Quit while you’re ahead. It’s a maxim that ageing admen find as hard to follow as ageing politicians and sportsmen. Not so Ogilvy Group’s UK chairman and chief executive Gary Leih, however.
Leih recently celebrated his 50th birthday and has decided to do something else. That something else involves taking some gardening leave in his native South Africa and then returning to the UK next spring to open a new shop. Leih is being studiously vague about the nature of this enterprise (no doubt wisely), but he claims to have a number of “stars” lined up as partners and to be doing something with the “digital/content” interface. More certain is the date of its establishment, about April 4 next year.
It’s worth noting that Leih the entrepreneur is not a new phenomenon. Although he has spent the bulk of his career at Ogilvy (in several countries) he also took time out in the late eighties to establish a successful start-up in South Africa, called The White House. And again, around the turn of the century, Public Image, this time in Australia.
Leih will be missed on the UK ad scene, even if it is a temporary absence. In a world where there are fewer and fewer personalities, he was without doubt one of them, what with his breezy, candid manner and an avowed fondness for eccentric shirts and chardonnay. He was part of a mid-decade influx of senior management talent imported from the southern hemisphere. Unlike his more abrasive contemporaries, James Hall at Saatchi & Saatchi and Matthew Bull at Lowe, Leih stayed the distance.
He made it onto the Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide board in autumn 2006. But if Leih harboured ambitions of becoming the next Worldwide ceo, after Shelly Lazarus stepped up to chairman at the end of last year, he was to be disappointed. The promotion went to Miles Young, then chairman of O&M Asia/Pacific.
Did he succeed in doing what he was brought in to do at Ogilvy? Yes and no. It’s fair to say he stopped the rot. Ogilvy had drifted downwards in the years before 2005 without anyone being able to put a finger on exactly why. Leadership was certainly an issue. Visits to the agency at that time revealed a reel which agreeably surprised, if only because expectations of Ogilvy’s creativity had fallen so far below those of sibling WPP agency JWT. Leih did not bring about a creative renaissance, but he did win some useful business, such as easyJet (for a while) and Barclays Capital. And he did manage to implement radical and much-needed streamlining of agency senior management without breaking too many heads. I imagine his biggest disappointment was, despite best efforts, his failure to deliver Ogilvy from the clutches of Canary Wharf, adland’s Journey’s End.