Ogilvy Group UK's new CEO: 'I want to make the impossible possible'

Michael Forhlich, Ogilvy Group UK

The new Ogilvy Group UK chief executive Michael Frohlich talks about being a PR veteran and explains how he will be transforming the group towards a One Ogilvy integrated operating system.

The newly installed UK Group chief executive admits it’s “corny” but he really does want to “deliver the impossible.” Michael Frohlich is probably allowed more than most to be slightly sentimental about his life-long ambition to be at helm of Ogilvy UK. After all it was his first choice, when he stepped out of university. “I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do when I got out of uni, so decided to apply for a graduate trainee scheme in advertising. I applied for one job. At Ogilvy. Not only did I not get an interview, but got no response back. And now this! This is absolutely the best job in the (Ogilvy) network.”

“Michael who?”

Betting on a PR man, with little traditional advertising experience, to run WPP-owned Ogvily in the UK comes as a surprise to most industry folks. Though not widely known outside of the PR industry, Frohlich, according to sources, was seen as part of Ogilvy UK’s future by his indomitable predecessor Annette King, when she first picked him to lead the British Airways (BA) team. According to an insider, Frohlich was “marked” for a bigger role within the network. WPP won the business and King has since left to go to rival network Publicis UK. “Michael is enormously ambitious and determined,” said another advertising source. However, for most advertising folks in London, the announcement of his new role was met with “Michael who?”

“It’s true” he says, “that the mainstay of my career has been PR but that is such an old-fashioned way of looking at things. The way the world is changing what matters most is transparency, authenticity and speed of change and how best to respond to all of that. And you cannot operate in that world without a strong PR ability.” It’s not that he does not want his PR pedigree to be judged, it’s more that Frohlich feels his promotion is a reflection of his understanding of the creative process, brilliant work, talent, all of which he can put together “with agility” to help drive his clients’ businesses.

Observers point out that Frohlich’s appointment echoes the appointment of another seasoned PR man to run one of the biggest agency networks, McCann — when in 2012, Harris Diamond was appointed to the role of McCann Workgroup chief executive. Like Frohlich, Diamond came from what was once considered the downstream part of the business. Both have also dabbled in politics — Diamond is a one-time political consultant and Frohlich has served as Mikhail Gorbachev’s media advisor.

Is PR having its moment?

But with the current nervousness and uncertainty surrounding the agency world, marketing communications and PR seem to be having its moment. Last week, Omnicom Group promoted former marketer Wendy Clark to president and chief executive of DDB Worldwide. Clark, it would be fair to say, hasn’t spent time steeped within a creative agency either.

Frohlich however laughs away the notion of ‘PR having its moment’ and insists it is about reframing and changing the behaviours of how agencies operate. “PR has always been part of the marketing mix, and always has been closest to high level repetitional issues at stake. Perhaps it is only now we are recognising it as an invaluable tool. Also, my track record speaks for itself. In the communications industry, it is all about brilliant ideas and work that affect our clients’ business in a positive way, and for me that has always been the starting point.”

Mandate for change

Frohlich says he’s been given the mandate to change the UK network. Under his leadership, the UK Group will move towards the One Ogilvy model, first announced last year by Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide chief executive, John Seifert. The new operating model will bring all the different business units under one P&L.

This complex task will require all his unwavering belief in himself, says an advertising consultant.

But this integrated model is nothing new for him. He recalls how he tried to put together a future-facing business model while he was at VCCP. “Called Icon, it was a beautifully formed business with myself, Amelia Torode and Peter Grenfell. It was about bringing the robust planning of advertising with the speed & agility of PR underpinned by tech.”

His fixity of purpose and the desire to ‘do the impossible’ sounds a little less cliched when he also confirms a story that was once doing the rounds when he was at PR agency Resonate, part of the Bell Pottinger Group. In 2009, when pitching for the LighterLife account, Frohlich told the client that if he were to win the business he would get on the LighterLife Plan. He lost five stones.

He reminds me after all he was the man that built the WPP team to lead and manage media planning, strategy and buying, creative services, social media, paid search, affiliates and production for British Airways. “It is a great example of how WPP horizontality really works.”

“Ultimately,” he adds, “it’s also about the right talent, the right people, and the right skills.” Frohlich is quite bothered by how much of a challenge talent retention is in the advertising industry. So is there a solution? A consummate PR man that he is — he’s never short of the right answers. “I want talent to be able to have five careers but with one employee, i.e. Ogilvy. It means they are here for much longer, be able to move around and experience different things, are more engaged & more motivated and it’ll give our clients better experience.”

Meanwhile, what kept him awake when he was first asked to take over as Ogilvy UK? “The scale.” He explains: “I knew what I wanted to do with this business, help take it on its next journey and for it to become integrated. Knowing the business as I did, the scale of how to do it was what probably kept me up at night when I was first offered the job.”

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