Ogilvy Chief Always Planned to Step Down; Oxford Offer Accelerated the Move

A search for Miles Young's successor is underway

Ogilvy & Mather chief Miles Young is leaving for a top job at Oxford University. But before that offer even came along, Young planned to step back into a chairman's role at the WPP network next year, sources say.

"That was always the plan," an Ogilvy source said. "In a job like this there comes a point where you need to slow down. The Oxford offer accelerated the announcement."

Ogilvy announced yesterday that the 61-year-old global chairman and CEO would retire next summer to become warden, or chief academic official, of Oxford's New College, Young's alma mater.

A new position within Ogilvy or WPP would have involved a relocation to London for the globe-trotting, indefatigable Brit, who is running out of L-1 visas allowing him to work at Ogilvy's worldwide headquarters in New York. He moved to the U.S. six years ago to take on the global CEO role, and was initially reluctant to make the move, preferring Hong Kong, where he ran the agency's Asia-Pacific business for 13 years. (Ironically, now settled into a townhouse on the Upper East Side, he is said to have fallen in love with the Big Apple and is sorry to be leaving.)

A search for Young's successor is underway—internal and external candidates are being considered—and a decision is expected next spring. The lengthy transition period underscores Young's intent not to be seen as a lame duck executive, as he intends to remain a very hands-on CEO until the transition is complete next year.

"It's a huge job, almost too big for any one person," said one Ogilvy observer. "Anyone moving into that job has massive shoes to fill. Miles has done a lot to right the ship, and he's smart to leave while his star is high."

To those who know Young, his move into academia—returning to Oxford, where he earned a first-class degree in modern history—isn't a big surprise. He's very interested in the relationship between higher education and the workplace and has voiced concern over the marginalization of the humanities in university curriculums.

Young has always had a big interest in politics, economics and history. This summer, for instance, he's been rubbing shoulders with the likes of Henry Kissinger and Felix Rohatyn as he heads up an effort to support the transatlantic sail of the French frigate Hermione, which will appear at events along the Eastern seaboard before its journey. The ship is a reproduction of the 1779 vessel which carried General Lafayette to join the colonists' side in the Revolutionary War.

Privately, Young felt he never wanted to stay too long in Ogilvy's top executive role, quietly planning the shift to chairman next year. He started the CEO job in 2009 with a five-year plan, investing heavily in strategic services, data and analytics. He's worked to elevate Ogilvy's marketing services to consulting-grade practices and instituted new offerings like Muslim marketing unit Ogilvy Noor and sustainability operation OgilvyEarth. The agency continues to bolster its e-commerce offerings, and it's also become the market leader in the Middle East and Africa through acquisition.

On the new-business front, under Young's tenure the agency has won business from UPS, Kimberly-Clark, S.C. Johnson, Philips and Coca-Cola, for whom it is now pitching global creative and strategic media ideas.

But it's Ogilvy's reemergence on the world stage as a competitive force that may mean the most to Young. Last year, the agency was named Network of the Year at Cannes for the third year running, and Ogilvy has also been recognized as the Effie Awards' most effective agency network in the world for two consecutive years.