Ogilvy UK CEO, Michael Frohlich, tells PR Week about the challenges of managing change while getting to grips with the top job.

Michael Frohlich adopts a mock puzzled expression and feigns exasperation as we discuss some recent press coverage of his appointment as chief executive of Ogilvy UK.

One suspects he is slightly bored of the line about a PR man running the UK arm of a world-renowned business most closely associated with advertising. Nonetheless, it is difficult to escape the significance of Frohlich’s PR pedigree as Ogilvy officially enters a new, ‘integrated’ era.

With some fanfare, in June the WPP-owned agency network formally dispensed with its individual brands – including ad agency Ogilvy & Mather, as well as Ogilvy PR – and united everything under the Ogilvy banner. CEO John Seifert proclaimed the simplified organisation structure will "build a new model for our industry", a one-stop shop for clients. 

In reality, integration has been happening for some time – Seifert announced the plan in January 2017, and Frohlich has been among the architects of closer agency and WPP working since arriving at Ogilvy six years ago.

Frohlich’s varied leadership experience arguably puts him in good stead to continue the changes. He led Ogilvy PR in the UK before heading PR in EMEA, which he says required an adjustment from using "command and control" to "influence and soft power".

"You’re not running [businesses], you’re helping businesses grow and solve their problems, to add value from a distance," Frohlich explains. "It’s a very, very different type of leadership."

His reputation as an integration expert was cemented last year when he led the cross-WPP team that brought the British Airways business back into Ogilvy and WPP. PR support from Ogilvy and Hill+Knowlton was added to the brief last month (June).

"It was pretty heavy, because I had to learn a massive amount," he says of the experience.

"I had to learn it was a hugely different way of operating because I was leading a team where I didn’t have the discipline expertise and knowledge. I knew how to win a pitch, and I knew how to run a team, but there was a massive amount of trust had to come into it; a huge amount of delegation, a huge amount of collaboration.

"However, building a sense of belonging, building a vision, building a pitch-fit team that has the right energy, the right chemistry… that I do know how to do."

Frohlich adds: "By the time my predecessor left the building I’d been on the journey with lots of different experiences and styles of leadership and working across integrated business and building a new model for working."

Leading into the unknown

Frohlich admits to having had a "really challenging first couple of months" since arriving in the top job in April. "The scale of change is immense, because it’s not just about taking on the job that my predecessor had; it’s a different job, because it comes with this transformation into a one-agency model," he says.

"We are rebuilding the whole thing but we’ve still got to deliver, and we’ve got to grow, and we’ve got to win new business, and we’ve got to keep our clients happy, and we’re got to hire new people, and we’ve got to keep our staff happy. You can’t switch the business off, change [it], then turn it back on again."

Was there some scepticism from within Ogilvy about the ‘PR guy’ taking charge? Frohlich is cool on the idea, and his response points to the importance of PR in his vision of the future.

"We do the full breadth of capabilities in the building. Whoever was going to lead the business was going to come from one of them, because you’ve got to come from somewhere. All are as important as each other now," he says.

"No-one has said it’s the wrong thing because you can’t deny that PR is a really important part of the marketing mix now. And anyway, the reality is this job is about leadership, it’s not necessarily about my specialist area – actually, my specialist area helps in the leadership."

Frohlich certainly has laudable leadership credentials, with previous roles including managing director of Shine Communications and co-founder of Resonate, which later became the consumer division of Bell Pottinger. 

Sharply but casually dressed, Frohlich looks every inch the modern agency chief executive. He has a cheery demeanour, speaking softly but with precision.

Former colleagues attest to his qualities. "Michael is an inspiring and incisive leader, warm and engaging, someone who motivates you to do your best work," says former Ogilvy PR CEO Marshall Manson. "He manages to put the fun into anything and everything. He gets people smiling, even when work isn’t so much fun."

Mason recalls a time when Frohlich worked through from Boxing Day to New Year’s Eve to help with a client activation, when it would have been easy to send a team to do it and check in from afar.

There is a sense of steely determination behind the Frohlich smile, however. One suspects he is not afraid of ruffling a few feathers to put his own stamp on things.

Ogilvy’s management team were put under consultation following Frohlich’s arrival, with the top brass having to ‘pitch’ for leadership roles. "It wasn’t about juggling some people," he says. "This was about sitting down with a blank sheet of paper and asking: ‘What roles do we need, and what roles do we need to continue building what we’ve got and take us into the future?’

"Eventually, once I’d confirmed the roles and it was clear what we needed, I looked at the people. Because the roles are different to what we’d had before and what existed then, we had some conversations with individuals, saying: ‘Are you interested, do you want the role? Are you up for it, are you into coming on this journey with us?’"

He adds: "Some people have gone; others will follow. That’s OK, I’m cool with that."

Frohlich is eager to stress the importance of PR in the integrated context. In May he moved the roughly 220-strong PR team from the ninth floor to the second at Ogilvy’s resplendent Sea Containers offices on Bankside, next to the advertising team. It was more than a symbolic move. He admits the PR contingent had been somewhat "shut away" , and the change has promoted "more discussion and collaboration" between teams.

