Acrimony in adland

A tale of backstabbing and big bucks involving three of adland's brightest stars has shocked even veterans of this cut-throat industry
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The Independent Online

It is a tale of power, greed, betrayal and huge amounts of money. Just another day in the advertising industry, then, you might think. But even by what are perceived to be the slack ethical standards of adland, recent shenanigans involving three of the industry's brightest stars have caused jaws to drop, cheeks to redden and industry leaders to squirm in embarrassment. As one senior executive, put it: "People think we're all a bunch of tossers anyway. Wait until they hear about this lot."

The story started 18 months ago when an affable young advertising executive called Garry Lace (the chief executive of TBWA/London, which numbers the Labour Party and French Connection among its clients) was head-hunted by the US advertising giant, Grey, to turn around its lacklustre London office.

Grey's billionaire chairman, Ed Meyer, summoned Lace to New York, and was so impressed by his cheeky-chappie persona that he offered him a package, said to be worth £800,000 a year, to "rescue London". Even though Lace was warned by friends that it was a poisoned chalice, he seized the opportunity, drank deep and, at the age of 35, became one of the highest-paid executives in the country.

Almost exactly a year later, two of the ad industry's biggest hitters decided to go into business together. Ben Langdon, the former head of the European region of McCann-Erickson, the largest ad agency in the world, had a reputation as a ruthless, hot-headed, and demanding but effective operator. His new partner, Mark Wnek, was the former chairman and creative supremo of the London office of the French- owned network Euro RSCG, responsible for campaigns for Peugeot, Argos and Cadbury's, and known as a brilliant copywriter who deliberately cultivated a brooding persona.

Due to contractual problems with his former employer, Wnek could not, as is common practice, use his own name on the new agency. Ad-industry wags had a field day at the news. "They'll be called 'Bastard and Bastard' - the only problem is they can't agree whose name will go first," was one joke doing the rounds.

As it was, they softened their image by using their first names alongside that of their third partner, Orlando Hooper-Greenhill. The new agency launched without fanfare in November last year, under the slightly soppy-sounding banner of "Ben Mark Orlando".

The hitherto separate stories of Ben, Mark and Garry congealed into a sticky mess a fortnight ago, when it emerged that Langdon was quitting his new enterprise after just 116 days. To leave his colleagues in the lurch was considered poor form. But, to add insult to injury, he left to take the job that Wnek had vacated four months previously, chairman of Euro RSCG London - although a spokesman from Euro RSCG's New York headquarters assures us that the two positions are different and that Langdon is assuming a newly created one.

Langdon was lured to Euro by his old ally, the US advertising grandee Jim Heekin, now chief executive of Euro RSCG Worldwide, who had worked closely with him at McCann-Erickson until both were ousted, last year.

Three days after the news of Langdon's flit, Garry Lace "mutually parted company" with Grey following a police investigation into a mysterious "prank" e-mail tip-off to senior industry figures. The note claimed Lace was about to set up in business with one of his clients - Drew Thomson, the managing director of the Air Miles company. It's a charge Lace denied and continues to deny. But, to bring the story full circle, Lace - a former lunch partner and protégé of Wnek, is now using the offices of Ben Mark Orlando to plot his next move.

Although the saga has kept adland amused for weeks now, senior industry figures are appalled at the damage the episodes have done to the standing of the industry. "Whatever the truth of these incidents, they make us look feckless, irresponsible, shallow and greedy," said a senior advertising executive. "It looks like even the best part of a million pounds a year doesn't buy loyalty, and close friends will betray each other at the drop of a hat. What's more, clients are going to be much more wary of doing business with start-ups."

Rupert Howell, the chairman of McCann-Erickson, is similarly angry. "Here we are trying to present ourselves as serious business people, and this stuff just confirms people's worst stereotypes of us. It makes us look like a bunch of flash wide-boys who'd sell their grandmother for twopence."

Meanwhile, the acrimony, particularly between Wnek and Langdon, escalates. Wnek is incandescent at being dumped by Langdon. "I'm delighted he's out of my life," he says. "But I feel really sorry that I unwittingly left the door open for him to go back to my old agency."

At this point, it is worth mentioning that this newspaper's editor-in-chief, Simon Kelner, is godfather to Wnek's son. This may, in part, explain Langdon's reluctance to comment. However, he recently issued an apology of sorts through the advertising magazine, Campaign. "I've made a bit of a pig's ear of this one," he said. "I now know that I am better suited to the environment of multinational agencies, where I can work with big clients facing major issues. I am not a natural entrepreneur."

Langdon blocks other questions about his colourful career but acknowledges that he was asked to leave McCann-Erickson after he suggested that a third name should be added to the agency's title - his own. It is clear that his treatment of his business partners should be filed under "S" for "shabby" rather than "U" for "unlawful".

Friends of Lace say he has done nothing wrong. "He was planning to leave advertising, and was simply surveying the future possibilities," said one. And it's true he has been conspicuously successful in addressing Grey's image and performance - attracting new clients for the first time in years, as well as a slew of talented new senior staff.

But in the words of one observer, "he did seem to run the place like it was the 1980s". Stories abound of Lace's "party" style of management, including an incident in which Grey's cleaning company came close to resigning after vomit and excrement were found in the agency bar following a staff knees up. Nice.