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Ogilvy CEO John Seifert talks ‘refounding’, Martin Sorrell, #MeToo, China, awards, AI, bad clients and consultancies

In his most in-depth interview ever, the Ogilvy worldwide CEO John Seifert – who has been at the agency for 39 years – discusses a wide range of topics with Mumbrella’s Dean Carroll

Seifert has seen a lot of change in 39 years at Ogilvy

To kick off, you dropped out from college and worked your way up at Ogilvy from junior account manager 39 years ago to worldwide CEO today. Can you talk us through that journey and some of the greatest and worst moments along the way?

“I really am a product of the Ogilvy system. I was fortunate enough to have a family friend, who worked for David Ogilvy. She just had an instinct that what I would love and what I would learn from was there in Ogilvy.

“So I was fortunate enough to get a summer job and to be mentored by some incredibly talented people. I started at the office in Los Angeles and then got the opportunity to go to Chicago and later Bangkok, Singapore and then ultimately New York.

“All along that journey I was just touched by extraordinary people at Ogilvy, who gave me amazing opportunities to prove myself and to learn, and grow, at the company.”

Why did you never go elsewhere – was it a sense of loyalty at being given that chance at Ogilvy despite your lack of academic qualifications?

“As I reflect back on it, I’d say it was fundamentally because of the culture of the company. I loved the sense of purpose. We attracted extraordinary clients who made the experience something I never wanted to let go of.

“I never had the feeling that I was in search of something that I wasn’t able to get within Ogilvy. Instead, I always had the sense that there was more to learn, more to discover and more opportunity in staying than there was in leaving.”

Do you think your story could still happen today in the professionalised world we live in where higher education is a prerequisite to even get in the interview room?

“I think you’re right in the main. Everybody comes to a job these days with so many qualifications and so much experience, in the form of internships, even at a young age.

“It really is such a high bar now. But I do think that going forward there is going to be much more openness in considering greater diversity.

“At Ogilvy, it’s going to be about more than just a series of accomplishments. We are going to look at life in a more holistic way with some of our programmes so that we say ‘who are the kids that have shown resilience or have had experiences that make them really creative, or have a sense of grit and a determination to succeed because they have been challenged in life?’.

“I think there is going to be a bit of a back to the future approach here. Personally, I had no obvious qualifications other than the family connection.

“I didn’t have great grades or anything that might make you think that I was a future CEO of Ogilvy. All I had were people who believed I had the potential to do well and to work hard. To some extent, I think we will embrace that approach again.”

Changing topics and to bring things right up to date, how is the Ogilvy ‘refounding’ going so far?

“Well, we felt that our brand had become a mirror to the realities of the industry and the realities of marketing more broadly. We were too fragmented and had invested in a lot of exciting new capabilities, but we were letting them all go off in their own direction with their own point of view and without a sense of what they all had in common.

“So we decided we needed to get back to the core principle of David Ogilvy’s founding vision, which was to put creativity at the heart of building brands and growing businesses. We really wanted to give everyone that sense of shared purpose.

“We defined it as ‘making brands matter’ because in a world of big data, algorithms, user experience and digital transformation there were many voices in the industry saying ‘brands don’t matter anymore’.

“But nothing sustains growth more than the power of a brand. We know that building brands is now a multitude of things beyond advertising – from the product experience to the employee culture and so on, but what we want to do is tell our people that no matter what your craft or specialist capability is, you can deliver it in order to build brands.

“That gives us a unique position because we don’t believe that anyone else in the industry has as comprehensive a vision as we do in terms of what it takes to build a brand. That’s what we want the next 12 months, the next five years and even the next 50 years to be about. We want to express our original founder’s view in a modern way.”

Part of the refounding was the launch of a consultancy arm. How worried are you about the consultancies eating your lunch?

“There’s no doubt that the consultancy companies have made an argument that they can do many of the things that we do and do them smarter, with connections to tech platforms and new organisational designs and so on. When you’re asked to do those things, it’s easy to say to clients ‘by the way, we can do the marketing and communications too’.

