Media Headliner: Lawson bats to keep MediaCom at number one

The incoming chief tells Darren Davidson his challenge is to retain the agency's personal touch under the WPP umbrella.

As he purposefully strides into the reception area of MediaCom's Tardis-like UK headquarters near Euston, the agency's new chief executive, Nick Lawson, looks every bit the part. Tall and imposing, Lawson carries his great height with the confident swagger of a man who has been groomed for the role of leading the UK's largest media agency.

He'll need all that confidence with MediaCom facing arguably the most challenging period in its history, as its previous chief executive, Steve Allan, passes the baton to his protege and steps aside to run Group M.

Since the creation of "modern" MediaCom in 1998, when Grey acquired Allan Rich's The Media Business and merged it with its own MediaCom, the agency has cultivated a reputation for putting its people first (its motto is "people first. Better results"), which has been manifested by a high level of staff retention and a core group of senior people who have been with the agency for many years. Despite unprecedented growth since 1998, when it was the media industry's sixth-largest agency, it attempts to retain an informal small-agency atmosphere at its North Gower Street offices. However, with the agency's acquisition by WPP, it faces a fight to maintain this special bond with its staff and clients.

Lawson will also be expected to maintain the agency's number-one status - no easy task, he argues, citing the example of Jose Mourinho at Chelsea.

As a keen cricketer (he is the opening batsman for his local team) and a Watford FC fan, Lawson peppers his comments with sporting analogies.

He says: "The standard of the competition in the market is so high. Having a single USP is no good any more; you have to be better than other agencies at ten different things. The challenge for us is to remain at number one, and that's what motivates us. I think it was the Chelsea manager who said staying at number one is a lot harder than getting to number one."

With Lawson taking on a more strategic role at the agency, will he have the time to motivate staff, spend time with clients and put "people first"?

The joint managing director of the agency for six years (alongside Jane Ratcliffe), Lawson says this isn't an issue: "We've built an amazing work culture at MediaCom, and we will continue to do so. Keeping the people here is paramount. Jane and I worked in partnership for a long time; we still work closely and nothing is going to change that."

But does Lawson think he will struggle to retain MediaCom's special qualities now that it is part of WPP's global network? "It's a massive global opportunity for MediaCom. It will help us develop our network and will make us a stronger global network. WPP has an Aladdin's cave of companies that really can be incredibly helpful. They wouldn't want to change our culture, because it's so successful. What we've got to do is keep building our culture and keep moving forward with it."

With industry consolidation bringing larger global players with stronger buying clout around MediaCom, Allan concedes that it's not easy keeping MediaCom true to its colours, but he believes the WPP threat has been overstated.

"MediaCom has been under the WPP umbrella for some time now and we've managed to retain the agency's personal touch. It's a persistent challenge. As Nick was part of the team achieving this, there's no reason why this will not continue under his leadership."

Lawson, who joined The Media Business 14 years ago, admits he was "chuffed to bits" when he found out that he would be heading MediaCom. He is quick to downplay his contribution to MediaCom's achievements and lavishes praise on his colleagues. "That's down to a lot of people, not just me. Jane has been instrumental and there are six or seven senior managers who have been here in excess of six or seven years. One of the critical success factors at MediaCom has been keeping those people together as a team."

So what will MediaCom's new chief executive bring to the party? "What I'm going to bring is passion and a competitive spirit to keep us where we are. We're going to need to be tough to maintain our market position and I'll be tough but fair."

Yet while Lawson's passion for MediaCom is undeniably his greatest asset, he feels that not everyone sees it this way. "My passion can lead people to think I am quite narrow-minded. Sometimes that passion can be misconstrued."

Sometimes Lawson's passion boils over, but a rival agency source says: "Lawson is very militant, but it works. People say he's quite aggressive, but his bark is louder than his bite. He's amazing in a pitch and wipes the floor with everyone."

Despite his combative style, Lawson is respected throughout the industry.

As Paul Phillips, the director of media at the AAR, says: "His loyalty has been well-rewarded and justified."

The bottom line, though, is that Allan has appointed a leader who has been with the agency through thick and thin and, like any good opening batsman, should do a good job of defending his wicket while protecting the lower order. As Allan sums it up: "Nick demonstrated in his last job that he has terrific leadership qualities and is the ideal person to lead the company to the next stage: a bigger and better MediaCom."

THE LOWDOWN Age: 40 Lives: Watford, Hertfordshire Family: Wife Juliet, one son, one daughter Most treasured possession: Watford season ticket Favourite ad: The Guardian "points of view" Favourite book: Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks Interests outside work: Captain of amateur cricket team and avid Watford fan, golf Motto: People first. Better results

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