Age cannot wither them, nor shareholders vote them off the holding company board

April 16, 2013

David-Jones---Havas-007Whoever said advertising was a young person’s business? The conventional wisdom is that at 40, most ad executives would be advised to investigate a second career. And at 50, they’ll be positively clapped out and  have “post-economic” freedom foisted upon them whether they like it or not.

Superficially, membership statistics for the Institute of Practitioners of Advertisers (IPA – the UK adman’s trade body) bear this theory out. When I last looked (which was admittedly a while ago, but I doubt the demographic profile has improved), the number of members surviving their 50th birthday was a vanishingly small 6%.

But these are just the worker bees. Look at the nerve centre of the hive – the main board of the world’s leading advertising holding companies – and you’ll find that gerontocracy has never had it so good.

I was forcibly reminded of this the other day by Marketing Services Financial Intelligence editor Bob Willott.

Willott has done a demographic survey of the Omnicom main board and found the average age to be an astonishing 70. In his own words:

The oldest of the 13 board members is the chairman and former chief executive officer Bruce Crawford.  He is 84 and has been a director for 24 years. His successor as CEO John Wren is a sprightly 60 and has served on the board for 20 years.

I have yet to do the arithmetic upon the board composition of other global holding companies, but the most superficial of surveys suggests a similar age-profile, if their chief executives are anything to go by. At WPP Group, there is an evergreen Sir Martin Sorrell – still incontrovertibly ruling the roost at 68; and likely to do so for a good while yet unless shareholders go nuclear over his annual pay review. Interpublic Group chairman and CEO Michael Roth sails imperturbably on at 67, despite repeated attempts by the media to unseat him or sell his company to a rival. And at Publicis Groupe we have the grand-daddy of them all Maurice Lévy – 71 – with no successor in sight, despite repeated attempts to pretend he has found one.

All this looks terribly good for that comparative whipper-snapper, David Jones (pictured above). At only 46, the global CEO of Havas can anticipate at least another 25 years at the helm.


Richard Pinder launches global network with Maserati as a client

March 26, 2013

Richard PinderAfter years of being a jet-setting senior suit in someone else’s service, Richard Pinder has decided to go global on his own account with the ambitious launch of international network The House Worldwide.

Pinder, it will be recalled, was head of Publicis Worldwide for five years until group succession politics (the imposition of Jean-Yves Naouri as executive chairman) made further tenure of his position unrealistic.

That was two years ago. Since then, Pinder has been pondering how to cash in on his experience with global clients (he’s worked for over 25 years in Asia, Europe and the USA; for Leo Burnett, Ogilvy & Mather and Grey, as well as Publicis) by building a new-model worldwide agency network.

No mean cliché, the cynic will object. We’ve heard the rhetoric before. What’s the reality?

It’s true that the agency world has long been struggling with a “post-analogue” structural solution to the increasingly financially unviable traditional creative agency network, with its army of regional bureaucracies. Some have proffered a solution in the form of the fleeter-footed international micro-network (step forward BBH, Wieden & Kennedy and – in its heyday – StrawberryFrog.

Pinder, however, has gone a step further in presenting a top-down managerial solution – or perhaps that should be management consultancy solution – in place of the piecemeal creative one. His starting point is that the traditional global advertising business – unlike professional counterparts such as lawyers and accountants – loses most of its senior talent to the management of regional geographic fiefdoms, which are there primarily because of historical legacy. What this talent should be doing is servicing the client’s agenda rather than their own corporate one. The exception, where the client really can insist on top-level personal service, is a vanishingly small number of mega-clients, such as Ford and Procter & Gamble, which have specially structured teams to pander to their requirements.

Pinder’s idea is to provide this level of service for global, or at least international, clients further down the budgetary league table. Each client should be serviced by no less than three senior people at any one time. To do this, he has joined forces with a core team of like-minded senior executives: initially, Peter Rawlings, former chief operating officer DDB Asia, Chris Chard, former chief strategy officer of Lowe Worldwide in New York and Ben Stobart, former senior vice-president (chief suit) of Burnett Chicago. These will deal directly with top clients on a day-to-day basis; the specialist skills base, on the other hand, is to be provided by a network of over a dozen associated network companies, of which the best known is Naked Communications (see AdWeek for a full list).

