Ex-Cliff Freeman CEO Says Former Boss Was Ruinous Control Freak

Last Updated Jul 10, 2009 11:40 AM EDT

Jeff McClelland, former CEO of Cliff Freeman & Partners, blasted the shop's founder as a control freak who is stuck in the past and is threatening the future of his own shop, Adweek reports. CF&P has been on a downward spiral for months. The storied shop now has only one significant client left -- Baskin Robbins -- and fewer than 20 staffers, writes Noreen O'Leary.

O'Leary's interview with Freeman is a bit like listening to Freeman work through his problems on the psychiatrist's couch -- except, like all bad patients, he doesn't seem to realize that the solutions lie within the answers coming out of his own mouth.

O'Leary introduces the piece by calling it a "cautionary tale" about big-name agency founders who can't let go when it's time to choose a successor. Freeman has been through at least two CEOs recently, McLelland (now at Starmark) who left in 2008 and Clayton Ruebensaal III who left in April. Why can't Freeman find someone to manage his shop and turn it around? McLelland:

Cliff couldn't let go of what had worked for him in the past, and as a result, we weren't able to build a real future ... I believed I was hired to add strategy and process and a true internal infrastructure to Cliff's creative genius. But Cliff could never get past trying to repeat what had worked for him in the past. He had his opinions and a gut feel and that's what he was going to trust regardless of sound reasoning and debate to the contrary.
O'Leary adds:
... executives at Cliff Freeman chafed at what they considered the overarching control of Freeman himself.
Harsh, but given the CEO-turnover and the loss of clients, the facts speak for themselves. Does Freeman himself realize this? No:
Freeman adds that he's not looking for a new business-side partner. "I'm completely controlling the agency now and really enjoying it," he says. "Hiring people from big agencies is a mistake for us."
"I'm completely controlling the agency"? There may not be an agency to control if BR falls out of love with Freeman.

BNET has suggested a graceful way out of all this for Freeman: He should "sell" the agency to a network like BBDO. He probably won't get much money for it but the name will live on for a time, allowing Freeman to retire as if he's been cashed out. Once Freeman's work-out/consulting contract expires, the acquiring agency can quietly take his name off the office door inside which the BR account group is located.

Image via Shoney's Media.