It was early on a sunny Tuesday morning in Palm Springs, California, the mercury already climbing towards a daytime high of 36C, when DDB Canada chairman and CEO Frank Palmer received a call at his vacation home.
On the line was DDB Canada’s president and COO David Leonard, who informed Palmer he was leaving the agency he has led since 2010 for an undisclosed role. That role would turn out to be CEO of MacLaren McCann Canada.
Now, Palmer has something of a reputation within DDB as a practical joker. One of his favourite tricks, he says, is to call a senior manager and say “Have you heard the news, so and so is leaving. Give me a call?” only to be completely unreachable.
His first thought was Leonard’s call must be payback of some kind, but April Fool’s Day was still hours away and the man on the other end of the line was completely serious.
“I was somewhat surprised,” Palmer told Marketing, in the midst of a whirlwind 24-hours that saw him announce Leonard’s successor before getting on the phone with clients to inform them of the change in leadership.
“I haven’t been off the phone since 6 a.m.,” he says, still sounding chipper. “It’s been a good, productive day so far.”
Shortly after MacLaren McCann confirmed its new executive hire, DDB Canada announced that Lance Saunders, most recently executive vice-president, managing director of its Vancouver office, would succeed Leonard, enacting a succession plan Palmer first drew up about six months ago.
“I always try to have a succession plan in place, because with all the changes that are taking place today you never know [when you might need it]. We’re living in a very turbulent time, with agencies trying to get more strength at the top end.
“It’s a business that’s undergoing a lot of stress these days with everybody playing jump ball for assignments, and procurement and all that stuff.”
Palmer described Saunders as a leader capable of extracting the most from employees, while noting he has been instrumental in wooing new DDB Vancouver clients including Nordstrom, Netflix and Capital One.
“The word I would use for Lance is ‘genuine,’ ” said Palmer, who said an announcement on Saunders’ successor in DDB’s Vancouver office would come “very quickly,” possibly in a matter of a few days.
MacLaren McCann’s turnaround plan
Luca Lindner, president of McCann Worldgroup in New York, said it was outgoing MacLaren McCann Canada CEO Doug Turney who initiated talks about stepping down from the agency he has led since 2009.
That was about 18 months ago, though the search didn’t begin in earnest until late last year.
It was quickly narrowed down to two or three viable candidates who possessed the required characteristics: Experience and knowledge of a wide variety of marketing disciplines; someone willing to put creativity at the heart of their business plan; and a proven record in new business.
“We believe we found all of them in David,” said Lindner, who pointed to Leonard’s cultural fit with McCann as the deciding factor in his hire. “He’s about clients, he’s pragmatic, he’s a winner and he represents everything we represent.
“It was perfect to put someone with a similar set of values at the centre of one of our largest operations.”
While MacLaren McCann is one of the network’s top five agencies by revenue, Lindner said its strengths in areas like integration, client satisfaction and capitalizing on new technology have partly been offset by two significant weaknesses: Stagnant new business growth, and a lack of risk-taking creative.
While the agency hasn’t lost any major accounts in recent months, Lindner said it has been so focused on existing clients it has underachieved on the new business front.
“It hasn’t been sufficient by our standards,” he said. “We’ve been winning new business all over the world, we just had a turnaround year in New York, so our ambition and determination to grow is strong,” he said. “The results [in Canada] were not what we were expecting [and] we know that David can do a lot about that.
“In this world, priority number one is always to take care of your current clients, but priority number two is to grow and bring new clients, new challenges and new possibilities,” he said. “We’ve been a bit flat in that sense.”
While MacLaren McCann does extensive work with global clients including General Motors and MasterCard, Lindner said the future of the network’s Canadian operations lies in becoming “very relevant” to Canadian clients.
“A lot of global clients see Canada as a very important market, but they’re not that keen to have a lot of work developed locally,” he said, noting that local clients like RBC and Wind Mobile are a key part of the agency’s future. “Frankly speaking, that’s where we see the growth.”
Leonard will also be charged with revitalizing the agency’s creative product, adding some pizzazz to a product that has been efficient but unsexy. “If today the creative reel is 80% good and 20% great, it needs to very quickly be the other way around,” said Lindner. “It’s very clear to us that we need to push the creative agenda.”
Leonard takes over the new role on April 27 and will spend his first 90 days meeting with clients and assessing the agency’s talent.
While the agency will be looking for some “low-hanging fruit” and short-term wins in the near-term, Leonard’s mandate is firmly on the future, said Lindner. Leonard will be asked to draw up a new three-year plan for the agency at the end of July.
DDB’s Palmer will likely be watching Leonard from afar. “We can only wish him the best, but not too much luck,” he said, eager to return to work on his own agency’s future plans.