Wednesday, July 27

The Ad. Agency "Godfathers"


In an interesting article in HN, Martin Charvát of Konektor discusses a favourite hypothesis of mine, that Czechs are less 'confrontational' than other Europeans - specifically compared with British people, but also compared with Poles. Broadly he concludes that the Czechs work most effectively together by consensus, and that this is a positive thing. Generally I agree; consensus is a better way in a mature society, and in a well balanced company which wishes to flourish after its current CEO has departed.

To support his theory, Martin looked at the two acknowledged 'godfathers' of Czech advertising, Josef Havelka (ex Leo Burnett), and Marek Šebesťák (ex MARK/BBDO). Martin worked for both, so he's in an ideal position to compare their styles. Broadly he concludes that Marek Šebesťák was far more of a "consensus" leader than Josef Havelka, so after their respective departures, BBDO has continued to flourish, whereas Leo Burnett has faded almost to nothing.

I think this is a fascinating conclusion, but it warrants further examination from a number of angles. Firstly the facts. Martin's assessment of a 'top agency' is based, quite reasonably on the amount of high quality campaigns the agency puts out. He does not consider the agencies as businesses. Of course it is not easy to consider this, since international agencies hide behind the Sarbannes-Oxley Act to avoid publishing their earnings. However we know that in the 90s LBA and MARK dominated the creative awards and also were both in the top three of rankings by revenue (while these were still available). The question is who would be in the top three by revenue now? It is in fact unlikely that MARK would be there. Their headcount now (as reported to the magazines) is under 40. Both Euro RSCG and Y&R are clearly much bigger. Ogilvy is too, but it continues to have two 'separate" creative agencies in its group. MARK is by headcount in a second group which includes McCann and TBWA.

The question then arises, are the styles of Gilles Berouard (Euro RSCG) and Petr Havlíček  (Y&R) closer to those of Josef Havelka or of Marek Šebesťák? I don't think I'm the right person to answer that. But the question reminds us that the personality and style of the CEO of an agency defines the character and operating style of the entire agency. Whoever heard of a successful agency with an anonymous CEO?

All of these CEOs share personal characteristics with their counterparts around the world: charisma, courage, energy, optimism; and "showmanship" - a keen sense of theatre. This last attribute was extensively used by both Havelka and Šebesťák in the early years. Josef Havelka successfully presented himself as a returning emigre with vast experience from the West. Only much later did he reveal that he only had two years' experience in advertising before he joined Leo Burnett. Marek Šebesťák meanwhile portrayed himself as a gangster. The first time I met him, in 1993, he burst into a room full of other agency leaders with his sidekick Pavel Kubíček, and just stood glaring at us for a few seconds, without even saying "dobry den", as if trying to intimidate us. By around 1997 he had presumably realised that the Czech Republic was not the Balkans, and dropped this act, in favour of a new one, the "accidental agency director". I have never really found out who the real Marek Šebesťák is, but clearly, he wasn't a gangster. The Mafia does not, as far as I know, operate on a 'consensus' model.

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