CLOSE-UP: NEWSMAKER - Duff takes the strain during ITV's seismic overhaul

Duff regards the merger as a time to effect real change, Anne-Marie Crawford says.

Graham Duff is generally regarded as the safest pair of hands in town to do a very difficult job. That's what his former boss at Zenith Media, Christine Walker, reckons and you won't hear many dissenting on-the-record voices.

Let's ignore for the time being those naysayers who would contend that ITV is simply rearranging the deckchairs; those nigglers who suggest that it should have chosen an "outsider", should have sent a clearer message to the market that it was ready to become a real 21st-century brand.

Forget all that for now; Duff, Yorkshire-born but Essex-bred, is the people's choice.

Strictly speaking, his job - the managing director of ITV Sales -doesn't exist yet, so he is only a "designate". But God and the Office of Fair Trading willing, it is only a matter of days before Duff's contract is signed, his fate is sealed and he will be expected to deliver.

From a traffic clerk at Anglia TV in 1977, through the ranks of Zenith Media, fate has brought this pragmatic, unpretentious man to this portentous place in time. It is unshowy Duff and not the more flamboyant Carlton veteran Martin Bowley who has been chosen as the chief change-meister.

On 1 December, barring any unlikely 11th-hour intervention, ITV Sales will be spawned from the £4 billion union of Carlton and Granada. It will be a sales point like no other, commanding an unprecedented 52 per cent share of a £3.6 billion market. To many people, the move is not just anti-competitive and counter-intuitive, but a downright scandal.

As one agency director puts it: "It's beyond belief that this sales merger got the green light."

The unparalleled sales proposition sparked a lengthy competition inquiry and subsequent report by the OFT. But a fudge always looked likely. As Walker says: "It is amazing how many submissions went in to the Competition Commission and how little understanding came out. At every turn, it took ITV's position."

One of the conditions proposed to ensure the deal did not operate against the "public interest" was the so-called Contract Rights Renewal scheme.

This is a jaw-droppingly complex set of rules drawn up to allow advertisers to renew their contracts on the same terms as earlier deals.

Jim Marshall, the chairman of Starcom Group UK and the head of the IPA media futures group, says: "The rules are hellishly complicated. To this day, I don't think that the Competition Commission grasped the mechanics of the TV trading system. The only way really to regulate the market is through proper competition."

What do advertisers think? Procter & Gamble's associate director of media, Bernard Balderston, says: "It's no secret advertisers were looking for a different solution from the Commission. There is a lot of uncertainty. The CRR is fine if an advertiser wants to stay within the formula, but if they want to change the deal outside the formula, what is the proposition? If you're a new advertiser, what's the formula?"

On top of this, as the crucial 2004 trading season begins in earnest, the UK's largest commercial broadcaster is effectively without a sales director. Welcome to Duff's world.

He sounds bone-weary when we speak. He may have landed one of the most important jobs in commercial TV, but that means very little right now.

Apart from fending off the slings and arrows flung in his direction by a confused and defensive media fraternity, Duff has just moved house.

To his credit, he still finds the strength for levity. Duff's new Islington home, which he's bought with his girlfriend, Zenith's press director, Kelly Harrold, used to belong to two directors at Shed Productions, the company behind such gems as Footballers' Wives. He jokes that he has been rifling through the scripts that still land on his mat in the hope of uncovering another ratings winner.

Despite the ready wit, Duff is no stranger to the industry's snipers.

Since joining Granada Enterprises two years ago, there have been niggles over what exactly he has achieved there. He acknowledges the criticism but points out that almost from day one, the company he joined was in merger mode and many decisions were effectively put on hold.

Since news of his latest promotion, he's had to contend with other insidious suggestions that it was simply a Granada shoo-in, despite the use of outside consultants, and he is simply a pawn in what is actually a Granada takeover.

There is the mildest flicker of irritation. "To start with, this is not a takeover and I was not a shoo-in," Duff says. "I have never been through such a rigorous selection process before. If you step back for a minute, the reason I got the Granada job in the first place two years ago is part of the reason I got this job. Having worked on both sides of the fence, I've got a unique perspective of what advertisers want from media agencies and owners. I'm not a bad sales person, and I have a good track record in building and motivating teams and bringing about change."

It's hard to find anyone who would disagree with Duff's self-assessment.

While none of his peers would describe him as dynamic or a visionary, this tall, balding figure is variously perceived as a "doer" and "extremely capable". Walker adds: "He's not a brilliant strategist but he's buttoned down."

Marshall says: "On the sales side, ITV has performed well in circumstances where the product has under-performed. Graham is the acceptable face of ITV and has a more sympathetic view of client and agency needs than is typical within ITV."

Duff's skill-set will be tested to the limit in the coming weeks as he begins to craft a strong management team below him, while cutting off a lot of dead ITV wood.

Duff is at pains to point out that he was given a blank sheet of paper to create his team and pledged a personal guarantee to all staff that he would look for the "best and most appropriate people", irrespective of their current employer.

Under the new set-up, there will be five directors reporting to Duff: a director of sales, a director of sales operations, a director of knowledge management, a director of customer relationship management and a director of cinema.

Three of those five appointments are new positions, but the most critical is that of sales director.

Despite suggestions Duff badly needed to ditch some of ITV's old baggage, this appointment will come from within. As Duff himself says: "It's a pretty pivotal role and we need to hit the ground running. A very high percentage of our revenue comes from spot advertising and that has to be got right. I'm not running a charity here - my job is to maximise revenue."

The sales director's role will almost certainly go to one of two men: Gary Digby, the sales director at Carlton, or Simon Pardon, currently the group sales director at Granada. ITV old guard both, but Duff is confident that the scope of the rest of the structure is such that he can win his critics over.

"I want to send a clear message of change to our customers. This is not just the lumping together of two sales houses: I fundamentally believe we have a great opportunity to provide greater clarity, to be more proactive, efficient, coherent and accountable," Duff says.

Such fine words will not in themselves end the worries about ITV's hegemony or heal the hurt of years of hubris and hostility. Duff acknowledges his peers' concerns and confusion and is sympathetic to the concerns over how the CRR system will work. But he insists that ITV must be judged on its performance and approach.

"By aligning future adjustments to audiences, we are saying we will invest in our product, otherwise our customers have the right to reduce investment in ITV," he says.

Duff is supremely aware of the burden of responsibility he bears but is determined to effect seismic change within ITV. There will never be a more propitious moment to try, or a worse time to fail.

QUESTIONNAIRE

Age: 44

Lives: Islington

Family: Divorced, two children (Ashleigh, 16; Tom, 14)

Favourite ad: Currently, John Smith's "no nonsense" campaign; all-time

favourite, Pepe Jeans (circa 1987) with The Smiths' soundtrack How Soon

is Now?

Describe yourself in three words: Down to earth

Greatest extravagance: CDs and DVDs

Most treasured possession: CD collection (West Ham season ticket a close

second)

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