Miles Young: Ogilvy & Mather’s secret to attracting top overseas talent

As the London office of the world’s largest ad group celebrates its feted campaign for BA, the agency's chairman and chief executive on the changing face of advertising

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The Independent Online

Miles Young wants to put Ogilvy & Mather on the map in London. It might seem strange that the Carlisle-born chairman and chief executive of the world’s biggest advertising agency group, with 538 offices in 161 cities in 126 countries and almost 25,000 staff, feels his UK operation needs a boost. But Mr Young, who has run Ogilvy from New York since 2009 and previously worked in Asia for a decade, knows location matters.

So he is excited as Ogilvy prepares to move from Canary Wharf in east London to a prime site, Sea Containers House, overlooking the Thames on the South Bank. The swish Mondrian Hotel has already opened in the building and Ogilvy follows next year.

For Mr Young, a lover of culture, being neighbours with the National Theatre, Royal Festival Hall, Shakespeare’s Globe and media employers such as ITV and rival ad group Omnicom (another new arrival), will be invigorating. The area has been dubbed “the creative and cultural mile” because of the influx of new talent, and it contrasts with east London.

“I feel the Canary Wharf years were in many ways unhelpful to the brand,” admits Mr Young, explaining how Ogilvy found it hard to maintain its mojo as it felt alone among the investment bankers – rather than in the creative heart of the West End. “I am very glad to be moving back to the centre of London,” he says, recalling earlier days in his 32-year career at Ogilvy.

The move to Sea Containers has coincided with a creative revival under Mr Young and chief creative officer, Tham Khai Meng, whose clients include multinationals such as IBM, Coca-Cola and Unilever, plus British household names such as British Airways, British Gas and BT.

The London office, which is led by UK chief executive Annette King and chairman Paul O’Donnell, produced one of the most acclaimed ad campaigns of the last year, called the “Magic of Flying”, for BA. Digital billboards at celebrated sites such as Piccadilly Circus featured a small child who stood up each time a BA plane flew overhead, with the message “Look up”, plus the name of that flight and the ticket price, based on live data. The ad helped Ogilvy to be crowned the top global ad agency network for the third year in a row at advertising’s Oscars, the Cannes Lions, and at the US version, the Clios.

The decision by Ogilvy and parent company WPP to invest in Sea Containers is a vote of confidence in the UK – despite Mr Young’s worries about the political uncertainty caused by the rise of Ukip and the Scottish Nationalists. “The UK is doing very well as a market and is sucking business continually out of continental Europe,” he says.

Advertisers are moving work to London because it is a magnet for talent – “a brilliant lodestar for creativity” – while the eurozone continues to struggle. “London has been doing an excellent job of marketing itself, of renovating itself,” adds Mr Young, a Conservative leader of Westminster Council in the 1990s and founder member of London First, the pro-business group.

Miles Young says ‘the old certainties about how you define communications are eroding’


But he has not lost touch with his northern roots and is shocked by the “huge wealth divide” between the rest of the UK and the capital: “Twenty per cent of the population is living as poorly as in much more developing countries.”

His fear is anger about this inequality will increase the prospect of Britain voting to leave the European Union. “London is going to be successful as a city because it is multicultural,” he stresses, praising the UK’s relatively flexible visa rules compared to New York.

The battle for talent is not just between cities and countries. The ad industry faces competition from online giants such as Google and Facebook. “We suffer in the talent wars against these players,” Mr Young admits, but he is not worried by the tech firms trying to cut out the agency in the creative process.

“As long as we invest heavily in high-level, intelligent consulting talent, our future is secure. If we allowed ourselves to be dumbed down, to be creative vendors, they could disintermediate us. We should be the supplier of the best advice.”

Ogilvy offers a range of services such as customer relationship management, public relations, social media and, increasingly, content. “Content is a word that has become much abused,” he concedes, but advertisers want to tell stories by producing their own films, websites, magazines and events – rather than just make 30-second TV commercials and display ads. “The old certainties about how you define communications are eroding.

“Everything that we produce should be seamless and interesting enough for the consumer to spend time with. We need to become much more like publishers – with an editorial and a curatorial mindset.”

Some in the ad industry now talk about paid, owned and earned media. Paid is traditional ads; owned is media content created by brands; and earned is content created by social media users and editorial coverage. But Mr Young has his own mantra: built, borrowed and bought media. “It’s closer to how you do stuff,” he says, with the emphasis on building ideas and content first, as well as buying ads and generating “borrowed” coverage from social media.

Building a new home for Ogilvy in central London is part of the plan.

Fact file: Miles Young 

Born 1954, Carlisle

Education Bedford School; New College, Oxford

Career 1976 Joined Lintas; 1979 moved to Allen Brady & Marsh; 1982 joined Ogilvy & Mather; 1995 chairman, Asia-Pacific; 2009 worldwide chief executive

Favourite ad The classic Hovis ad of 1973

Currently reading American Vertigo by Bernard-Henri Lévy

How he relaxes ‘I have a cinnamon farm in Sri Lanka’

Pet Colouche, a 10-year-old Hong Kong guard dog

Day in the life ‘In New York, I’m usually up by 5:30. I drink green or black tea, and do my emails. Then a car ride to the office. The first few hours are mainly thinking, but it’s also the Asian conference-call zone. There’s no typical day. There are meetings, calls, people and management stuff – in that order. I leave around 7pm. Sometimes there’s a client dinner or a gala. And 50 per cent of the time is spent travelling – in the States, to London, to Paris – and then market visits – China, Mexico, Brazil especially.’