Media Headliner: The man to put The Channel back on the map

David Muir is the new chief of 'WPP's dating agency'. But is the job a stepping stone to the WPP board? Jeremy Lee reports.

While no-one doubts that the qualities of David Muir more than match up to those of Mandy Pooler, the most surprising thing about the news that he's replacing her as the chief executive of The Channel was the fact that the WPP subsidiary is still operational.

So little has been heard of The Channel since the company launched in 2001 that you could be forgiven for thinking that - as happens periodically in large conglomerates - it had been erased quietly from the wallchart of WPP's corporate family tree.

Not so, it seems, and Muir's appointment could mark WPP's intention to ramp up The Channel's efforts, although the man himself is remaining tight-lipped about his new job until he starts in March.

WPP created The Channel when Pooler decided to go part-time and quit her job as the chief executive of MindShare. Ostensibly, it was set up in order to find ways to help integrate WPP's research and media businesses, although some saw it as a way of keeping the highly regarded Pooler working within WPP. She has been employed by the company for three days a week, running a small team.

Insiders describe The Channel as acting like a WPP dating agency, encouraging the holding company's businesses and people to work together more closely.

Or, as a WPP statement puts it: "The Channel aims to advance thinking and insights on media from across group companies and to develop proprietary tools for WPP's media investment management companies."

In reality, however, some say its contribution has been rather more limited.

With MindShare and Mediaedge:cia (and also, shortly, MediaCom) integrated within the Group M umbrella company created last year, you could argue there is little need for another division to ensure the cross-fertilisation of ideas.

Also, insiders argue, with Irwin Gotlieb and Dominic Proctor running Group M and MindShare respectively, there's enough talent in the company to look after WPP's media assets.

Given this apparent resistance from within, Muir is going to have it all to do trying to make The Channel work. There is also an impression that Muir has been handed something of a sinecure to keep him within the WPP organisation.

Muir is a company man. After joining Ogilvy & Mather in 1992, he was quickly singled out as a high-flier. At 26, he was identified as a Campaign Face to Watch, following his successful work re-launching the Owners Abroad holiday company as First Choice. Shortly afterwards, he was promoted to new-business director at Ogilvy. He then took a sabbatical to complete an MBA before returning to the fold.

In 2001, a slight blemish appears on his otherwise exemplary CV, following his involvement in the launch of the interactive TV division futureOgilvy.

FutureOgilvy launched in September 2001, two days before the terrorist attacks on the US, but disappeared just seven months later. Muir admits that it was a difficult time. "The timing was bloody awful, but I learned a lot," he says. He subsequently became the group development director responsible for growing Ogilvy's revenues organically or through acquisitions.

Given that he is Ogilvy through and through, why did Muir take the job?

He denies that it was a case of itchy feet. "If you'd asked me whether I'd have seen myself at Ogilvy for a longer time, then I'd have said yes, but the opportunity was too good to miss," he says.

Others think the role is a little less enticing than Muir suggests. "Well, I suppose The Channel is slightly less moribund than Ogilvy," is the most enthusiasm one WPP source can muster.

Given the possibility of internecine squabbles at The Channel, Muir's interest in politics should come in handy. During his student days (he studied politics at Glasgow University) he spent his vacations working as a researcher to a US senator and to the Labour MP George Foulkes. He is still a card-carrying member and activist for the Labour regime and he describes Labour as the "party of truth and justice".

But Muir denies he's the type of operator to instigate political machinations.

"As soon as you get involved in politicking, it doesn't work - you have to be an honest broker," he says. It's clear, though, that Muir's passion for party politics is something that translates into other areas of his life, including work. "If you're passionate about something then you're three-quarters of the way to being successful," he declares with typical New Labour enthusiasm.

While no-one doubts that Muir is bright, talented and charming company, he faces the testing task of delivering tangible evidence that The Channel is producing results. Otherwise, the scepticism will inevitably continue.

However, the sceptics may be ignoring the fact that the incumbent at The Channel sits very close to the real centre of power. Reporting to Mark Read, WPP's director of strategy, Muir will be within touching distance of Sir Martin Sorrell's imperial garment ... the suggestion being that Muir is using The Channel as a convenient stepping stone to a place on the WPP board. And despite his denial that he is an overtly political player, you could argue that Muir has done well to work such an opening.

THE LOWDOWN

Age: 34

Lives: Bow, east London

Family: Wife, Rachael

Describe yourself in three words: Tenacious and short

Most treasured possession: A front page of the Daily Mirror from the day

that Geoffrey Howe made his resignation speech attacking Margaret

Thatcher

Favourite TV programme: Monkey Dust

Last book read: A biography of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

Person most respected in the industry: Mike Dodds, who runs the BT

account at OgilvyOne

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