Note the absence of an overall chief creative officer. This is deliberate: Pinder does not believe a single individual can adequately address the creative needs of all client types.

Why is Pinder convinced this model can operate from a single fixed geographical location (well, actually two in THW’s case – London and Singapore)?  Because of consolidation on the brand management side. More and more marketing power is being concentrated into the hands of Chief marketing officers and indeed chief executives; less and less being delegated to regional and country power bases.

But, the acid test is: has Pinder got any clients? Yes he has. He has been collaborating with two over the past year in honing the organisational structure of THW, during what he calls “beta mode” (how digitally au courant).

And they are? Maserati and an upmarket specialist haircare brand, GHD (stands for “Good Hair Day”). Both, he tells me, are poised at an interesting fulcrum of development, from the brand and new product point of view.

Maserati, an ultra luxury sports car marque lodged in the Chrysler/Fiat stable, has been given a €1.6bn injection to broaden its model range and take on Porsche.

GHD – which produces premium-priced hair stylers – is also cash-rich after being bought for £300m by Lion Capital. Lion is investing in npd, with a view to bringing GHD out of the salon and onto the international stage. Inevitably, that is going to involve careful brand positioning as GHD moves into a broader market segment.

However, Pinder is coy on the subject of who, apart from Maserati and GHD, is bankrolling all of this. It seems likely that both principal founders (Pinder and Rawlings) have skin in the game. But a project of this scope is financially beyond most individual investors, even if they are relatively wealthy admen. Private equity seems to the answer. Among the list of network associates is, rather intriguingly, a UK-based hedge fund called Toscafund, whose chairman is former RBS bigwig Sir George Mathewson. Pinder claims Toscafund is very handy on the “analytics” side. No doubt. But my guess is it’s providing a lot more resource than that.


Ford shows it doesn’t care a Figo for Indian political and cultural sensitivities

March 25, 2013

Ford Figo/HiltonGood advertising is, like good comedy, about timing. About sniffing out the zeitgeist and then putting an inimitable twist upon it.

Judged by such criteria, Ford’s latest “offering”, in India, for its Figo model ranks very high.

What could be more timely than demonstrating the little car’s exceptional cargo-carrying capacity than three nubile women, one scantily clad, all three bound and gagged, occupying the boot space?

Closer inspection of the ad reveals that the caricatures are supposed to represent actual celebrities. In the front seat is Paris Hilton, looking over her shoulder and winking at us. The gagged lovelies are Kim Kardashian and her two sisters. It’s all good clean fun, in the best possible taste. And part of a wider humorous narrative in which well-known personalities get their revenge on rivals by confining them to the back end of the surprisingly capacious Figo. We can tell this from another execution in the campaign, which shows ex-Formula One ace Michael Schumacher dealing with his rivals Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, in the same summary manner. Oh, and get this. There’s a third ad with Silvio Berlusconi in the driving seat… need I go on?

Naturally, we’re never going to get so far as savouring the full complexity of the Team WPP (for it is they) humorous palate; not once our attention has been arrested by the sight of a restrained, near-naked Kardashian – and the tumultuous outcry which has accompanied it within right-thinking circles across the Indian sub-continent.

Ford, of course, is mortified. Though whether by the political and cultural insensitivity of the ad, or the chorus of execration that has greeted its appearance, is not altogether apparent. No doubt Team WPP will also be walking about with its tail between its legs for some time to come.

The official explanation is that the ads were created merely for “in-house” use (whatever that might mean) and that they somehow got posted on the internet.

Isn’t it a bit early for April 1st?

Or do creative teams really live in such a cultural bubble that they are wholly insulated from events in the wider world ?

Come to think of it, what were their bosses doing while all this harmless in-house glee was going on?

UPDATE 27/3/13: Now we know the answer to that last question. The bosses were implicated up to their gills. And have paid the price in full with forced resignations. Bobby Pawar, JWT India’s chief creative officer & managing partner, as well as Vijay SimhaVellanki, creative director at Blue Hive, a WPP unit dedicated to managing the Ford business, are no longer on Team Ford – or for that matter, employees of WPP. More on this at MAA.


Fake Pepsi viral takes punters for a ride

March 15, 2013

Jeff GordonThere’s a rather thrilling viral doing the rounds that features top NASCAR (US stock car) racer Jeff Gordon giving a car salesman the ride of his life in a used Chevrolet Camaro. A heavily disguised Jeff is posing as a mousy middle-aged punter, and the stunt is, allegedly, in the service of Pepsi Max, which gets a prominent product placement plug, as can be seen here:

Except the viral seemingly has nothing to do with Pepsi’s agency TBWA\Chiat\Day, and the real driver wasn’t even Jeff Gordon. It’s a stunt staged by actors, a 100% fakaloo. The only fact beyond doubt? That this “ad” is the week’s top viral, having been shared by millions of people. According to the website Jalopnik, which seems pretty clued up on the subject:

A report in Concord, NC’s Independent Tribune verifies what our insider told me: “Racer Brad Noffsinger, who works with the Richard Petty Driving Experience, did the stunt work for the production.”

And there are, in addition, a number of giveaways about the authenticity of the viral relating to the car itself. The video was in point of fact produced by Gifted You, which is owned by Will Ferrell‘s Funny or Die company.

Was this commercial even put together at Pepsi’s instigation? Maybe we have a “Grassy Knoll” situation here.


Telegraph Group joins Gadarene rush with folding of Sunday title into 7-day operation

March 13, 2013

Telegraph 7-day operationThe newspaper is dead, and the Telegraph’s decision to merge its daily and Sunday titles into a 7-day-a-week operation is yet another nail in its coffin. Long live the free press.

By “free press” I mean not the plutocratic oligarchy (absent the Guardian and Observer owning Scott Trust) that maintains a diminishing stranglehold over printed national news, but that other sense of free – “free of charge”. The internet, with Google algorithms in the vanguard, is slowly, inexorably, doing what no politician could ever do: it is breaking down the cartel.

No qualitative judgement is made or implied about this being a Good Thing for the advancement of civilised values. Indeed, on balance, it may well be a bad thing. Just as there is no such thing as a free lunch, so there is no such thing as free journalism. If we are all able, in a matter of moments, to find out what is going on by tapping a few words into a search box at virtually no cost who, exactly, is going to pay for the many hours of sweat, journalistic nous and training that went into crafting the news item in the first place?

It’s a conundrum that digital content strategists frequently explain away by reference to the woolly wisdom of “creative destruction”. Darwinian metaphor is highly misleading, however. Paper dinosaurs may well be on their way to destruction. But there is nothing inevitable about the evolution of a genus of fleet-footed digital mammals to take their place. The ways of evolution are multiform, mysterious and rarely linear. While it is entirely understandable that legacy media institutions should present themselves as the natural guarantors of smooth transition, the reality (with the possible exception of such venerable specialist titles as the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal) may be very different. More likely there will be a period of chaotic evolutionary stasis before something commercially semi-vertebrate emerges anew from the economic goo.

I mention all this after briefly reviewing the latest set of national newspaper circulation figures (ABCs). My, how the mighty have tumbled. The Guardian, for example, shed 5.31% in just one month (February) Admittedly this followed a price hike, but the circulation figure is now around 193,586 which – as MediaWeek reminds us – is The Guardian’s lowest headline figure since records began, in 1949. The paper is worried about having breached a psychological barrier, even after sales were pumped by a recent BBH ad campaign. Not so long ago, I seem to remember that psychological barrier was 400,000, not 200,000.

Guardian print circulation may be in freefall, but its trend is by no means atypical. The Sun on Sunday is down nearly 5% month on month, representing a 41% collapse since Rupert Murdoch phoenixed it last year out of the ashes of The News of The World. The Sunday Express has descended below 500,000; The Mirror is barely achieving 1 million; The Sun itself, not so long ago hovering around the 3 million mark, is now gliding towards 2 million. Only the i – a scarcely economic 20p news digest – managed an increase, and that a miserly 1.45% to just shy of 300,000. Those with a head for historical statistics might like to note that its host, The Independent, now boasts a circulation of no more than 75,000. Even The Sunday Times – psychological barrier once 1 million – is now drifting down to 875,000.

In light of this dismal picture, it is no surprise to find The Sunday Telegraph (February ABC: 429,346) huddling closer to The Daily Telegraph (541,036) for warmth. As with the Sun, Mirror and The Independent 7-day operations that have preceded it, the rhetoric of the Telegraph’s transformation is radical and upbeat. The grim reality – and ultimate rationale for the move – is jobs lost. And with them, irreplaceable experience.

Murdoch MacLennanTrue, the headline figure of 80 print jobs out of 550 editorial staff being culled is not the whole picture. It emerges that Telegraph Group chief executive Murdoch MacLennan (left) will offset some of these losses with 50 “new digitally-focused jobs” – including a new position, director of content who will sit over both editors – and inject £8m into his “number one” priority of completing “our transition into a digital business.”

No matter how many time he incants the mantra “digital business”, MacLennan is unlikely – any more than his rivals who have trodden the same primrose path – to extricate his titles from the financial doldrums. The damage to the brand – particularly the Sunday brand – with its more considered, investigative magazine-like approach – is likely to be considerable. The strategic upside, after an initial financial up-tick, on the other hand is doubtful. Expect to see more circulation decline once disappointed Sunday readers reject the graft.

On the face of it, digital global readers, in whose name all this 7-day stuff is being done, look a worthy prize. For a start, there are lots of them. In January, for example, The Telegraph’s website traffic (by no means the most voluminous among newspaper brands) grew 11% over the previous month to 3,129,599 – the sort of circulation figure that no UK newspaper has been able to boast of for a very long time. But it’s fool’s gold. Digital readers are fickle and rather more likely to be driven by search than brand loyalty. Advertisers have recognised this by tightening their wallets. As former Google CEO Eric Schmidt long ago observed, there’s no better way of turning advertising dollars into cents than migrating to digital publishing. Nor, for the aforementioned reason of declining brand loyalty, are paywalls a viable financial alternative. Unlike the customers of banks, digital readers do have a choice. And they’re using it.

On the other hand, senior newspaper management cannot be seen to be doing nothing. They must inject energy and excitement into a task which, increasingly, looks as suicidal as the rush of the Gadarene swine.

How long before The Observer and Guardian – estimated to be losing about £50m a year – follow the same headlong path?


HSBC’s £400m global review that never was

March 9, 2013

Chris Clark HSBCSo, what was all that about? HSBC’s group marketing director Chris Clark calls a review of the “£400m” (actually rather less these days) global account late last year. Well, not exactly a review. More a series of private meetings that happen to take in the incumbent agency’s rivals at Omnicom, IPG and Publicis – just in case they have any bright ideas. No fundamental discussions take place on either strategy or creativity, because none are called for, even from the incumbent JWT.

Sniffing a rat, McCann (IPG) and BBDO (Omnicom) pull out. Late yesterday (a good time to bury news) it trickles out that WPP has, er, retained the account. But there have been a few twists of the kaleidoscope. Most salient is that outsider Saatchi & Saatchi (Publicis) will now handle the small-spending (relatively speaking) retail banking and wealth business across Europe and in Latin America. JWT is still at the epicentre, with the global brand business, but will now share the rest of the account with its WPP sister agency, Grey London.

Is this a classic piece of agency punishment meted out by the client? We still like you, WPP: but you’ve gone a bit flabby. So, just to make sure you’re on your toes, we’ll keep you on tenterhooks for a few months and then award a chunk of business to one of your rivals – to see how hungry they are.

Was it simply an exercise in cheese-paring the fees, as JWT officially likes to see it, on the part of one of the world’s wealthiest institutions?

Or is this Chris Clark desperately trying to justify his job as CMO (in all but name)? A marking time exercise, while he and his boss, HSBC chief executive Stuart Gulliver, dream up a successor to the faded strap line, The World’s Local Bank?

Because, of course, it isn’t anymore. If you rolled the market capitalisation of Barclays, Lloyds Bank and RBS together, they wouldn’t add up to that of HSBC – which remains by far Britain’s largest bank. But internationally, Gulliver has been busy rolling back the borders, with the divestment of businesses from as far afield as Argentina, Russia and Singapore. The proceeds of which were one contributory reason for the humungous profits the bank was able to declare only last week.

