Bob Jeffrey’s Biggest Influence Was Bill Bernbach

JWT's outgoing CEO looks back on 11 years on the job

In nine days, JWT's Bob Jeffrey will join the ranks of former agency chiefs as he shifts, as planned, to non-executive chairman and global president Gustavo Martinez rises to CEO. Jeffrey had a remarkably long run as head of a global shop, having succeeded Peter Schweitzer in January 2004.

During a recent lunch at La Fonda del Sol in midtown New York, the 60-year-old leader talked about his early influences—including his father and Bill Bernbach—what CEOs he admires and the hardest lesson he learned on the job.

What will you miss most?

The interaction with the people around the world. When I first started [at JWT], I was just running New York. Then, I ran the U.S. I was very fortunate to get a global role because it's just such an amazing experience. You're dealing with humanity, you're learning different cultures, different economies and I do really think we have amazing people inside the company.

Is the flip side all the travel?

I got use to the travel and I consider myself a road warrior, but I won't miss it.

What are your favorite moments?

When I was running New York and we won the Merrill Lynch business. When I came into New York, I walked into an office that was desperately going backwards. They had lost Kodak, they had lost Citibank. I arrived on April 2nd and we won Merrill Lynch in July of that year [1998]. It was $25 million in revenue and it was a global win as well. … For me, it's what really turned New York around. It was the catalyst that started the growth in New York.

What else?

I loved working on Ford because it was such an iconic American brand. And I started on Ford when it was at the height of its success with selling SUVs and the Explorer. Then I was also on Ford when it was in the valley of darkness. And there's a lot that you learn with a client not just when they're at the height of your success but when they're in the valley of darkness. It was when Mark Fields came from Europe to run North America, and we all started working very closely inside of WPP to create the integrated team [that became Team Detroit]. So, I felt like that was just a great experience on so many levels.

Is Martin Sorrell the most exacting boss you've ever had?

I started in the business where I had exposure working with Bill Bernbach. I worked with Jay Chiat, a little bit with Frank Lowe and then Martin. So, I would say from a creative point of view, Jay was the height of obsessiveness and good enough is not enough. Martin is a different kind of leader—equally obsessive but in a more business-like way.

What did you learn from him?

Martin is good competitive influence on you as a CEO because he's relentless and you want to keep up with him. I always wanted to go to Martin and tell him something that he didn't know because he's so competitive.

What do you want to do next?

Next year, I'm non-exec chairman and my role is really going to be advisor to Gustavo, giving air cover on certain clients and being overall brand ambassador. My whole objective this year has been Gustavo's success in transition. Next year, he'll be global CEO. So, I'm here to support Gustavo and the company.

So, does that enable you to look at other opportunities?

I definitely will be doing that role for next year; what I do beyond that, I don't know. I mean I don't see myself "retiring." But what I do, I don't know. I feel like next year will be a good year to think about the long-term future.

Any desire to do a startup again?

I'm a big believer in going forward and not looking back. Anything that would be like a startup agency would be like going backwards. I feel like I've already done that. I consider myself a pioneer at heart. Whatever I do is going to be new and innovative, but I'm not even sure what that is.

In an industry where a lot of people don't take care of themselves, you are remarkably healthy. How much of that health regimen helped you in the topsy-turvy world of being a CEO?

My health discipline has been a major reason why I've been able to do the job because I think it has kept me stress-free, it has helped me manage stress, it has given me a way to focus. I'm very goal-orientated athletically. So, I transferred that to my job. Even to this day, I'm very, very careful about what I drink, what I eat.

How do you stay in shape?

This morning I swam a mile. Yesterday, I did weight training. I have a friend of mine—we don't do it every week—[with whom] I still do boxing. So, I believe in mixing it up.

Where does that discipline come from?

My father. There are seven of us in my family, and my father had an amazing work ethic. And he was a healthy-looking guy.

What did he do for a living?

He was a Teamster. So, I think we developed the discipline from my father and my mother.

What's the hardest lesson that you've learned in 11 years of being CEO?

I'm an optimistic person who likes to trust people. But I've also found [it valuable] to check multiple sources because even if people think they're telling the truth or the right thing, it's not necessarily always the most objective [perspective]. So, my advice is always, check multiple sources of information both inside and outside the agency.

The Ronald Reagan thing—"Trust but verify?"

You know what? My brother quotes that about his kids. That's a good quote.

What CEOs do you admire?

Terry Lundgren at Macy's.

What do you like about him?

Terry Lundgren has a very clear vision and strategy on what he has wanted to do with the Macy's brand. He has been successful at that. So, he's somebody who is strategic and visionary but is also very rooted in operations.

Anyone in your peer group?

As far as big agencies go—just agencies period—I would say [BBDO global CEO] Andrew Robertson is a competitor that I have huge respect for.

Marketers these days are squeezing agencies on fees and taking longer to pay their agencies—is that the biggest downer right now?

It's all circular. What happens is clients cut back, there's pressure on fees, pressure on margin, which puts pressure on the holding company, which puts pressure on the agency. To me, the ability to take care of and reward people is one of the biggest issues that we have.

In our industry, somebody always has something bad to say about someone else, but I draw a blank when I come to you.

I worked with Bill Bernbach, Jay Chiat and then I had Goldsmith/Jeffrey. … Bernbach inspired Jay about culture and the thing that Bernbach really believed was you had to be nice and you had to be talented. If you were talented but not nice, he didn't want you at the agency. It was really something that made a huge impact on me because I felt that when I started at Doyle Dane Bernbach—when Bernbach was there—people gave it their all. Not because they were getting paid a lot of money—they weren't—but because they loved the agency. And Jay had the same ethic and Gary and I had the same ethic.

Jay wasn't a warm and fuzzy guy, though.

He wasn't, but he had a generous side to him, with people.

So the Bernbach thing stuck with you.

It was really Bernbach, and that just influenced me. It's like child development: It's how you started your life, and my professional life started at Doyle Dane Bernbach.

Publish date: December 23, 2014 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT