The chief of Lowes’ brand new operation is shy but confident.
There was a natural sweetness to the choice of the Hyde Park Hotel for
the unveiling of Lowe Howard-Spink’s new media dependant last week
(Campaign, 6 December).
Almost exactly a year ago, ensconced in the hotel’s bar, I happened to
overhear Tim Lindsay, Lowes’ managing director, illustrate for a
prospective employee the absolute necessity of Lowes becoming a serious
media player, getting into the volume market and moving into the top
five or die.
It was an argument many around town had long been making on Lowes’
behalf, though in truth the agency’s in-house media department, headed
by Mike Smallwood, suited most people as it was: increasingly
marginalised in the competitive media market.
But it was not an argument that Lowes - the staunchest of defenders of
the full-service ethos - had ever been prepared to brook. For Mike
Smallwood, the man responsible for the success of the Lowes media team
but only one cog in the wheel that could revolutionise the status quo,
it must have been a testing time.
Smallwood had seen Lowes rise to claim one of the best media departments
in London, skilfully (and with a distinguishing degree of integrity)
playing the quality card well before it became the requisite new-
business tool it is today. At one point, the agency was proud to say
that it handled 100 per cent of its clients’ media in-house at a time
when more and more voices were being raised in favour of the media
But Smallwood, who says he ‘came to Lowes for 18 months and stayed for
13 years’, also oversaw painful media losses such as Whitbread and, more
recently, Lloyds-TSB. The shine wore off the department and, for many,
Lowes was held to have lost its media edge. It rarely made it on to
media-only pitches, had a low profile at a time when the media
specialists were polishing their PR act, and consistently failed to
trumpet the strengths of its in-house media operation when the whole
philosophy of the full-service solution was under siege.
It would be easy to hold the 37-year-old Smallwood - one of the
industry’s few Geordies not to have elocution lessons in the Newcastle
dialect to maintain his Geordie street-cred - accountable for some of
this decline. But talking to Smallwood now, freshly unveiled as the new
chief executive of Western International Media Europe, it is clear that
he had felt more than a twinge of frustration at being left behind.
At the beginning of this year, Smallwood confesses, he was pretty darn
fed up. ‘I decided that it was time for me to do something more serious.
I’d been at Lowes forever, and I felt it was time to change things.’
Mind you, Smallwood says that whenever he’s felt like that in the past
13 years, something’s come along within the agency to keep him happy.
He joined Lowes in 1984 as a planner/buyer, made it to the board three
years later and shared the deputy media director’s title with Andy
Troullides, now the managing director of MediaCom, in 1988. In the
battle for the top job, Smallwood triumphed, climbing later to media
director for Lowe Group Europe in 1992.
Smallwood says that if there was ever any question about his natural
accession to the Western throne, it’s not something he was privy to. As
far as he’s concerned, he’s the right man for the job. ‘Our first
priority is not to lose any clients and one of the reasons I’m right for
this job is that I know our client base, what they want and how to put
it together. I also know the media marketplace inside the UK and across
Europe, so I’ve got a lot of experience of the issues.’
Troullides should know as well as anybody how suited Smallwood is for
the top job. ‘Mike is a really astute business person,’ Troullides
explains. ‘In fact, he’s more of a business animal in the rounded sense
than he is a hands-on media practitioner.’
Troullides also adds that Smallwood’s is the first Christmas card to
land on his desk every year, a fact that illustrates Smallwood’s, shall
we say anal, attention to detail. ‘His desk is always tidy, he’s always
well turned-out, hair neatly cut, motorbike clean and shiny,’ Troullides
It’s a mental neatness that knits seamlessly with Lowes’ careful,
considered approach to media. Martin Bowley, the managing director of
Carlton UK Sales, says that, as well as being ‘smashing, bloody nice and
trustworthy’ Smallwood is renowned for setting high standards. ‘Lowes
spends bloody hours identifying the best programmes for its clients to
advertise in. If Lowes’ clients are advertising, you really do see the
Smallwood likes to think of himself as ‘well-considered, logical, the
sort of person who negotiates by reason rather than brawn - I understand
what I want and why and I don’t get rolled over easily.’ Since skeletons
will out anyway, he also confesses to being ‘autocratic, a touch
cynical, crap at taking criticism and too strong-headed. I’m well aware
that I’m not perfect.’ As if to illustrate this last point, he even
admits to being a Newcastle United supporter.
Mark Cranmer, the media director to Smallwood’s deputy at Lowes in the
80s and now managing director of Motive, agrees about the headstrong,
sensitive-to-criticism bit, ‘which is a rich irony given my own failings
on that score’. Cranmer admits that these mutual flaws led to ‘a few
clashes over pride’ with Smallwood, but insists ‘I like Mike, actually,
which might come as a bit of a shock to him. He’s extremely good at
media, particularly planning, and a very decent human being.’
Now as chief executive of Western, Smallwood will take charge of a
company with a formidable line-up of partners. Western is a joint
venture between the Lowe Group, Initiative Media and Western
International Media, the largest media management company in the US with
billings in excess of dollars 2.6 billion.
But for all the undisputed calibre of the partnership, Smallwood’s game
is now a very different one. Running an in-house media operation offers
an in-built excuse for any failure. Hamstrung from branding your media
team, more clients who prefer the a la carte option, perhaps lack of
resource for an increasingly expensive media chemistry set, even
inability to attract the top staff who want to work for companies where
media is the first and only priority - all can bedevil the in-house
media department. Now Smallwood and his team are exposed in a way they
never were before. And mettle is about to be tested.
Smallwood says he’s relishing the challenge and isn’t at all nervous
about the spotlight. ‘We’ll soon find out if I’m up to it,’ he jokes,
before going on to make it quite clear that he already feels he is more
than up to it. ‘The things I’ve been involved in, in the past, have been
successful and that’s not a bad testimonial in this business.’
Still, Smallwood remains one of the least visible senior media figures
around. He acknowledges shunning the media social circuit: ‘I can do it
for the agency, but it’s not really something I naturally enjoy.’ When
asked why he’s got fewer name checks in the trade press over the years
than almost any other media director, he replies ‘it’s because I’m shy’.
However, he insists he loves getting up on platforms, or standing in
front of clients in new-business presentations, which is just as well
because there really must be more of that stuff now. But if there is a
question mark over Smallwood, it’s not his ability but his hunger that
is doubted. ‘Mike puts so much emphasis on his family, his life outside
of work, that I wonder how much he actually wants this,’ one observer
says. Another asks: ‘How much is Western borne out of defensive
necessity rather than drive and ambition, and how much drive and
ambition does Mike have left?’
‘I’m a survivor,’ Smallwood insists. But in Western, he has the
opportunity not just to survive, but to thrive. Merely surviving with
the gift that Western presents will be tantamount to failure.