By Katherine Levy, campaignlive.co.uk, Thursday, 10 February 2011 12:01AM
MediaCom's new chief executive, Karen Blackett, has lost her voice. "I tried to keep it going until I met Simon Le Bon," she whispers, referring to a visit from the reformed Duran Duran, who recently promoted the upcoming launch of the music video site Vevo at the agency's Holborn office.
It is clear she likes this vamped-up MediaCom; the MediaCom that invites rock stars through its doors and the MediaCom that has made her one of three women running the largest media agency in the UK. "Sue (Unerman), Jane (Ratcliffe), me - it is the Destiny's Child team," she says happily.
And no prizes for guessing who she fancies as Beyonce.
So who is this person now running the Martin Sorrell starship? Certainly Blackett matches Beyonce's level of ambition and hard graft. And she has MediaCom groupies, led by the global chairman and chief executive, Stephen Allan, and the EMEA chief, Nick Lawson, who are impressed with her "talent", "focus" and way with clients. "They love her," everyone chimes. Her focus, Lawson believes, comes from her previous life as an athlete; she was a sprinter and competed at a national level.
Blackett's determination is also evident in her path towards the CEO crown. After brief stints at CIA as a direct response director, and Zenith as a planning director running the BT account, she joined The Media Business in 1995 after Claudine Collins recommended her to Steve Goodman. "Steve said to Claudine: 'If she's good, I'll take the credit, but if she's shit, I'll blame you,'" Blackett laughs.
Just before the merger with MediaCom in 1999, Lawson spotted Blackett's talent for pitching when she headed an artificial pitch for the Metropolitan Police, as part of an internal training scheme. He took the material to the Met and tipped a review, which the agency then won. Blackett was later promoted to new-business and marketing director in 2002.
Six years on, she became the chief operations director across EMEA, and a mere 24 months later, she stepped into Ratcliffe's shoes as UK chief, last December. She follows a career path - new-business director to CEO - previously trodden by Lawson and Allan.
But what of the timing of Blackett's appointment? Undeniably, when any chief executive departs their role after just two rather quiet years, chins wag.
Blackett smarts at industry speculation that Ratcliffe was pushed aside: "No. We've had two years of battening down the hatches. Now we're coming out of that and Jane made a decision that 2011 is a year of new business - and that is one of my strengths. Jane knows my skillset and asked me to come back to the UK. I said: 'Of course.'"
Ratcliffe's role, she assures us, will still be hands-on. "Absolutely,"
Blackett says. "She has not retired.Jane is such a well-known figure in the industry, and she is fantastic in terms of representing MediaCom on industry boards." Furthermore, Blackett and Ratcliffe will move office to sit near each other on the periphery of the UK team. Blackett has requested open-access, concertinaed walls which will stay pushed aside unless she needs privacy.
Blackett is not unlike a PR-schooled politician when she speaks. Points are made in affirmative triplets: "We are absolutely going to need to grow this year, as does everybody, absolutely we need to make sure we've got the best people in the agency, absolutely we need to make sure when we're doing pitches we've got the A-team on it." And 2011 "is going to be a year where we make sure we are training talent, attracting talent and hanging on to talent".
That thing called talent is clearly a rub for the agency after a wave of senior departures in the past six months. First, it lost its managing director, David Jowett, to Aegis, then its head of strategy, Sean Healy, jumped to Walker Media, and, last month, its digital guru and managing partner, Stefan Bardega, resigned to take up the role of MD at a mobile start-up.
To her credit, Blackett has minimised what could have been a huge blow; she lured Bardega back as a part-timer. Furthermore, she suggested MediaCom and Bardega's company do business together by sharing clients and "exporting media activity to MediaCom", a foresight not many bosses would have or, out of pride, act on. But Blackett is not one to let pride get in the way of a good business opportunity. She is also sentimental: "I keep saying to Sean: 'Just let me know when you're coming home.' You cut that boy and he bleeds MediaCom."
Blackett rebuffs the challenge that the agency has been quiet of late, referencing the recession. "It's all very well going for new business," she says (although the new-business leagues seem to refute this), "but if business is walking out the back door, all you're doing is standing still." She says a renewed energy is upon the agency now, which she will cultivate: "There is a hunger to do things differently, to win more clients and to do good work."
With her faint voice and nostalgic talk, Blackett seems a far cry from the ruthless description of one industry source who once worked with her: "She's bloody good at her job. But it's not all roses with her. If you're on her side she'll carry you to the top, but you cross her once and she will kick you out the door."
After a quiet period, Blackett is likely to put some fire back in MediaCom's belly. Let's see if this translates to new-business success.
Lives: Chiswick, with partner and one-year-old son Isaac
Most treasured possession: A photograph of my 100-year-old, now
Favourite media: Sky Sports, Living TV (America's Next Top Model and
How do you relax: Sport - kick-boxing and running
Always in the fridge: Muller Little Stars yoghurts for my son
Motto: Two ears, one mouth - use them at that proportion
This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk