When GCI Group CEO Bob Feldman decided to leave for a new gig at DreamWorks Animation SKG, he no doubt took his new holding-company boss, WPP's CEO Martin Sorrell, by surprise.
The resulting "internal entity" infrastructure, and how it came to be, provides insight into the mechanisms of the holding company, and its key PR players.
Maybe one could have predicted when Grey, which owns GCI, was acquired by WPP that Feldman might not hang around. In this case, it seems that it was a matter of the right opportunity at the right time. Still, when rumors began to circulate that Cohn & Wolfe would merge with GCI Group, and that Feldman was leaving, it was not necessarily clear which came first.
Part of the reason for that hinges on the impressive performance of C&W CEO Donna Imperato, who has managed to resuscitate a waning brand, and who may have been itching for a bigger platform. But others in its new WPP family were likely eyeing up the firm for a possible alignment, given its size and interesting client roster. Feldman's move accelerated a structural change that was on the agenda, even if it was unclear what shape it would take.
But even as speculation intensified over what form this new entity would take, and who would lead it, the merger never seemed a very likely scenario. C&W's work with Colgate, one of Young & Rubicam's most cherished brands, was likely a major factor in the decision to abandon a merger, as GCI's Procter & Gamble work could jeopardize that alliance.
Not to be underestimated is Sorrell's longstanding position against merging brands, which he vocalized in PRWeek and elsewhere. Having many options to suit many clients is one reason, but the ambitious and competitive culture WPP fosters may be better supported with multiple channels of career progression.
To some extent, the internal entity that has been created seems to be a face-saving exercise that minimizes the impact of Feldman's departure, while increasing Imperato's formidable profile. GCI's new CEO, the highly respected Jeff Hunt, will not be based in New York, but in Austin, TX, which is one reason why Imperato's role is critical.
The stated goals of this new structure are relatively low-key: Two agencies with more similarities than differences are expected to benefit from Imperato's experience in recalibrating C&W. The subtext is that WPP, with its multiple brands and apparent flexibility, is able to accommodate the problems inherent in losing a CEO and not having a clear-cut means of replacing him, given that Hunt is based in Texas. How well the brands co-exist, particularly with their two different parents, remains to be seen.