Feature

Grey matters

As one of the main reasons for the industry getting younger, digital agencies are surely the last places that would want to hire ad veterans still getting to grips with their e-mail. Not so, Lucy Aitken discovers.

Spotting that first grey hair marks a watershed moment. Suddenly, it hits you that the last time you partied like it was 1999, it probably was. But fear not if you work in a senior ad agency role and are starting to grey at the temples or thin out on top. If you've proved your business nous, in a few years' time, there may be a role for you on the board of a digital agency.

The roll-call of adland veterans who are defecting to digital is impressive. The latest is the former chairman of TBWA\Europe, Paul Bainsfair, who has just become Lean Mean Fighting Machine's non-executive chairman.

Bainsfair, 55, has swapped TBWA's extensive network of neatly presented ad agencies across Europe for a Spartan loft space in Kings Cross. As he puts it: "There are no glossy meeting rooms, no bar and no pretty receptionists waiting to greet clients."

Instead, there are 20 full-time employees, who, it is hoped, will benefit from Bainsfair's 30 years of experience, which include a successful start-up and a stint as the managing director of Saatchi & Saatchi. His chief duty as a non-executive chairman, a role that he says takes up at least a couple of days a month, is to advise the four-strong management team.

LMFM's managing partner, Tom Bazeley, says: "He doesn't just pitch up here every month, proffer his wisdom for an hour and then go home. He's in and out the office all the time, working on specifics, such as managerial or new-business tasks." According to Bazeley, LMFM is already benefiting from Bainsfair's miles on the clock: "Often, we explain a situation to Paul and, within seconds, he brings up a pearl of wisdom about a comparable situation that he's been in before."

As for Bainsfair, he appears to be thrilled to find himself in an environment where he can learn. "This whole digital thing is where all the action is," he gushes. "Digital agencies are growing very quickly and yet they don't have the arc of experience that you get from running businesses over time. When an agency doubles in terms of the business it's doing, there are lots of issues to manage. That's where my experience will be useful - in helping the agency to grow, but not losing the culture of the place."

Such partnerships can not only plug an agency into a huge amount of knowledge, but also lend advice that is easier to accept from an industry stalwart. Lord David Puttnam, 67, was invited to be Profero's non-executive chairman after he gave a talk at the agency. He says: "I would never have approached a digital shop and said: 'How about me?' The fact that the initiative came from them was essential to it working. That gives me the leeway to offer quite a bit of tough love."

What's interesting about the trend for more grey hair in London's digital shops is that, as well as working within a corporate context, many of the new board members are experienced in launching and managing their own start-ups. In some cases, this has entailed selling all or part of their business. With Dare's £10 million sale to Cossette last year indicating a maturing in the digital agency market, other shops may be looking to follow suit. Being able to tap into the advice of someone who's been there and done that could be invaluable.

And it isn't just the smooth operators or the accomplished account men who are befriending digital agencies; creatives want a piece of the interactive action, too. Robert Campbell, 49, who left United London in March 2007, joined Steak Media's board as a non-executive director in September 2007.

The agency was founded in 2005 by a trio of search engine marketing pioneers and helps to maximise ROI through pay-per-click, search marketing, display advertising and affiliate management. If that all sounds like techno-babble, take heart in the knowledge that part of Campbell's remit is to translate the techie-talk into English. He reflects: "I help the guys at Steak to package themselves and to articulate what they do."

He is particularly animated about Steak's ability to use search data to glean emerging market trends that can then inform business decisions: "I don't think Steak is ever going to be every client's first port of call as a brand guardian, but it can tell John Lewis what the market is doing and what it should be stocking, and that defines how John Lewis approaches its marketing."

Seb Bishop, Steak's chairman, says: "Online is playing a more important role, and we need people like Robert and Matt (Clark, a partner at Mother London and a second non-executive director) to help us communicate this to clients. They bring us back into the non-digital space."

Campbell finds the partnership of his creative expertise with Steak's technical ability exciting because it opens up new career opportunities. He says: "I want to work for another 20 years or so. I've got absolutely no intention to retire at 60."

Yet his desire to work into his twilight years is at odds with an ad industry he describes as "infatuated with youth". He adds: "It's the industry's Achilles heel. Most industries would be eager to hire people with 25 years of experience, but big networks would rather hire someone who was 32."

The lack of older people in the ad industry is a symptom of its pretty lamentable track record on diversity. But according to Andrew Wardlaw, the head of digital talent at The Talent Business, adland's loss is digital's gain. "In advertising, there isn't enough diversity, and age is one of the reasons why. Yet, in digital agencies, there is more readiness to take on people with lots of experience to help them get higher up the food chain," he says.

And for the former admen, advising a small digital shop must make a refreshing change, particularly for those who've come from a corporate environment. Bazeley speculates: "I think there's a bit of Paul that's enjoying not having to answer to the Saatchi brothers or to Omnicom. Instead, he's working with a youthful and spirited agency that's going through exciting times."

