Itís been a crazy, sad year for Ammirati Puris. Who could have predicted that an agency seemingly on top of the world at the yearís beginning would be in such a gutted state by its end?
BY PATTI SUMMERFIELD
In fact, the work submitted for this yearís Agency of the Year competition was largely produced by people no longer with the Toronto-based agency. Six members of its senior management team and more than one-third of its staff are now gone, as are clients Sears Canada, Canada Bread, Fuji Photo Film Canada, Loblaw Companies, Franklin Templeton Investments and showcase account Labatt Breweries of Canada.
But Neil Everett, president and CEO, says the agency isnít throwing in the towel yet.
"Everybody recognizes that Jeff [Finkler] and I didnít create this mess," he says. "There were a lot of issues prior to us coming on board. Unfortunately it all came to light when we walked in the door. Weíre trying to put the finger in the dyke and settle things down."
So far Everett, former senior VP marketing at Shoppers Drug Mart, has had a pretty bumpy ride, but says there wasnít much he could do to prevent the flood of losses.
Canada Bread, he says, was already on its way out the door when he arrived. Labatt gave notice his second week on the job. Then he resigned the Sears business in mid-November after Sears had given a radio project to John Street, a Toronto agency staffed by five former members of Ammirati senior management.
Fuji and Loblaws dropped out about a month ago. Loblaws was already working with another agency when he came on the scene, says Everett, adding that Franklin Templeton, which left late last month, had served written notice of its intentions in July. Ammirati still has the media assignments for Labatt and Loblaws.
"We still have some great clients," maintained Everett at press time. "Lever, Johnson & Johnson, Clarica and Burger King, theyíre standing by us. The doors arenít shutting. IPG [Interpublic Group of Companies] is standing behind us, and there is no intention of merging us with MacLaren."
Doug Robinson, one of Ammiratiís founders and chairman and chief creative officer for most of this year, says the agency came into the year with guns blazing and heís saddened to see how it ended, especially given the creative highs the agency reached before his departure.
"All of the things we did this last year at Ammirati, weíre now starting to get some acknowledgement for. I wish I could be there to receive all those accolades with them. I look back at the last year and boy, I hope I can have another year like that. Not what happened to me in my last day, but every day before that."
But Robinson, long-time driving force behind the culture and chemistry of Ammirati, is no longer there, and heís just one of the casualties.
The massive loss of business forced Everett to lay off "less than 40" of the agencyís 89-person staff in late November. He isnít being specific about the exact number, he says, because heís still trying to salvage some of the jobs.
All of this turmoil is a far cry from Ammiratiís early days: the agency initially led a charmed existence from the moment Tom Nelson (who returned to Ammirati in New York), Dennis Stief (now CEO of Ogilvy & Mather), and Doug Robinson opened its doors in Toronto in the fall of 1993. It was no ordinary startup - it was built on the creative philosophy and reputation of Ralph Ammirati and Martin Puris, creators of the original New York agency back in the Ď70s. What was then called Ammirati & Puris launched in Canada with $10-million worth of business and two well-known brands, Compaq and United Parcel Service Canada.
A few short months later, Ammirati was handed the coveted Labatt creative assignment, estimated then to be worth another $4 million-plus in fees per year. From then on awards, new business, and talent were drawn to Ammirati Puris like moths to a flame.
Ammirati has been a contender in six Agency of the Year competitions since 1995, netting two silvers (including this yearís win) and two honourable mentions.
The cracks didnít start to show until mid-way through this year.
That was when president and COO Arthur Fleischmann and three other members of the senior management team - co-creative directors Angus Tucker and Stephen Jurisic, and director of strategic planning Emily Bain - left to lead John Street, a startup under the Envoy Communications Group umbrella. Jane Tucker SVP, director of client services, who was on maternity leave at the time, has since decamped to join them.
Fleischmann had been at Ammirati for nearly eight years and says he didnít have any intention of leaving the agency before the John Street opportunity came up. But it was an offer to have an ownership stake in an agency, and thus one he couldnít refuse. (Fleischmann, Tucker and Jurisic reportedly own 30% of the shop.)
Even though the move involved a big chunk of Ammiratiís senior management team, Fleischmann doesnít believe the exodus caused the downslide of the agency.
"The place was quite solid after we left. Doug was going a great job rallying the troops. The shop was doing Ďjust fine, thank you very muchí when the four us of moved on," he says. "The real unraveling happened when McCann decided to let Doug go."
Fleischmann calls Ammiratiís last 12 months of work some of its best ever, and says without a doubt the excellence and the growth of the agency would have continued with Robinson at the helm.
"Itís an unfortunate end to a really terrific year and a terrific run," Fleischmann says. "The last two years we all worked together, the new business track record was unbelievable. It was a pretty magical time."
Robinson understands why Fleischmann left Ammirati but says he felt betrayed when the others followed. "I had no issue with Arthur leaving but it was very tough for me to swallow the whole gang leaving. I felt like the place was completely robbed."
Heís still working on repairing the damage. "Arthur and I had no issues. We were friends. Itís been very difficult on my relationship with Arthur but, yes, we are talking and will talk more and more as time goes on."
Meanwhile, Robinson is finishing up some work for Labatt. Heís received several offers since leaving Ammirati, but had not decided his next move at press time. Whatever it is, he says it will likely enable him to have a better work/life balance - and probably wonít involve working for an absent parent company.
"I had this incredible experience of opening up an agency. How many people can say they started an agency with the results we had? I know what it takes. I know how to do it. Maybe I could be putting that into practice with a little more control over the agencyís destiny."
Robinson is still smarting from his abrupt departure at the beginning of October. The firing took him - and the industry - completely by surprise. While he was conducting a search to find a new president, unbeknownst to him a second search process was underway.
The day he got his walking papers Robinson thought his meeting with Tony Miller, vice-chairman, McCann-Erickson Worldgroup (Ammiratiís parent company), was about a new piece of business he had brought into the agency. (Sources says the business was a project for Honda Canada but that Honda changed its mind after Robinson left the agency.)
Instead he was shown the door and immediately replaced by Everett and Jeff Finkler, who was most recently chief creative officer at Saatchi & Saatchi.
Miller wonít comment on Doug Robinsonís firing but isnít at all reluctant to explain why someone with no agency experience was chosen to head Ammirati.
It was Everettís experience as a client and his vision of what a contemporary advertising agency should be delivering to clients in terms of value for money that Miller says won over the search committee.
"He understands a great deal about what clients are looking for in advertising agencies - and has himself been hugely critical of the Canadian advertising community. Ironically, with some of the same criticisms that Labatt has been making about our industry. We were looking for an old model agency as distinct from a new model. That was the most attractive part of hiring Neil."
For his part, Everett has been too busy trying to stem the tide of departing clients and reassuring staff to develop much of a game plan, but he insists that Ammirati still has a future.
"I think probably when the original team started at Ammirati they had a vision. I think what happened over time is that vision became very clouded. What weíre trying to do is to sit back, retrench and almost take ourselves through the brand process we take clients through."
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| Agency of the Year |
| Gold: Palmer Jarvis DDB Silver: Ammirati Puris Bronze: Taxi |
| Honourable Mention: BBDO Canada |
| Finalists: J. Walter Thompson Ogilvy & Mather |
| Best Media Operation |
| Gold: M2 Universal Silver: Harrison, Young, Pesonen & Newell Bronze: Starcom Worldwide |
| Best Media Director: Hugh Dow, M2 Universal |
| Judges: Creative Strategic |
| How do you get to be Agency of the Year, Best Media Operation, and Best Media Director |
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