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The woman in charge of Britain’s biggest advertising agency

A recession may have taken hold in adland, but ‘bring it on’ says Farah Ramzan Golant, the gutsy head of Abbott Mead Vickers. By Ian Burrell

‘I don’t feel contained, I feel free and boundary-less,” says Farah Ramzan Golant in spite of the fact that her left wrist is bound with a leather strap and a silver padlock. This Hermes bracelet is a vivid blue – which she describes as “my sunny colour”, although rain is streaming down the pane behind her and outside the midday London sky is as dark as lead.

Ramzan Golant is in the process of explaining how a Nairobi girl came to be running Britain’s biggest advertising agency, Abbott Mead Vickers, which in an industry obsessed with acronyms is one of the few shops to stand out from adland’s alphabet soup and be recognised by the public.

“I’m very happy in my own skin. Farah is Arabic for joy,” she says. “My ethnicity has never counted against me. People say to me ‘Have you ever had to work harder to play in a man’s world?’ I don’t believe that to be the case. You hear about agencies that are ferociously combative, but we are a very people-orientated culture and that has made it really easy for me.”

Abbott Mead is responsible for the Jamie Oliver-led Sainsbury’s advertising, the Gary Lineker work for Walker’s Crisps, and the iconic white out of red posters for The Economist. The agency’s client list is the envy of the industry, also containing such titans as General Electric, BT, Royal Mail and Mars. In the past four years it has maintained its annual billings at £383m, as its rivals have fallen away (second-placed agency Euro RSCG took £269m).

When Ramzan Golant, 44, was handed the chief executive’s role four years ago she was told by Andrew Robertson, the British but New York-based head of the parent company BBDO Worldwide: “I want you to shape Abbott Mead, not inherit it”.

That was all very well, but within months of her promotion to the top job, three of her biggest clients – including Sainsbury’s and BT – had put their accounts up for pitch, allowing rival agencies the chance to steal prestigious business. “My first year was all about defend the business to the death,” she says. “If we had lost those, we would have gone from number one to number nine in my first three months as CEO.”

That Abbott Mead won those pitches is testimony to Ramzan Golant’s fierce ambition, something she admits extends to all areas of her life. Though she was born in Kenya to “predominantly Indian” parents who spoke to their toddler in Swahili, she has since taught herself French, Hindi, German and Italian and studied modern languages at Cambridge University, where she met her husband. “I’m insanely competitive and he was the number one in our class. I couldn’t beat him but the next best thing was to marry him,” she says of Ben, an American academic and a “planet brain”.

It would be a brave client who told Ramzan Golant they were parting company. Having survived the initial threat to her position she pushed ahead last year, winning 14 out of 17 pitches. She says she really is trying to “shape” the agency rather than playing safe as the biggest player in the industry and allowing smaller outfits such as Mother, BMB and Fallon to win kudos for risky-taking creative work. “There are some clients who are willing to invest in new and interesting ways of doing things,” she argues.

So AMV persuaded Mars to forsake tradition and put Mr T on the packets of Snickers bars as part of a campaign that used the A-Team character in online games (asking the target audience of 17-24 year old males to compare the mohicaned muscleman with their real dad) and as a mobile ring tone, shouting “Stop acting like a crazy fool and get some nuts”.

The actor Josh Brolin – currently appearing as President George W Bush in Oliver Stone’s movie W – was hired to star in a campaign aimed at encouraging younger men to buy Mercedes cars. “The perceived average age of Mercedes drivers has dropped by six years in three months,” says Ramzan Golant proudly. “BMW drivers think that Mercedes are for older blokes who have arrived, rather than a bloke on the way. So we used Josh Brolin to personify Mercedes and called it the Rising Stars campaign.”

Outside her office a wall is devoted to assigning an active verb to every one of the 77 brands that AMV works on. Thus, Walker’s Crisps has ‘enjoy’, and the National Lottery has ‘dream’. Maltesers has ‘misbehave’ for its ‘The Lighter Way to Eat Chocolate’ message – a campaign that was removed from television by the ASA for misleading viewers that the confectionery was low in energy.

Ramzan Golant says the active verbs need to be “counter-intuitive”. Nicorette’s verb is ‘start’, as in begin quitting rather than stop smoking. The purpose is to overcome a barrier that is hindering the progress of a client’s business. “It can’t just describe the category, so Sainsbury’s can’t just be ‘eat’. A lot of people are sleep shopping in supermarkets. How do you wake people up? You get them to try something new today. So the Sainsbury’s verb is ‘Try’.”

Another AMV campaign for Sainsbury’s, the downturn-inspired ‘Feed Your Family For a Fiver’, recently won double gold at the IPA Effectiveness Awards, which judge the impact of advertising on the client’s bottom line. The campaign generated £4.95 for every £1 spent. “Just under a Fiver,” shouts out Ramzan Golant.

AMV’s creative work is seen in the industry as solid rather than cutting-edge, though it won the Palm d’Or at Cannes for the evolution-in-reverse ‘Noitulove’ Guinness campaign of two years ago. But in the current economic climate it is the effectiveness of a campaign that appeals most to a client’s finance director.

Ramzan Golant takes direct responsibility for all the accounts on which she has pitched, namely Capital One, Clarks shoes, Sainsbury’s, BT, Royal Mail, Twining’s tea and Heinz. “I personally look after them and see myself as the most senior account man on the business.”

This senior account ‘man’ is sat at her desk in a yellow Prada skirt and ultra-chic Miu Miu shoes (unlike some female media executives she is more than eager to discuss the provenance of her wardrobe). A self-confessed footwear fashionista she surely struggles to represent Clarks, purveyors of sensible shoes. Not so: “My Clarks red pumps are legendary!” she exclaims. “I was at a Madonna concert at Wembley and I took off my Jimmy Choos, stuck on my Clarks and boogied.” Clarks is a company that “really believe in shoes,” she adds. “Everybody gets to learn how to design shoes, and how to fit them to children’s feet. They are one of my favourite clients.”

Ramzan Golant, who in her 18 years at AMV has learned much from joint founder David Abbott and current group CEO Cilla Snowball, is not short of confidence. “I’m a big personality and my mind can work quickly. I can fire-fight as much as I can fire raise,” she says. Robertson once called her “a good man in a blizzard” – which she will need to be with the big freeze starting to take hold on the industry. She sees it as a problem only for her rivals: “If we are now looking at a significantly choppy 2009, I say ‘good’. Let’s get going, let’s grow our share.”