Business

Pitching the world

A top ad exec thinks Canadian, acts globally

Anthony Wilson-Smith July 20 1998
Business

Pitching the world

A top ad exec thinks Canadian, acts globally

Anthony Wilson-Smith July 20 1998

Pitching the world

A top ad exec thinks Canadian, acts globally

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

As he contemplated life from his sixth-floor office on New York City’s fabled Madison Avenue one recent Wednesday morning, Peter Stringham could not decide whether he was coming or going between home and various assignments—or, in fact, doing all of the above. On the Monday that week, Stringham awoke in the Toronto home where the rest of his family still resided, and took an early plane to New York to the job he has held since last December as chairman and chief executive officer of North American operations of the giant Young & Rubicam advertising agency. After a night in his tiny apartment on Man-

hattan’s East Side, he took an overnight trip to Chicago to see a client. Then, he returned to New York, where he would spend the day before flying to San Francisco for another meeting. Finally, on that Friday night, the 49-year-old Stringham would fly back to Toronto. “There are days, ” he said with a sigh, “when I honestly don’t know what city I’m in when I first wake up.”

For close to seven months, Stringham’s life has been a whirlwind of travel, change, new faces and challenges as he oversees the fortunes of the North American division of one of the world’s five largest ad agencies, with 3,000 employees and annual billings of $5.9 billion. (Globally, Y&R had 13,000 employees and billings of $19 billion in 1997.) His new job, in fact, is

one that Peter Georgescu, CEO of the ad agency’s parent company of the same name, created specifically for Stringham after consultation with other senior Y&R executives. “This was not a case of putting a square peg in the matching hole,” says Georgescu. ‘We saw Peter as a world-class talent, and we wanted to build him a position to match.” And, Georgescu adds: ‘This won’t be his last major position with us.”

The pressures can be heavy—as evidenced by a painfully herniated disc in his back that the deceptively laid-back Stringham acknowledges is due to stress. Y&R’s client list includes some of the world’s largest corporations, such as AT&T Corp., Ford Motor Co., United Airlines, Phillip Morris Companies Inc. and Campbell Soup

Co. As well, the parent company of Y&R, which had been privately owned since its founding in 1923, announced in February an initial public offering of $500 million of common stock. So far, the offering has been enthusiastically received: the stock, which began trading in May at $40.13 a share, was worth close to $47 at week’s end. “That,” a smiling Stringham said last week, “is not something I caused, but it gives a little breathing room.”

It also gives Stringham a chance to reflect on the dizzying changes he has been through, as well as those that lie ahead. Until December, Stringham was president and CEO of BBDO Canada Inc., then Canada’s biggest agency with about 400 employees and $57 million in annual revenues. Now, he manages about five times as many employees, and has client accounts that extend worldwide. As well, these are turbulent times for the advertising world. In North America, the rapid growth of the Internet, coupled with a sharp decline in viewers of mainstream television networks and a similar drop in readership of newspapers and magazines, is forcing agencies to seek and develop new outlets for their products. “The advertising business is changing from selling one product to offering integrated solutions for clients,” says Georgescu. “Peter has an implicit understanding of the business concerns of clients and that quality has never been more important.” That opinion is echoed by Ann Boden, president of the McKim Media Group division of BBDO in Toronto, who reported directly to Stringham in his previous job. “Peter is someone who knows how to think on his feet,” says Boden. “Put him in a room with a client, and he can work wonders with his enthusiasm.”

That passion is all the more notable given that Stringham initially thought of the advertising business as “little more than a temporary diversion.” Born and raised in Winnipeg, he studied English at the University of Manitoba, and earned money in his spare time by playing guitar and singing at local coffeehouses. Today, he sometimes entertains at social gatherings after, he jokes, “heavy coercion and light dosages of single malt.” His initial plan was to “write the Great Canadian Novel,” he says, but after finishing a manuscript he decided “not to embarrass myself by allowing anyone else to read it.”

Instead, in 1971, a friend offered him a job writing advertising copy for a Winnipeg affiliate of a Toronto-based agency, Gordon Hill

Advertising. After several years, Stringham arrived at the office one day to discover that everyone else except one other junior employee had resigned to open a competing agency. He was told by the Toronto office, he recalls, “to keep things going until help arrived.” He managed to persuade enough clients to remain with the agency that he was put in charge of the local office.

From there, Stringham moved through a series of agencies and positions and ended up in Toronto. In the advertising industry, which is characterized by sharp differences in style between the creative and management sides, Stringham stood out because of his ability to work with both. By the early 1990s, he was president and CEO of the

A tribute to the heights of Canadian culture?

Toronto agency Baker Lovick, with a part share in the company, when it was sold to BBDO Worldwide, a division of Omnicom Group Inc. The new firm then merged with McKim Advertising. Stringham became president of the merged business and was named CEO less than a year later. The new firm continued to expand and, by 1996, BBDO was Canada’s top-grossing agency.

As last year drew to a close, Stringham, after almost five years as CEO, says he was still focused on plans to expand—and had hired a recruiter to begin looking for new talent to hire. Instead, the recruiter suggested he meet with Y&R’s Georgescu, who was also scouting for new talent. The pair hit it off, and Georgescu, after meeting with Ed Vick, the chairman of Y&R’s worldwide advertising operations, made Stringham an offer that he accepted almost immediately. (Some industry sources estimate that Stringham’s compensation package could run as high as $1.5 mil-

lion a year in salary, with stock options and perquisites that could double that figure.)

His decision to move caused some bad feelings at BBDO. Michael Fyshe, his successor as president and CEO of the agency, says he was “shocked ” by Stringham’s timing. “The guy was having talks with me about becoming his chief operating officer even as he was planning to leave,” says Fyshe. “I found out he was gone through a voice-mail message.” Adds Fyshe: “A lot of people who thought they were his friends feel abandoned, and wounded. Peter is someone you think you know—and then this happens, and you realize you never knew him at all.” In response, Stringham says he could not tell Fyshe or anyone else of his talks because “it was not appropriate to break the promise of confidentiality.” And, he adds, “if I haven’t been as good as I wish so far at keeping up with old acquaintances, it’s because I’ve had to spend so much time making new ones.” Now, Stringham is regaining some much-missed stability in his personal life: last week, with the school year over, his wife, Alberta McLeod, a homemaker, and their two youngest sons, John Peter, 14, and Wells, 12, prepared to join him in the house he recently bought in the bedroom community of Rye near the Connecticut border. Their eldest son, Thomas, 23, will go to Vancouver in September to study marketing at the University of British Columbia. “Pretty soon,” says Stringham, “we will be able to start living almost normally as a family again.”

Despite his cross-border move, Stringham insists his sentiments as “a flag-waving nationalist” will not change. A longtime friend of Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy and a committed federal Liberal, the fluently bilingual Stringham says Canadians “bring a little extra something to the table in this business. We have a European sensibility; we’re used to observing and reacting more reflectively, perhaps, than Americans.” Perhaps—but that is not necessarily evident in one of Y&R’s newer campaigns. A television ad for Molson beer in the United States reprises Canada’s most famous—and fictitious— hosers, Bob and Doug McKenzie, as played by actors Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis, pestering former hockey great Guy Lafleur. Atribute to the heights of Canadian culture? “Well,” says Stringham with a grin, “everyone likes a country that isn’t afraid to make fun of itself.” Now, Stringham has a golden opportunity to see whether Americans are as easily amused by jokes about themselves. □