In the recent past, Clark has talked up the need to spend more marketing pounds on the product side (i.e., the separate bank businesses) and less on the corporate brand. One reasonable interpretation of this stance is that banks, in these bonus-bashing times, would do well to get their heads down to providing some basic customer service, as opposed to extravagantly boasting about their global expanse.

Another (they are not mutually exclusive) is that Clark and his colleagues haven’t got a clue what they should do. “In the future” doesn’t quite do it, does it? And in any case, as Clark himself once quipped, it’s more of a start than an end line.


The man who didn’t cause the world’s most infamous marketing disaster dies

March 8, 2013

edselsThe death late last month of Roy Brown Jr, aged 96, is a timely reminder of that old adage: success has many authors; failure but one scapegoat. The reality, as we shall see, is not uncommonly the inverse.

Brown was Ford’s top designer during the Fifties and it was his misfortune to be saddled with historical responsibility for one of the greatest marketing disasters of all time. The Ford Edsel was conceived in 1955, born in the 1958 model year and unceremoniously euthanised in late November 1959. In that time it had cost Ford a record $350m, the equivalent in today’s money of about $2.8tr.

Critics rounded on the controversial “horse collar” or “toilet-seat” chrome grille, in which some amateur psychologists even descried a vulva, as the car’s killer feature. Admittedly, over 50 years later, it’s hard to regard that grille as an aesthetic triumph – but, with hindsight, it’s surely no more than a fairly conventional attribute of the overblown fin-styled float-boats of the time. In any case, Brown was not ultimately responsible for the grille. His concept was a much more restrained vertical opening, perhaps à la Alfa; it was overruled by Ford engineers, who deemed it too narrow for radiator-cooling efficiency.

The wider truth about the Edsel – and the calamity that engulfed it – is that it was not just an automobile style, not just a car, but a range of cars, a new manufacturing division and, most disastrous misconception of all, a market segment that never existed.

In reviewing the consumer boom in 1950s America, Ford market “research” had concluded the car manufacturer was in need of more careful market segmentation. Its top end range – Lincoln and Mercury – was found to be competing – horror of horrors – with more downmarket marques such as Oldsmobile and Buick at General Motors. Solution: push Lincoln further upscale with the new Continental marque, which would compete more credibly with Cadillac. And introduce a new mid-market marque, the Edsel, which would slot in just below Mercury and just above Ford.

Simple, eh? Except Ford senior management then went on to commit a series of textbook marketing errors. The research was fatally flawed: by 1957 middle Americans were tightening their belts as a mini-recession beckoned. If anything, they were looking downmarket, at more value for money. Speaking of which, Ford then committed error number two, it got greedy with its pricing. The new segment competed nearly head on with Mercury, undermining the latter’s perceived value. At the same time, the bottom end of the Edsel range overlapped Ford’s better-equipped and better-value-for-money Fairlane 500.

Error number three was the name. No one had a clue what it should be, so the task was delegated to Edsel’s agency, Foote Cone & Belding – which duly obliged with no less than 6,000 paralysing suggestions, none of which quite did the business. True, four of them – Citation, Corsair, Pacer and Ranger – ended up as model names. But that still left the awkward issue of the umbrella brand unresolved. What then happened almost beggars belief. While Ford chairman Henry Ford II – a known sceptic of the whole brand segmentation idea – was abroad, the board took it upon themselves to name the marque after his father, the oddly-named Edsel – in honour of the Ford family. An unintentional hostage to fortune if ever there was one.

