Features

The American dream: Why it can turn into an Aussie’s nightmare

Henry Tajer rallied an entourage of Aussies around him in the Big Apple, charged with dragging IPG Mediabrands into the future. But something happened along the way and Tajer and one of his key lieutenants are gone. Simon Canning tries to unravel what went wrong and what lessons might be learned.

Start spreading the news, I’m leaving today, I want to be a part of it, New York, New York. Frank Sinatra sang the song and for the past few years Aussies have been humming it as they made their way across the Pacific. But recently success in the antipodes has not been translating to Madison Avenue as easily as their US sponsors might have liked and the industry has seen a retreat of form in recent months as the Big Apple reveals its core.

Brash, ambitious, entrepreneurial and in demand, there was something attractive in the Australian media success story that saw some of our top talents led by IPG’s Henry Tajer lured stateside with brief to shake things up.

Tajer: Lured to New York for his entrepreneurial style

But, faced by entrenched, fearful and slow-moving US counterparts who were wedded to a status-quo economy, the vision has for many unraveled.

The sudden departure of Tajer from the head role at IPG Mediabrands in New York two months ago has been followed by the exodus of one of his hand-picked lieutenants, the widely respected former head of Starcom in Australia, John Sintras.

Mat Baxter: elevated to a global CEO of Initiative

Other hires remain in Mat Baxter, as well as Travis Johnson and Charles Godbold, but a dark cloud hovers over the remaining imports as the impact of Tajer’s removal continues to resonate.

As Mediabrands continues its pivot away from Tajer’s model – a model that was meant to be the future of the business in the US and globally – it is still unclear how far the fallout will spread.

But what really went wrong, and is there a wider lesson on what Australians need to do to succeed in the US?

Sintras, Johnson, Tajer, Baxter & Lomas prepare to take Manhattan | Artwork: Elke Aspillera

Tajer and what came to be dubbed the ‘Australian entourage’ may be victims of nothing more than the fast-paced nature of the changing market.

By the time Tajer had a chance to implement his vision, the powers that be had decided the business model had changed.

But personalities and culture are also being blamed for the decision by Mediabrands to dismantle what had been created by Tajer.

Where Australians celebrate brash and outspoken managers, the US system rewards caution and pragmatism.

“What Henry created in Australia was enormously successful,” one observer says.

“It’s not Australians. It’s the Americans and their very different and regimented way of doing things. Language, tone, they all have a different impact in Australia compared to the US. Personalities lead the culture. It was really a change of direction.”

Sintras: “transitioning” from IPG in a move made shortly after Tajer’s departure was announced

A year into his role in the US after being hand-picked by Tajer to join him, now Initiative global CEO Mat Baxter told Mumbrella in 2016 he believed the Australian approach to the business could be exported, but there was a caveat.

“If you do something here [in the US] you want to be pretty sure it’s going to work,” he said at the time. “Whereas in Australia you can try something and if it didn’t work, it’s like ‘Okay that didn’t work’, and then move on.”

“The ultimate marker of this is do we deliver on the five-year plan that Henry has sold in to IPG?,” Baxter questioned at the time.

“In four years’ time, we have to look back on those objectives and say ‘Did we hit those objectives?’

“You can’t just lift the Australian blueprint and drop it into the States, or any other market,” he said. “There are different dynamics but the essence of the approach, the broad philosophy, is applicable globally.”

Speaking at Advertising Week in New York last year Tajer said he believed he had hired the right people to fulfil his plan and that Australians were often gifted with broader experience because of the size of the market.

“I think the Australian people that we have hired and brought into New York are all exceptional individuals,” he said at the time.

“Australian talent in media scene really stands out because of size of the market. Most have a good all-round understanding.

“We have got people at Mediabrands [in the US] for 30 years and they have been regional television buyers for the south-eastern region and that’s all they have done. That would be the equivalent to being a southern NSW regional television buyer for all of your career which would be a good way to help you to commit suicide.”

Tajer also reflected on the importance of connections in fostering careers – what may have been a prescient comment – with some observers in the US suggesting the “old boys network” on Mediabrands had turned on him.

“In the US where you’ve been to school, which college you’ve attended and what degree you studied determines whether you actually get an interview in a lot of the holding companies,” he said.

“In the US in particular one of the things that I have noticed is unless you have got a really reputable college degree or are from a really reputable college it’s not that easy to just get in unless you are connected to someone.”

He also admitted that his brash style rubbed agency veterans the wrong way.

“I know in my first couple of months people were a bit shocked at how open and how direct I was and what we should do and what we shouldn’t do any more and for some people that was really confronting.”

Asked if he had tempered his style, Tajer said: “To a certain extent yes. I think at the same time others within the company have also adjusted their own approach to receiving feedback and a perspective, but as well as expressing themselves.

Tajer: “In the US where you’ve been to school, which college you’ve attended and what degree you studied determines whether you actually get an interview in a lot of the holding companies”

“It’s incumbent on the leadership of any company to set the tone and the environment. We did a lot around introducing the ‘F’ word into the organisation and the ‘F’ word is not what most people are thinking, but ‘feedback’, because that was something I found hugely lacking in the way we were operating and that’s made it easier for people to know where they stand and feel confident about expressing their point of view.”

But tempering his style seems not to have been enough in a conservative market where many leaders were on big salaries and used to operating in a safe zone where change could only ever be incremental.

“It’s not a risk-taking society,” one insider tells Mumbrella about the culture many Aussies face.

“They are a very conservative society. They are slow moving and everyone at the top levels are paid a lot of money so they are very conservative with what they do. Even marketers and the general industry, if you gave somebody the choice of a possible 30% improvement or alternatively a 1% guarantee, they will take the 1% guarantee.

“There is too much to lose in career and salary and bonuses, long-term incentives and that sort of stuff.”

The litigious nature of the US is another limiting factor, with American executives wary of the blame culture that sees risk taking and entrepreneurism limited for fear that failure will lead to lawsuits.

“They are worried about who will you piss off? Who will sue?,” an insider says.

“There is no desire to move out of comfort zones.”

However, the story is not the same for all Australians. The story of David Droga launching Droga5 in New York has become legendary. Other creatives such as Matt Eastwood worldwide chief creative officer of JWT, Sarah Barclay JWT’s executive creative director in New York, and R/GA’s Nick Law have forged successful careers in the US.

For these Aussies the American Dream is real. But for the Aussie dreamers at IPG Mediabrands, the dream has been washed away in the stark light of day. A combination of culture clash, politics and the fear of change. Tajer and Sintras have fallen silent. The dream remains that.

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