What's more, one huge advantage of such partnerships, Lord Puttnam says, is that digital knocks years off your age: "Thanks to the digital world, I'm much younger than I was at 60 because I'm more inquisitive and prepared to challenge myself more. I've learnt that your age is defined by the questions you're still prepared to ask."

THREE WISE MEN

JOHN BARTLE AND DARE

Before starting up Dare Digital in 2000, the managing partner, Mark Collier, invited his friend and former boss John Bartle to be the agency's non-executive chairman. Bartle chairs the monthly board meeting, mentors Collier one morning a month and talks to him around three times a week on the phone. "Many of our conversations are extremely brief," Bartle reveals, "but Mark knows that he can always bounce something off me."

Bartle, who describes the difference between executive and non-executive in terms of the public face of the agency versus the internal, private one, admits that he wasn't appointed owing to his digital knowhow: "Mark didn't want me for my digital knowledge; he wanted me because I know about the industry, clients and how to build a business."

Asked what he gets from his chairmanship, he says: "I get something fresh out of it because I'm learning about a new sector. I actually think that keeps your brain working and keeps you young. I also get tremendous pleasure and satisfaction from their success."

And, according to Collier, even though Bartle has nothing to do with the agency's new-business machine, clients like the clout of prestigious non-executives: "They look at Bob (Willott, Dare's other non-executive director) and John and see knowledge, experience and wisdom. In our view, that can only be a good thing."

As for Bartle, he is modest about what he brings to Dare. "I don't think my contribution is more than marginal," he says. "It's sailing along, and I'm just helping it to adjust the tiller slightly."

WHAT BARTLE BRINGS TO DARE

'You might expect a non-executive to be quite cautious, yet he's often pushing us to be more radical in terms of recruitment, expansion or investment.' - Mark Collier, managing partner

DAVID PATTISON AND I-LEVEL

In April 2007, David Pattison left his position as chief executive, PHD Worldwide, a network that he co-founded, to join ILG Group, i-level's parent company. John Bartle, also i-level's non-executive chairman, was instrumental in Pattison's appointment.

As its chief executive, Pattison's official remit is to broaden i-level's UK proposition and to look into expanding the company internationally, but ripening it for a sale is also central. I-level's sale has been mooted in the press, but Pattison doesn't reveal any immediate intention: "Never say never, but it's not on our agenda at the moment."

What drew him to digital? "I wanted to learn something new, and moving into the digital space definitely gave me that opportunity," he says. "I thought I understood digital before because I thought it was another media channel, but it's not; it's a different language. In the traditional space, you forever measure costs in terms of media pricing. In digital agencies, you talk about lifetime customer value, return on investment or how much business something will generate for clients. So you talk the language of commerce rather than the language of media."

Pattison is also clear about what the benefits are for i-level. "By its very nature, the digital space is an immature industry, but I don't mean it's badly behaved. It's young and fresh and full of people who have only ever seen 40, 50 or 60 per cent growth and they think that's the norm. The industry needs people like me and Paul Bainsfair because we understand the effect that we can have on clients' business. Digital agencies need people who have been around the block around a few times."

WHAT PATTISON BRINGS TO I-LEVEL

'David has done everything from starting a company to running a network, so we couldn't dip into a broader base of experience if we tried.' - Faith Carthy, group managing director

LORD PUTTNAM AND PROFERO

Lord David Puttnam worked at Collett Dickenson Pearce in its 60s heyday with the likes of Sir Alan Parker and Charles Saatchi before moving into film and producing features including Chariots of Fire, Midnight Express and Bugsy Malone. In April 2007, he became the non-executive chairman of the full-service digital agency Profero, a role to which he commits between three and four days a month.

Asked what he contributes, Lord Puttnam jokes: "I'm at least twice the age of the next oldest person, so I bring up the average age of the company quite significantly!"

He compares Profero to CDP in the 60s, commenting: "Profero has the same energy and commitment to learning on the job in which I've always believed, as well as the same core belief in creativity. At Colletts, we were always trained to believe that a really great idea could help sell a product, so it was always led by ideas and so is Profero; it's not tied up in some vast management structure."

Puttnam chairs Profero's strategic board, a senior decision-making group, and also acts as an advisor to top-tier managers.

Nick Blunden, Profero's UK managing director, adds that Puttnam inspires the whole agency - in fact, it was through a speaker series that Puttnam first visited the agency. "He spoke for an hour to the agency and it was amazingly positive and inspirational," Blunden says. "He speaks very passionately about communication and the positive role it can play."

Profero's client base includes COI and the Learning Skills Council, and Lord Puttnam reflects that "Profero appreciates the impact made by that kind of work".

WHAT PUTTNAM BRINGS TO PROFERO

'He fits very closely with our vision of where digital communication is going, in that it all hinges on creating compelling content. That's what David's career has been all about.' - Nick Blunden, UK managing director.

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