MEDIA HEADLINER: MindShare's master negotiator brings added value to Group M

Theakstone wants Group M at the top of the negotiation table, Alasdair Reid reports.

If skill as a negotiator is measurable in the number of sporting events you manage to attend without having to put your hand in your pocket, then Nick Theakstone is up there with the best of them.

He goes to so many games at Stamford Bridge, for instance, that many people believe he's a season ticket holder. Not so. According to industry sources, he never sits in the same part of the ground two games running and if he can't blag a ticket off a compliant media owner, he will convince a friend that it would be in their best interests to give him theirs.

And really, some observers say, if you want evidence of his qualifications for the latest role he's been handed, you need look no further than this.

You can't deny that he's persuasive in his pursuit of value.

Last week, Theakstone was given the job of managing WPP's new consolidated buying outfit, Group M, as it finally becomes operational as the UK's largest buying point, with billings of more than £900 million.

He will handle centralised negotiations for MindShare, Mediaedge:cia, BJK&E, Mediaedge:cia Manchester and Media Insight, while also retaining his role as the investment director at MindShare. Each of the WPP units will do their own implementational buying, with Theakstone coming in to extract more value at a group level.

Theakstone takes all the leg pulling in good part but he says we shouldn't be diverted from the serious side of the business. He states: "I'm delighted to be given this opportunity, which is the biggest negotiation job in London. We have the biggest group billings - and we don't have one dominant client in there bolstering the numbers as you'll find at the other groups. Neither do we have one of our big clients doing its own buying. So we are number one in terms of leverage by a long way."

Leverage? Does that mean he's there to club more discount out of media owners? "It might sound a bit aggressive to say that this is all about matching might with might but we've already seen consolidation in TV and I'm absolutely certain we'll see it in newspaper sales and in radio. So it's absolutely crucial that we get to the top of the negotiation table," he responds. "It's about protecting clients in the marketplace but that is more about shared learnings within the group and sharing tools."

Does he have the qualities to succeed? Jim Marshall, the chairman of Starcom Group and Theakstone's former boss, thinks so. He says: "He's very personable, very likeable and a very good negotiator. It's true he's an outstanding freeloader but he does it with style and panache and you have to admit that he's very fair - he'll take it from anyone. Joking aside, he's a great asset. He's a real team player. He has high energy levels and because he's such a personable guy some people think he's a bit of a Tigger. But in some quarters he had a scary reputation and he can be louder and more openly aggressive than Chris Locke."

Which is a scary thought - Locke, the negotiator-in chief at Starcom, is no shrinking violet. So are media owners worried? Gary Digby, ITV's sales director, admits that Theakstone is a good negotiator. Well, goodish. "He's punchy and aggressive," Digby admits.

"But when he starts to try it on, his eyes start to roll around the back of his head, which is a bit of a giveaway. He has lots of friends in the business and manages to keep the two sides absolutely separate. With some people you can have a frank exchange of views and they take it personally. He doesn't."

Close friends say he's especially entertaining on those rare occasions when he has one too many glasses of shandy. He's 43, married with three daughters and lives in west London. Which just about excuses his professed loyalty to Chelsea - the club of choice for all of the media industry's flash Harry glory boys.

At his previous agency, MediaVest, supporters of less glamorous clubs always maintained that he actually knew nothing about football - they had him down as a grammar-school type, more naturally drawn to rugger and cricket - but he's surprisingly passionate and knowledgeable about the beautiful game.

Obviously, given his long immersion in the TV airtime market, he plays a bit of golf too. In a profile of Digby that Campaign ran before Christmas, we quoted Theakstone complaining bitterly about the fact that Digby was playing off a handicap that scandalously belied his true abilities.

It seems, though, that Theakstone has subsequently managed to hit back and is becoming just as much of a bandit. His clients should feel reassured.

"It was in Spain, the last Carlton trip, and he took money off Steve Platt and myself. Which we weren't too impressed with. He was playing off a very dodgy 18," Digby reveals.

THE THEAKSTONE FILE

1982: HTV, airtime sales executive

1984: BMP DDB, TV buyer rising to buying director

1995: MediaVest, head of TV rising to deputy managing director

2001: MindShare, investment director

2004: Group M, managing director

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