryan is staying on as its CEO. Although the Chrysler decision certainly sped things along, the deal was probably inevitable, says Ryan, who had been stymied in previous deal discussions by the Chrysler business itself (it created a conflict of interest with all the other major agencies, each of which had a different car account). Ryan wrote a memo for the decision to merge too, but this one, he says, was a lot easier. “It’s been really enthusiastically accepted,” he says. But that doesn’t make the pain of the Chrysler incident go away. “It’s still a bad taste in my mouth.”

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Contact Brendan Ryan via email (bryan@fcb.com).