“But that’s not why we launched Ogilvy Consulting. Consulting is not just about tech builds and the ability to cut people, and save money, by operationalising new ways of working. We launched it because we wanted to tell clients that you can still build brands in the process of doing all those things related to consultancy.

“Our consultancy offer is not meant to be directly competitive with the likes of Accenture, Mckinsey or Deloitte. Instead, it’s about advice and execution around new ways of working that are all about building and strengthening brands. We want to be at the table to ensure that business development is looked at through that lens.

“It’s unique because in the main, consulting firms do not start from the premise of brand. They start instead from saving money, restructuring businesses or recreating strategies in the face of disruption by competitors. Whereas our philosophy is all about what you stand for and your promise to the audience, and manifesting that in a way that endures over time. So there’s a big opportunity for us in that space.”

Who suggested dropping the iconic David Ogilvy signature from the branding, it was quite a bold move?

“It served us incredibly well, but we decided to drop it because we felt it was in a way a crutch that allowed us to do whatever we wanted to do. We sort of focused on the mythology of David rather than his vision, which was to do things in a distinctive way as times change.

The old company logo

“Rather than his signature as a mark of excellence, what we needed was his original point of view guiding us. We came up with something authentic, playful and incredibly true to David, using the original Baskerville typography.

“It’s about bringing everyone together as one brand. Just Ogilvy – not Ogilvy & Mather, Ogilvy One or Ogilvy Public Relations.”

The new logo

But was it your decision individually to drop the signature?

“Yes, I am the one throat to choke when someone says ‘what idiot decided to move away from the signature?’. It is my responsibility for good or bad going forward.”

Moving on, Ogilvy’s former chief creative officer – the Singaporean Tham Khai Meng – was recently let go by the company for allegations of inappropriate behaviour. There were also the allegations of misconduct made against Martin Sorrell when at WPP. And others have been let go from agencies over allegations – even Droga5 had issues. How much of a problem does the industry have with men behaving badly?

“Nobody really knows the answer to that question. Without getting into specific cases, the way to think about this is if you are leading a company then you have to make a decision about the values, beliefs and behaviour you want to uphold and represent.

“We now live in a world where the standards of living up to who you say you are and how you say you behave have never been higher. I’ve done a lot of research on this and we all can point to eras in history where certain behaviour was tolerated because of the norms of the day.

“You can’t rewrite history. What you have to do is lead and hold people accountable in the context of the era that we live in. It’s pretty simple for us, every single employee of our company has to sign a code of conduct annually.

“Now in an era of radical transparency, we recognise that you can’t have that mechanism and then say one thing while you do another. All of us from me downwards are now accountable for living up to what we say we believe in.

“If we find that there is a serious enough breach of that code of conduct, we have to measure it relative to our standards and then make choices. We are doing that better today than we have ever done it before.

“I’ve been in the company for 40 years and I’ve never felt more accountable or felt a higher sense of responsibility about the standards we have to live up to. I am really proud of the process at Ogilvy because we are doing everything in our power to teach, train and develop our values.

“No matter how important you are in the company, there will not be double standards.”

And why do you think no criminal prosecutions are being brought against men who misbehave. So far we have just seen people being fired, but nothing more beyond that – is it purely because people have to sign non-disclosure agreements and so can’t talk about the problems externally?

“I’m not sure if it’s a wider industry issue, but that’s certainly not the case at Ogilvy. If we investigated something and found that there might have been criminal conduct then we would report it to the authorities and let the chips fall where they may.

“I would be very surprised if this was serious barrier for the industry in terms of dealing with criminal conduct.”

So did Ogilvy ever think about taking Khai Meng’s case to the police or was the misconduct not of that nature?

“What I can tell you is that if we believed there was criminal conduct we would have done the right thing.”

On this, is Cindy Gallop right when she says that the ad industry should just name and shame, as Hollywood has done of late?

“My view is that everyone in the industry now should have a sense of responsibility when there are breaches of codes of conduct or the rule of law. It should be taken on a case-by-case basis.

“But maybe because I’m old I think this notion of publicly accusing people of something without proper evidence, investigation or not giving people the benefit of the doubt is not a healthy thing in terms of addressing the problem.

“I think it’s absolutely right to talk about the problem, but naming and shaming is not the best way to deal with the issues.”