All things considered, the Edsel actually had a reasonable launch. It undershot expectations, but still managed to be one of the biggest model launches to date. From there on in, however, it was rapidly downhill. As the recession bit and sales stalled, the vultures began to circle. Some actually thought the styling and layout of the vehicle (which shared a platform with other Ford marques) was too conventional (!). Others criticised the range for coming up with innovations, such as the Teletouch automatic transmission selector, which were too complex for the consumer of the time. And certainly there were reliability and after-market problems.

robert_mcnamaraGetting the picture? Biffed on all sides, sales tanking; enter Robert McNamara – Hank the Deuce’s axeman. Better known to history as the man who, as Secretary of Defense, thought up the “body-count” as a means of conjuring defeat in Vietnam into victory, in the late Fifties McNamara (left) was a whizz kid consultant at Ford, who shared his chairman’s deeply-held conviction (or was that prejudice?) that Ford was over segmented, and would do well to get back to core brand values. It was death for the new but massively underperforming marque by several strategic cuts – cuts in the marketing and advertising budget; cuts in the production budget and cuts in the management overheads. The separate Edsel division was soon dissolved, but the Edsel itself limped on for a while as rebadged, retrimmed and overpriced Ford models in all but name.

And Roy Brown, the man who got blamed for it in the popular imagination? He lived to fight another day, as chief designer of Ford’s first world-car, the Cortina. Not only that, he kept faith with the Edsel, an immaculate example of which he continued to drive until his dying days.

For Brown’s estate, at any rate, the Edsel will have proved a good investment. Showroom-condition models now achieve prices in excess of $100,000.


Mad Men Series 6 – and the trouble with Harry’s dress sense

March 8, 2013

Mad MenOK readers, who’s the dude in the middle with the tasteful mustard jacket, silk cravat and sideburns? None other than our old pal Harry Crane, head of media at Sterling Cooper Draper (we imagine the “Pryce” has been dropped after recent events, but you never know: Stanley Pollitt, of BMP, continued to perform miracles after he had been dead for years).

Anyway, back to Crane and the latest series of Mad Men, which returns to US screens (but not alas our own, unless we’re Sky subscribers) on April 7th. The trouble with Harry is he’s such a fashion victim – a weak personality seeking momentary identification with every passing sartorial trend. In the past, that’s mostly meant a new pair of outrageously over-emphatic adman’s glasses. But here, in series 6, the preppy-groovy look has completely taken over.

Not much sign of that in Roger, other than slightly lengthened sideburns. And none at all in Don, who retains a circa-1959 cool dress sense. Let’s hope he’s finally disposed of the fedora. We thought that went out with President Kennedy. But Don was still wearing his in 1966. It’s one of those few, painful, anachronisms that crop up in the meticulously researched Lionsgate series. Another solecism was the otherwise elegantly restrained Pryce’s table manners when he was (as he thought) wining and dining his future Jaguar client. Still more so Mrs Pryce’s faux pas when she uttered, in a perfect cut-glass accent, the word “gotten”. No one in England has used that word since about 1800; it’s “got”.

Still, let’s not quibble over what remains an excellent series. We’ll all be glued to the screen. Once, at least, the DVD is released.

Meantime, here are a couple more shots to emerge from the studioDraper

Crane


Hello from the man who said “Tchau” to StrawberryFrog

March 6, 2013

Alexandre-Peralta-766x1024It’s over a year now since Peralta founder and CEO Alexandre Peralta expunged (literally so) the StrawberryFrog images sprayed all over the interior of his Sao Paulo hotshop. How’s he getting on in the wake of his split with mercurial and moody SF panjandrum Scott Goodson?

The other day I caught up with him and had a chance to find out.

Peralta, it may be recalled, is a copywriter by background who worked at some of the big multinational agencies such as DDB before moving to local Brazilian agency, Africa, as its creative director. When he set up shop with New York-based Goodson in 2007, the idea behind SFPeralta was to provide Goodson’s micro-network with an arm in the booming BRIC market and Peralta with access to international clients.

It didn’t quite work out like that. Peralta did indeed acquire international clients, such as PepsiCo’s snack business – but no thanks to StrawberryFrog, which became increasingly beset by financial and managerial crises. The result was an amicable (well, more or less) decision to go their own ways. Goodson needed the money (he had a 30% strategic stake in SFPeralta, but no managerial interest) and Peralta felt his agency would be better off without him.