"PR and influence remains, as ever, an absolute core capability," he stresses. "It is, I would say, the most successful growth part of the business; that and consulting. PR is on fire – in a good way."

He highlights what integration means in practice: "When a new business brief comes in, it’s really looking at how we are going to solve our client’s problem. It may not be what the client specifically asked for in the brief, but it’s what we feel confident is the right answer to those problems – and PR is pretty much always part of the answer."

Collaborative working

The changes at Ogilvy coincide with upheaval at parent group WPP, but Frohlich insists it is "business as usual" after the shock departure of CEO Sir Martin Sorrell in April. Nevertheless, Sorrell was the main driving force behind WPP’s philosophy of ‘horizontality’: where the group’s agencies work together in teams for the same client (Team Horizon for British Airways, for example). 

Given WPP chairman Roberto Quarta’s recent insistence that "you won’t hear that word [horiz-ontality] being used any more", is Frohlich con-fident that Ogilvy will continue with this form of integration?

"If it’s called horizontality or something else, who knows? Whatever," he replies. "But in terms of the WPP businesses continuing to work more collaboratively together to solve clients’ problems: 100 per cent. It is the best way of working.

"Between us [at WPP] we’ve probably got experts in everything. We don’t have to grow every expertise here because we can just call our mates, our siblings, and use their teams."

Ogilvy’s PR leadership is set to continue broadly as it is. Following Manson’s departure late last year, the capability has been led by Jeremy Lucas (head of corporate), Nicky Law (managing partner, brand marketing and technology), Jai Kotcha (head of social), Chris Wall (head of content), Anna Burns (head of new business) and Serge Vaezi (chief strategy and creative officer).

"Since Marshall’s departure, they’ve been running the business and it’s been going strongly," says Frohlich. "In some ways I’m probably harder and more critical of the PR business than the others… Because it’s my background I have a bit more of a critical eye on it."

Other priorities for change include hiring more earned-media creatives – these are lacking in number across the business, he says – and launching an influencer relations tool. Expected areas of growth in the PR operation include sport, corporate and brand. Frohlich does not expect any roles to be phased out – he has "no intention" of disrupting the "really healthy" business as it stands.

Ogilvy UK will follow the global model for its restructure, though there is a suggestion that the London office will not stick to every HQ edict.

Frohlich will "adapt" the policies from the US "to be right for our market". For example, his initial priority will be focusing on four specialisms: customer engagement, advertising, PR/influence and digital. There may also be "more Anglicised language" used to des-cribe the new ‘crafts’ in London.

Asked about people’s biggest misconceptions about Ogilvy, Frohlich looks thoughtful. "Misconceptions often start with some truth in them, and this is what we’re trying to counter: that we’re too slow, too big, and too siloed – which are all linked.

"The positive is that, particularly in London over the last couple of years, we’ve been upping our creative game massively. We’ve got some great clients, some really strong UK brands we’re really proud of, and we’re doing lots of award-winning work."

Frohlich eulogises about the team’s recent campaign to create the world’s first all-female Subbuteo set, to mark the Women’s FA Cup Final, as an example of Ogilvy’s strong earned-media credentials.

He is very clear about what he sees as the biggest challenge ahead: "People. Because we are changing how we operate, it means people have to work and behave in a different way.

"You can write every structure and every operation model on a piece of paper; that’s the easy bit. Embedding it into a business, that’s why transition takes a matter of months. But the transformation, the behaviour change, takes years. People have to either change how they’re operating or decide they don’t want to do that and move on."

Sustaining interest

Thankfully for Frohlich, the changes have not been accompanied by an uptick in staff turnover: "It doesn’t mean churn will stop; and you don’t want churn to stop, you need it for new blood. But as we go through this reorganisation, my ambition is that our retention increases anyway because it’s a more interesting place to work – and I hope it does."

Interview nearly over, I ask whether there is anything he would like to add. Perhaps showing his PR instincts, Frohlich ref-lects on the agency’s low profile in recent times.

Ogilvy PR ranked 11th in PRWeek’s most recent Top 150 table, with estimated UK revenue of £33m in 2017. But the agency has been something of an enigma, given its size. Frohlich admits it has been quiet about recent successes in PR but insists this "doesn’t reflect what’s happening" as the business "keeps growing".

Part of the problem has been that Ogilvy is not allowed to discuss some major client wins and activities; Boots and Johnson & Johnson are among the big wins in the past year, for example. There has also been a ‘heads down’ approach since Seifert announced the move to integration, coupled with the interregnum after Frohlich’s predecessor Annette King left last year.

Says Frohlich: "Any feeling that the quietness reflects our passion, our conviction… it’s the opposite. PR is a core part of this business. Ultimately I am a PR person. I love my craft, and I’m very proud of the PR business I have. All I want to do is grow."

He pauses for a moment, then adds: "…as I do with all of the different parts of the business."


This was originally published in PR Week.