By David Todd
"Just because you're big doesn't mean you have to be dull." Ask Darcia Joseph to sum up the management philosophy she applies as president and chief operating officer of Toronto-based Young & Rubicam, and that's the reply you'll very likely get.
With approximately 200 employees and billings of $40 million, Y&R certainly fits the definition of "big." As for "dull" . . . well, not if Joseph has anything to say about it. Her formula? Create the right atmosphere, for a start. ("One thing I've repeated over and over is that I expect to hear noise - music, people yelling up and down the hallways. This should be a fun business.") Avoid hierarchy. And, above all, encourage risk-taking. "I want people to know that they have endorsement to fail," Joseph says. "I'd hate to work in an organization where people didn't feel they could take chances. So we reward people when they stray from the traditional path." The results of Strategy's Agency of the Year competition suggest there's some merit in this approach. Y&R finished third in this year's judging - not bad for an agency that has never ranked in the top five before, and that hasn't even made the shortlist since 1993. Previously vice-president of marketing with The Globe and Mail, Joseph joined Y&R as managing director and COO in February. She assumed the top post in June, when her predecessor, Howard Breen, was appointed president and CEO of Y&R Chicago. Joseph says she had the good fortune to take over an organization that was already shipshape, thanks largely to Breen's efforts. If the agency had a weak spot prior to his arrival in 1996, it was a perception that the creative product had grown lacklustre. As the Canadian arm of a major multinational, Y&R had the reputation of a sleepy - some might say "dull" - operation that handled a large volume of U.S. pickup. Breen's mission was to galvanize the entire agency around the notion of delivering outstanding, award-winning work. "We all understand that awards aren't the ultimate measure of an agency's success," Joseph says. "But they're what attracts creative talent to an agency. They're also a great morale booster internally. And, because they get noticed outside the agency community, they help to attract new clients." One of the keys to the agency's creative resurgence was the decision to appoint co-creative directors, in the persons of David Adams and John Farquhar. This kind of tag-team approach has gained increasing currency in the agency business of late - and with good reason, Joseph says. When the chemistry is right, the combination of two different minds and two different skill sets can lead to superior creative output. "One reason it works so beautifully with John and David is that they couldn't be more different personalities," she says. "They bring out the best in each other. And they always act in a unified way. If there's a point of disagreement, they work it out behind closed doors." To give Adams and Farquhar more freedom to focus on the creative product, Joseph adds, many of the day-to-day managerial and administrative functions of the creative director position have been assigned elsewhere in the department. "John and David really work with their teams as hands-on developers of the product." The consistency of Y&R's current creative output is particularly impressive when one considers some of the accounts on its roster: Ford Motor Company of Canada, Kraft Canada, AGF Management, AT&T Canada, H&R Block and RadioShack. "A lot of people would look at this list and say these are hard clients to do breakthrough work for," Joseph says. "They're big, they're blue-chip, they have lots of layers of management. They're not slam-dunk clients who can be sold on anything." While all this may be true, many of these clients have in fact proven more open-minded than one might assume. Who would have thought, for example, that a mutual funds provider like AGF would ever choose to run a quirky, lighthearted campaign featuring the likes of Spiderman and Gumby as retirees? "Sometimes there's a built-in bias within an agency," Joseph says. "People say, 'Oh, that client would never buy good work.' Of course they would. Our clients are smart people, and they can learn to trust." With the agency's core business running smoothly, Joseph has been able to devote attention to some longer-term projects. In addition to stepping up its interactive marketing activities, Y&R hopes to expand its ability to offer clients "integrated" solutions. That, she says, means erasing some of the boundaries between disciplines, and pulling together the offerings of its sister companies, such as direct marketing agency Wunderman Cato Johnson and public relations firm Cohn & Wolfe. As for the year ahead, Joseph says the plan is to stay the course - and to guard against complacency. "Once you've reached a point where you're proud of the work, it's easy to get lazy," she says. "So it's a matter of diligence. The executive team's responsibility is to make sure that people are constantly motivated and challenged. I don't see any evidence that we're sitting back, though. We're not easily satisfied."
AGF Mutual Funds
Ford Motor Company of Canada