Feature

Austin relishes the chance to prove UK critics wrong

Mark Austin's return to the UK provides him with tough choices, Alasdair Reid writes

Mark Austin returned our calls using his mobile in Delhi airport and warning that the regional cellphone infrastructure was likely to go down again at any minute -- as it had been doing all day. In a few sentences, he had conjured up a picture of Third World chaos.

And then he tells us to bear with him, he's moving out of the earshot of someone who's just come through to airside. It is, he adds, John Steadman, the chairman of MindShare Asia-Pacific. A large place, Asia. And yet so small and so business class.

Some observers at rival agencies say Austin, the chairman and chief executive of Mediaedge:cia Asia-Pacific, is going to get the shock of his life when he returns to Europe later this year to become the chairman of MEC for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

As one network boss puts it: "He's been away for eight years or so and out there he's become a bit of a socialite from what I understand. No disrespect, but he's going to find the pace and the brutality of business here a bit different."

But Austin has a knack for outperforming expectations. As a young media executive in the FCB media department of the mid-80s, he wasn't particularly singled out as a high flier and when, in partnership with colleague Nick West, he pulled off a management buyout of a small FCB media subsidiary to create Austin West in 1987, it was hailed as a modest achievement.

This was, after all, the decade when the industry began reinventing itself on a far grander scale. And when, after strategic disagreements, he let West buy out his half of the company in 1995, you could have been forgiven for thinking that he'd fallen off the end of a rather familiar conveyor belt.

He headed east, though, and it was the making of him. And of CIA's Asian aspirations too. In 1996, he accepted the challenge of heading CIA's nascent operation in Singapore -- one of the region's first media independents.

Austin masterminded the construction of the CIA media network in the region before becoming the chief executive of the Asia-Pacific Tempus Group. He then took the role of the chairman and chief executive of MEC Asia-Pacific after the WPP takeover.

So why is Austin leaving the empire he created? He needed a new challenge, he explains. He describes himself as entrepreneurial, turned on by tough business challenges and driven by ambitious growth targets. "The challenge is to take things on, following the incredible successful consolidation of the businesses [the CIA and Media Edge networks] since acquisition. It's now about getting the brand out into the marketplace, growing its profile and attracting better people," he states.

But he also adds that the time was right for a return to the UK for the sake of his young children, aged two and three, by his second wife. He's keen to give them an English education. He's also looking forward to being reunited with his substantial cellar of red wine.

Rival bosses say he has his work cut out even defining what his role is to be in a network that already has too many chiefs. Europe already has a chief executive, Dominic Grainger, reporting to the global boss, Mainardo de Nardis. And there is Charles Courtier, the network's global executive chairman.

Austin is too young (45) to be content with the classic "older and wiser counsel" role that some chairmen combine with client-facing duties. But if he seeks a stronger executive influence, he will begin treading on Grainger's toes.

By common consent, the most urgent problem to address is the London agency and here he will face the powerful figure of its chairman, Rob Norman.

One rival network boss doesn't envy Austin, arguing that he's stuck with an austere CIA culture and that it will be a painful process to change this. And that's before the whole issue of how, within WPP, MEC is very clearly seen as the company's number-two media brand behind MindShare.

But some observers believe that Austin is the ideal sort of character to galvanise the network. They say he embodies a rare blend of qualities: a very astute media practitioner, a top-notch business manager and a big-picture strategic thinker. He published a book last year, called 'Is There Anybody Out There?', which examined possible future directions for the industry.

West, with whom Austin remained friends despite the demise of their business partnership, says that he's a charismatic manager, who gets the very best out of his teams. It's probably something he learned from playing rugby at the highest level with London Scottish.

"He's one of the most inspirational people I've worked with in the business. When he sets his mind on something he usually achieves it, yet he never comes across as over-confident," West says.

The Austin file

1987 Austin West, co-founder

1996 CIA Singapore, chief executive

1997 CIA Asia-Pacific, chief executive

2001 Tempus Asia-Pacific, chief executive

2004 Mediaedge:cia, chairman, Europe, the Middle East and Africa

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