Shifting to a different topic, Martin Sorrell was the one who approved your 17-page plan last year titled ‘Ogilvy The Next Chapter’ – which led to the refounding. How did you find him as a boss, as a colleague and as a man?

“I loved working for Martin and I have known him ever since he acquired Ogilvy in the late 1980s. He has always been incredibly supportive and generous to me in my career.

“I was humbled when he offered me the opportunity to lead Ogilvy in late 2015 and I found him to be an amazing boss.

“He was generous with his time and he always considered my point of view and thoughts about leading the company. I had nothing but a positive experience with Martin.”

Do you think Sorrell’s S4 Capital will deliver the new model for the industry that he has promised?

“I would never discount Martin Sorrell. A lot of people benefitted from his vision and determination to build WPP. I think WPP has amazing assets and amazing people. I’m very excited about the future for the company and I think WPP is bigger than Martin.

“I think he is doing what anyone does when they reset their life, which is he is taking a step back and trying to look at things in a clear-minded objective way. I don’t know what his plan is or what business he wants to build, but one of Martin’s great strengths is that he can see where the world is going ahead of most.

“I’m sure he will find a point of view that he thinks is distinctive. We will all just have to wait and see. I am sure Martin will be successful in whatever he chooses to do.”

How is WPP, to which Ogilvy is part of, likely to change post-Sorrell in your view?

“Well look, the company is in the process of appointing a new CEO and we will all find out who that is in the coming weeks. I’ve had nothing but support in running Ogilvy from the interim leadership of Mark Read and Andrew Scott.

“In an interesting way, the legacy of what Martin created has just carried on through the people that were inspired to build WPP in the first place. There’s been no interruption and Martin leaving has meant there is even greater sensitivity to ensure for our people and our clients that our work is even heightened.

“The new leadership will be appointed and we will go from there. From everything I’ve experienced so far, I’m an optimist. I’m actually feeling very excited about the future.”

How many times have you read Ogilvy on Advertising? When was the last time you did so and what did you take away from it?

“Well, I read all of David’s books once a year. And the book that I take the most nourishment from is Confessions of an Advertising Man. I really do believe that if you’re a leader in Ogilvy, it’s your bible. The book is an important contribution.

“It just gives you an enormous sense of inspiration and self-belief. One thing to remember is that David was 40 when he started Ogilvy & Mather in New York.

“He had three quarters of a lifetime of experiences that informed his philosophy of founding and leading a company. To me, his core beliefs and his view of the world are the things that are foundational for success.

“If you take someone who was a spy, a researcher, a student under one of the finest chefs in Paris and a college dropout who loved discovering the world. That is an inspiring story on how to come to work everyday.”

How was your relationship with the great man when he was alive?

“I met David 18 months after I joined Ogilvy in Los Angeles. I was given the privilege to go and pick him up from his hotel and bring him to the office.

“In that 20-minute car ride, he must have asked me 100 questions about my life, my family, my upbringing, what I was learning at Ogilvy and what I thought was important in the world.

“It was just an extraordinary experience. That kind of serendipity bonded us and then we shared handwritten notes with each other over a 10-year period after that in a kind of pen pal relationship.

“My greatest regret in life is that he invited me to visit him at his chateau in France and I just somehow never figured out how to make that trip.”

Aside from David Ogilvy, who are your creative and business heroes – and why?

“My partners get bored of me saying it, but after David Ogilvy it is probably Steve Jobs. Not necessarily his behaviour, but his genius in the way he thought about brands and marketing plus his passion for building great products and a unique company culture at Apple.”

Jobs was special, says Seifert

Now you were in Asia for eight years. Can you tell us a bit about that period and what you were doing?

“Sure, I first came to Asia in 1985 when I moved to Thailand to become the general manager for Ogilvy. I was sent there principally to run the American Express business. I was able to build my management skills in a place where I could make lots of mistakes and no-one would hold it against me.

“I had an amazing experience and I got to learn about a new culture where I didn’t speak the language or understand all the nuances of the country. While I felt like an utter failure for a while, it also gave me the resilience to learn and grow, and to accept failure – and get better from it.

“My Asia experience was really my growing up years at Ogilvy where not everything I did turned to gold. And after learning all those lessons in Thailand, I then went on to be country manager in Singapore for four years and that was phenomenal because I also had regional responsibility for clients.

“At the time, I got to see the whole region and its business when it was actually the fastest growing part of Ogilvy so it was very exciting.”

China is clearly a huge focus for Ogilvy these days. Given the firm’s creative raison d’être, it doesn’t seem like a natural cultural fit though with a market that is still ruled by Confucianism – or collectivism – and where creativity is sometimes stifled by the system despite the country’s economic dominance. Are you having to make lots of compromises to win in China?

“Quite the opposite, China is probably the best market in the world for Ogilvy in terms of creativity in its largest sense. If you look at technology and how it is changing people’s lives in a deeply personal way, the level of creativity in China leads the world.

“The level of creativity being applied to how entrepreneur clients there think about their business models, scale and their marketing is absolutely extraordinary. The way people in China are experimenting with new ways of working at breathless pace, it’s astonishing.

“There is a lean start-up orientation in China unlike anything else in the world. There is no fear of failure and there is incredibly high ambition. I just feel that in some ways it’s the most creative market in the world for us.

“Now does a lot of our work in China win Cannes Lions, no. But you have to look at the measure of creativity in China through a different lens. It doesn’t mean that the advertising can’t be better and the creative product can’t be better, but the creativity there that is driving business and growth is astonishing.

“It’s such a strategically important market for us because I believe what is happening in China will come to influence the whole Ogilvy network over time. Obviously, it is a unique place in terms of the culture and the role of government but it’s an unbelievably dynamic place.”

Really, no challenges at all? I hear very different stories from other agencies on how difficult it is to do business in China what with so many companies being government-owned and the state unwilling to open up to the full internet or certain foreign companies like Facebook.

“I don’t mean to sound like I’m saying China is this nirvana where everything is perfect, but the barriers are not fundamentally holding back growth, development and creativity.

“You know when I left Asia in 1992, I don’t think Ogilvy had more than 200 people in all of China. We had lots of people in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Now we are working there with multinationals and some of the biggest Chinese companies with both domestic and global ambitions, not to mention all the start-ups and entrepreneurs.

“There is no other market in the world where we have that diversity of clients, it’s startling. Everything you say in terms of challenges is true, but in a macro sense it is not holding us back. I’m not naive, but I am incredibly optimistic about the importance of China to our clients and brands in the future.”

Which other markets in Asia have the most potential for Ogilvy and why?

“I’m excited by the growth projects for place like Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand. I am still bullish on the South East Asia markets. Singapore is a powerhouse and represents so much potential in terms of technology and design.

“And then of course you have India. We have a huge business there and great brand reputation, but the country has major challenges. If we can see a greater openness to the world and a greater sense of social responsibility in terms of quality of life for the massive population then you can see nothing but upside for India.

“Asia is diverse and dynamic. There are many years ahead of great opportunity for the region.”

You’ve worked in Los Angeles, Chicago, Bangkok, Singapore and New York. Which was the most interesting market? And which was the most fun?

“My youngest son was born in Thailand so it will always have a special place in my heart, but in terms of experiences and excitement it is hard to beat New York. It’s a pretty fun place to be.”

We spoke about the perceived threat from the consultancies earlier. At the same time, you face competition for ad dollars from Google, Facebook and Amazon – as well as the big Chinese players like Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu. Which threat worries you most and how will you combat it?

“There is no question that all the players you mention are certainly going to have a major role in terms of how marketers spend their money. At the same time, I don’t believe any of those companies have an exclusive role as to how brands are going to be built in the future.

“They need us as much as we need them. While there may be commercial competition as to how dollars flow in and out, the fact is we will have to partner together to serve clients. We are in the very early stages of figuring out how that’s all going to work.

“Clearly the news of the day is the market power these companies are getting with money from clients flowing through them. To some extent, that has created some angst in our industry.

“These new players are all young and they are going to have to figure out the regulatory environment and to be more accountable for client business results. I think we have a very important role to play.

“We just have to get past the noise of the moment and realise that this is early days still. There is a belief that you’ve got to spend heavily on these new platforms to reach consumers, but there is a lot to work out still about how the value is created.”

So we know that Ogilvy is 70 years old as a company. Will it exist in 70 years from now and, if so, how will the agency and the wider industry differ from what exists today?

“We absolutely will exist in 70 years and all that we are doing now is to make sure that is true. There will be many things discovered in the future that influence the relationship between the consumers and the brands that serve them.

“Whatever comes around, I am confident that we will have a major role to play in making sure it works for clients. That will ensure our relevance and success.

“You simply serve the interest of clients ahead of your own and if you serve them well then they will serve you well. The only risk that exists is if you are not willing to change and that’s why we are being bold.

“We want to ensure we never lose that gene of adapting and looking around the corner to see what’s next.”

Ogilvy always performs well at ad industry awards shows, but which gongs do you truly value? And is scam work still an issue for the industry?

“My prediction is that awards shows are going to evolve with an increased focus on creativity and the impact it brings. You’re not going to award work that doesn’t have a material value around it related to the client’s business or the ability to change the world in some important way, whether you call it a social good or brands with purpose.

“There will be a much more intense level of accountability coming I think. I believe that scam will disappear. I just don’t believe that in the future we will award work that is fake or doesn’t create a meaningful outcome worth celebrating. I can feel it.

“Nobody is going to pay money for awards that are of frivolous value. The other thing that is important is that clients have never been more connected to and invested in awards than right now so they want to see meaningful awards.”

So which Ogilvy work are you most proud of and why?

“If you look at the work that we do for KFC in Australia and South Africa, it is built on true cultural insights and a deep understanding of consumer behaviour. It is emotionally driven. I’m a huge fan of that work.

“I think we continue to produce outstanding work for the Dove brand and have done since the real beauty platform was created. It has not only helped Unilever build a big valuable business, but has also changed the world in terms of how women’s issues are thought about more broadly.

“I am also incredibly proud of our work for IBM and how it’s adapted to the changing world of technology and business solutions.

“You can go almost anywhere in the network and find little jewels of great work that have helped transform brands in amazing ways. It’s not just big global clients, but local businesses as well.

“And increasingly we are putting our creative minds to social causes whether it’s The Clinton Foundation or Coca-Cola in Africa. I’d put our work up against anybody in the world.”

A curveball for you. What makes for a bad client and what makes for a good client?

“That’s really easy. Bad clients are abusive, they don’t value our independence and our ability to bring the outside into them. They try and do our jobs for us. They don’t make it fun. They don’t challenge us.

“And they don’t treat us as partners. But we are trying to raise our standards. We don’t want to work for clients who don’t bring out the best of what we are capable of.

“Great clients on the other hand change people’s careers. They enable you to do the best possible work because they trust you and are willing to roll the dice with you on your ideas.

“They create belief and loyalty, which makes extraordinary things happen. There’s nothing more rewarding in the world than serving a client who values you in the best of times and the worst of times.

“You really want a client that makes you feel like you are doing something important. I’ve been at Ogilvy for 40 years and for 35 of those years I’ve been on the American Express business. Seeing AMEX through things like 9/11, tsunamis in Thailand and earthquakes in Mexico – just that one client alone has made my career.”

To finish, Chinese tech giant Alibaba has claimed it has created an artificial intelligence copywriting tool that has passed the Turing Test – in other words, it is able to operate as if human – and is capable of producing 20,000 lines of copy in a single second. Any thoughts on that and the threat it might pose to Ogilvy and other such creative agencies?

“I think AI represents opportunity, as it will transform businesses. It will transform life and enable things we can’t even imagine right now, but I don’t think AI will ever exist without human involvement.

“We have all kinds of AI experiments going on around the world and AI is foundational to our client IBM. It will open up new avenues we haven’t even thought about yet.

“It could possibly be disruptive in changing the nature of the work we do and how we do it, but even if it destroys some of what we do today it will help us grow and develop in other ways and bring new opportunities. I am optimistic about that.

“We are embracing it and we will have lots of AI experiments going on around the world over the next few years – testing new business models, ideas and partnerships. It will be a major force.”

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