By John Tylee, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 28 May 2010 12:00AM
There are a number of reasons why the appointment of Lisa Thomas as the M&C Saatchi Group chief executive will turn out to be a something of a milestone in its evolutionary journey.
For one thing, she's a woman - only a handful have broken into the group's upper echelons where, as one former executive points out: "There are more senior managers than you can shake a stick at."
For another, she is seen as a key part of the succession management that will take the group forward when its founding partners - with whom she's said to get on well and who hold her in high regard - cash in their chips.
Finally, it is to Thomas, 43, that the big challenge falls in making the M&C Saatchi name, for so long associated with advertising in its most classic sense, synonymous with the joined-up strategic thinking that's in tune with client demands.
"The group has to show everybody that it has moved with the times," a one-time senior manager points out. "Thomas is perfectly cast for this role because she has the gravitas and the credibility."
Nobody expects Thomas to be fazed by such high expectations of her. Her decade at the helm of Lida, which she helped found, saw the group's direct marketing operation evolve into its "jewel in the crown" with a barnstorming new business record and a string of creative awards to match.
Now she must carry that into a broader role and ensure there's cohesion and synergy between the M&C Saatchi "village" of seven companies, embracing everything from PR and sponsorship to brand licensing, social and political campaigning and mobile marketing.
Thomas agrees there are tricky balances to be struck in ensuring group operations work to a common purpose without press-ganging staff loyal to the "village"
companies for which they work, and without jeopardising any long-standing client relationships. She will be scaling down her involvement with Lida, not wishing to invite allegations of bias towards it.
However, she points out, it isn't as though the group is suddenly going integrated overnight. It has worked steadily over the past five years to offer clients integrated teams and broader communications solutions. In June last year, it established a centralised planning operation to service all the "village" companies that share digital expertise via a "hub" system.
"I've been helping to deliver all that, which is probably why I've ended up in this new role," Thomas suggests. "My challenge is to change people's perceptions of M&C Saatchi."
And what is the perception? "I suspect it's seen primarily as a famous advertising brand. There's nothing wrong with that, although my vision for us is as a strategic communications provider."
Few doubt that Thomas - "ruthlessly efficient", according to one ex-associate - will do what has to be done. "She'll take to it like a duck to water," Tom Wong, Lida's former marketing manager, now TBWA\London's marketing director, predicts. "She always knows where the best skills are to be found and she's outstanding at managing different personalities and negotiating her way through delicate political situations."
Others agree. "She's never terrifying and her great skill is getting on well with those above her without patronising those below her," a former M&C Saatchi manager says. "She's down-to-earth and accessible."
A current agency executive is much taken with her selfless management style. "She has a collective ambition rather than a personal one," she says. "Her personal agenda never comes first."
Given her reputation for making her case, it's not surprising that Thomas had early ambitions to be a lawyer. Born near Liverpool, she went to boarding school in Wales before going to Cambridge to read Spanish and French.
She hoped her urge to travel would be satisfied by joining the security printing company De La Rue. While it provided an introduction to creativity in helping to design Paraguayan bank notes - and gave her some early insights into marketing - the hoped-for travel opportunities didn't materialise.
A headhunter got her interviews at Grey London and the then Wunderman Cato Johnson. Both offered her jobs but she chose the latter, mainly because of the reputation of the company's founder, Lester Wunderman, acknowledged as the father of DM.
She stayed for five years, working on BT and helping to launch the British Airways Executive Club brand across Europe. But it was at Craik Jones Watson Mitchell Voelkel, where she began a five-year stint in 1994, that she honed her reputation, helping to introduce the Land Rover Freelander - the name was her idea.
Nick Hurrell, then the M&C Saatchi joint chief executive, who was looking to extend the "village" into the direct marketing sector, recognised her as the agency's un-promoted star who needed a chance to shine.
"She's charming and tough at the same time," Hurrell says. "That's been incredibly useful to her and it's reflected in the way she stimulates creative work that's accountable. But she never leaves you feeling unhappy that you've worked with her."
Thomas founded Lida in partnership with IMP's former executive creative director, Dave Harris.
He remembers his partner as shy but possessed of a very logical brain. "You can see how bright she is in the way she builds an argument," Harris says. "She's a get-up-and-go person who is very good at nurturing people. She also has great gusto and always gets jobs done quickly and well."
M&C Saatchi proved the hothouse that allowed Thomas to bloom. "She fitted in right from the beginning and was always seen as a star hiring," one of the agency's senior managers at the time recalls.
Another was impressed by her quiet self-confidence within the agency's macho environment. "She was never some sharp-stilettoed ball-breaker trying to impose her authority," he says. "She builds consensus and she's somebody you always want on your team."
However, some wonder if the M&C Saatchi culture will, in the end, prove a stumbling block.
Michael Moszynski is the chief executive of London Advertising and spent 23 years in Saatchi agencies. He says: "Each of the companies has its own P&L, which means everybody is fighting for their own revenue. Unless the group moves to a single P&L, true integration won't happen. I think it fears that having a single P&L means entering unfamiliar territory and that it would be difficult to manage."
Thomas admits "this is something I'm wrestling with" and acknowledges there may be an opportunity to cut the number of separate P&Ls. But she warns: "Our best people have to be allowed to run their companies properly. But that doesn't mean we don't have a shared agenda."
Also, there's a belief within the agency that integration is neither just about single P&Ls nor greater shared business between "village" companies.
"Integration was always something that occurred downstream," Camilla Harrison, the group's former marketing director, now its chief operating officer, explains. "We're committed to providing upstream integrated thinking. We have specialist companies that work together as well as doing business in their own right. Integration shouldn't be synonymous with lowest common denominator."
For her part, Thomas believes that only some under-resourcing has prevented the unified structure functioning as well as it ought. "It's not that I've been handed a poisoned chalice," she insists. "The system works and doesn't need sorting out. We just have to tell more people about it."
1988: Graduated from Cambridge with an MA in French and Spanish.
1989: Joined Wunderman Cato Johnson, working on BT and British Airways.
1994: Moved to Craik Jones Watson Mitchell Voelkel. Launched the Land Rover Freelander.
2000: Founded Lida with Dave Harris, the IMP executive creative director. The agency has since won clients including Boots, The Carphone Warehouse and Mini.
This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk