Key Points:

Roger MacDonnell has made no secret of plans to step down as chairman and chief executive of Colenso BBDO, ending nearly 40 years at New Zealand's most consistently successful ad agency.

But events have conspired to delay his departure.

The agency that defined the early style of New Zealand advertising in the 1970s and 1980s was adrift earlier this decade. That situation is fixed now but MacDonnell waited too long to fix it.

Now aged 66, MacDonnell still has some work to do at Colenso. The architect has designed a "two-year plan" to prepare the agency for when he is no longer in charge.

MacDonnell co-founded Colenso in 1969. The agency gained notoriety in 1975 with Michael Wall's famous "Dancing Cossacks" ad for the National Party, followed by a swathe of some of our best advertising.

It is thanks to MacDonnell - and more recently his right-hand man Neil Livingstone - that Colenso has been regarded as a stable agency.

But the early 2000s saw the departure of award-winning creative director Mike O'Sullivan, followed by his acolyte Toby Talbot.

And then, among the "suits" who oversee the big accounts, MacDonnell's heir apparent, Jon Ramage, who was the account director for BNZ bank, was poached by rival agency Y&R.

Soon after that, the bank ended its 23-year relationship with Colenso and followed Ramage to Y&R.

In the mid-1990s the awards that were used to market the agency to clients and attract top creative talent had begun to dry up.

Such changes are normal in the volatile sector, shown by the roller coaster ride of highs and lows for Colenso's arch rival Saatchi & Saatchi.

Some believe MacDonnell has helped many of the ructions that have hurt other agencies.

Now he is restructuring Colenso BBDO and the other communications firms he oversees as the New Zealand director for the Clemenger Group, the Australasian arm of the global Omnicom Group.

The changes will see closer ties between Colenso BBDO and its sister company Aim Proximity - the biggest direct-marketing company in New Zealand. For now he is planning the next stage of his career.

"I've been thinking about it [leaving the agency] for a while - you cannot keep going. When I started - with Hylton Mackley, Michael Wall and Mike Hutcheson - Colenso was tiny and we wanted to be good. When I step off it, it will be the best it has ever been," he said,

"I am going for a two-year plan."

MacDonnell this week appointed Hong Kong-based digital advertising executive Adam Good - founder of Australia's award-winning Tribal agency - to head a Clemenger digital advertising operation in New Zealand.

The digital arm will act as a bridge between two existing Clemenger Group businesses, Colenso BBDO and Aim Proximity.

MacDonnell will then move Colenso out of the offices on Auckland's College Hill and Aim Proximity from nearby Freemans Bay and bring them under one roof. Clemenger's public relations arm, Porter Novelli, may join them to make it easier to make combined pitches for work.

MacDonnell says Colenso .99 - the successful retail agency started in August 2003 and run by Neil Livingstone - will become more distinct.

"The lease on the College building ends in two years and we are just getting too big to fit. We've spent a bit of money to get us through the next two years, but with more than 130 staff we're too big."

In 2000 MacDonnell turned a cliche on its head, swapping fishing rods and his 12.8m launch Bacchus for music lessons and a collection of electric guitars.

A former New Zealand representative big-game fisherman who caught marlin and tuna, he says with a chuckle: "I fished for New Zealand ... and I was quite good at it too."

The new interest was partly due to personal reasons - he had separated from his wife and now had young children with a new partner.

And it was not entirely a back-to-front move - he had his rock phase as a young man in Wellington in the late 1960s.

His new interest has seen him collect guitars - 18 of them so far - representing "epochs" of popular music from blues to rock.

MacDonnell says that in 38 years Colenso has gone through some epochs as well. Now he will be contemplating two new ones.

The first is under way with a new management team with young gun Aussie admen Brent Smart and creative Richard Maddocks.

"They are both young guys, which is good because they treat you like a godfather and not a competitor," he says with his trademark openness.

"Rich [Maddocks] is very talented and a very good chemical fit with Brent."

The second will occur when MacDonnell walks out of the agency's doors for the last time.

As he says, you are only as good as your last ad. But in this highly competitive - and bitchy - industry nobody has a bad word to say about MacDonnell.

He has the reputation of being "genuinely genuine" and an executive who is "happy in his own skin".

One former staffer described him as a "deep thinker", which is not the usual sobriquet for an adman.

The term "straight talker" can be a euphemism for a tough, aggressive boss. But not with MacDonnell.

"I've never seen him lose his cool," says Ramage.

Businessman Barry Colman is a friend and says MacDonnell has "an uncanny ability to read the mood of New Zealand".

Inevitably given the scale of the business - Colenso has consistently been biggest or second-biggest agency in the country - it has made some missteps.

One client said Colenso had taken too long to establish a new management structure.

Inevitably there is criticism of some of its campaigns.

At Air New Zealand there is a view among some executives that the high-profile campaign featuring people jumping out of windows and flying to loved ones - criticised as evoking suicide - is bizarrely bleak in an ad genre that has traditionally focused on travel's "feel good" factor.

The other view is that this is brave advertising that breaks cliches. Meanwhile, the decision to develop the digital offering across Colenso, BBDO and Aim Proximity is seen as welcome - but not a novel idea.

MacDonnell says the idea of an integrated ad agency is not rocket science but the appointment of Adam Good to head digital is part of a new approach to develop it from the ground up.

It is an important factor as pressure increases on agencies to fight for work against an increasing array of competitors and while the ad business is going through a revolution.

"I want the agencies to be singing from the same hymnbook," he says.

The change follows Clemenger Group agencies winning two key accounts - Fonterra and, more importantly, Vodafone, which has hired the Clemenger Group, not just Colenso.

In fact, Vodafone moved its ad account to Colenso with the requirement that its independent sister hold the direct-marketing business and drop Telecom, its key customer and Vodafone competitor, in the process.

Such negotiations are a protracted business and relations can be tense.

MacDonnell won't name names but it is understood relations have sometimes been difficult with one or two clients. If Colenso is bad at anything it is about being in a master-servant relationship with an advertiser.

"At the end of day they are coming for advice. It's like going to a doctor and saying, 'Don't give me the injection'.

"We try to get them on to the same wavelength and bring people in early. They become part of the solution rather than the problem and it encourages them to push the boundaries."

He can be seen on some weekends making his way to the outbuilding at the rear of his Herne Bay home, where he practises on one of his guitars. The building is soundproofed so he can crank up the amplifier.

MacDonnell seems intent on keeping some role in the ad business when he leaves. Back in university days he was in a rock band called Promedo, which was "big in the Wairarapa".

But he does not see himself resurrecting a musical career.


Roger Macdonnell
Role: Chairman and chief executive of Colenso BBDO. Shareholder and New Zealand director of Clemenger BBDO, overseeing Colenso, Aim Proximity and public relations arm Porter Novelli.

Age: 66.

Education: Heretaunga College, Wellington. BCom Victoria University.

Family: Two children with partner Louise Greig - Lilly, aged 11, and Sophie, aged 8. Three grown children from a previous relationship, six grandchildren.