Rightly so, it turns out. At the time, the Peralta Sao Paulo business had revenues of about $8.5m and was growing 50% a year. It has won new international business, including Bacardi Brasil (Martini and Grey Goose) and two Mondelez brands (i.e. Kraft of yore); more business from existing clients Pirelli and personal care company Natura; plus Vigor – the Brazilian dairy company giant. So much so that the agency is putting in place for the first time a chief operating officer.

063e7c5The new COO is Jairo Soares, a partner and media vice-president of Peralta these past five years.

At the time Alexandre Peralta dissolved the StrawberryFrog link, his agency was being actively courted by MDC-owned CP&B. Nothing came of that overture, and Peralta Sao Paulo retains its independence. However, the founder remains open-minded on the need for a collaborator:

“An international partner can be welcome in the future if it is capable of improving our portfolio even more,” Peralta tells me.

You read it here first.


Aren’t some Outdoor Plus shareholders compromised by a conflict of interest?

February 22, 2013

Marc MendozaThere’s a lot going on under the radar in OOH – or posters, as we anciently called it. And I’m not simply talking of Omnicom’s Eric Newnham-fronted effort to crash the charmed circle of UK specialist buyers – namely WPP-owned Kinetic and Aegis-owned Posterscope.

No, what caught my eye recently was something entirely different. It concerned premium digital site owner Outdoor Plus and its opening of yet another of the landmark London locations in which it specialises – in  this case The Spire, a 20 metre-high construct unmissably situated on the A40 exit from London.

The PR spiel, as conveyed in MediaWeek, was suitably gushing: access to a dedicated commuter and business audience; balanced male:female ratio; 60% ABC1; capable of targeting traffic both in and out of central London. What more could an advertiser ask for?

Very little, according to an excited Grant Branfoot, Outdoor Plus’s sales director: “The potential for advertisers is vast and through the addition of The Spire to our expanding digital portfolio (it includes The Eye in Holborn, the Euston Road Underpass and Vauxhall Cross), we think we can help advertisers exploit the immediacy, the creative possibilities and the opportunity for highly targeted messaging which is associated with large format outdoor digital screens.”

The potential for advertisers is vast, is it Grant? More correctly, the potential for some, carefully selected, advertisers is vast. Many will likely get scarcely a sniff of a placement. The reason is somewhat complicated, and to do with Outdoor Plus’s curious shareholding structure. But don’t go away, readers. It’s worth the wait, really.

Outdoor Plus is a reasonably sized, reasonably well-run private company founded in 2006 by Jonathan Lewis – who remains its managing director. Turnover was about £15.42m in the year to December 31, 2011 – the latest financial figures recorded in Companies House. Group operating profits – of which Outdoor’s comprised the vast majority – were £1.8m, allowing the six directors to award themselves collective “emoluments” (or fees) of about £770,000.

The roll-call of these directors makes interesting reading. Among them are Philip Andrew Georgiadis, daytime job: chairman of Walker Media; and Marc Sydney Benjamin Mendoza, better known as head of Havas Media UK. In other words, principals of notable media-buying organisations whose job it is, inter alia, to oversee without fear or favour the negotiation of the most advantageous placements for their clients on UK OOH sites.

Turn to the share structure of the company and things get even more interesting. It emerges that Georgiadis is also a 5.3% shareholder in Outdoor Plus. Mendoza (pictured) owns just a shade more. And then there’s Mendoza’s cousin and, technically, his boss, Havas Media UK group head Mark Craze, who owns 3.2%. But we’re not quite over yet, because Stephanie Gottlieb, wife of Colin Gottlieb – the EMEA chief executive of Omnicom-owned OMG – also owns 1%.

Now I’m not suggesting anything illegal is going on here. At one level, you have to tip your hat to Lewis, who has been extremely shrewd in persuading these media luminaries to come aboard, thereby – shall we say – reinforcing his revenue stream.

Indeed, even if the shareholding of the Havas, Walker and OMG representatives were to be combined, they could hardly be accused of concert-party style manipulation.

None of that, however, quite expunges the whiff of conflicting interest surrounding this cosy media buy-side/sell-side coalition. Clients whose accounts are not held by Havas, Walker or OMG may well be the losers. And those whose accounts are need to be assured that they are getting the very best deal for all the right reasons.

Senior media executives, like Caesar’s wife, should be above suspicion.


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