Media Headliner: Modest leader plots continued growth for MEC

Having been with MEC through the tough times, Steve Hatch takes the reins of an agency on its way up.

In a world where the corporate mantra seems to be "If you don't ask, you don't get", there's something very reassuring about Steve Hatch's off-the-cuff but earnest remark that he didn't ask for his promotion from managing director to chief executive of MEC - and has, in fact, never asked for any job in his life.

It bears out that slightly old-fashioned view of a meritocracy: that good work and the right attitude will get noticed and rewarded, and that those who shout the loudest don't necessarily have the most to say. It reflects well on him and, more crucially, the culture of the agency.

Modest and thoughtful, Hatch has been a loyal servant of MEC since its rather messy creation in 2002 and has seen it through its rough periods, while also playing a key role in its more recent purple patches.

"I've seen the agency halve in size and double in size," he reflects. And, all the while, he has just got on with his job, neither expecting nor demanding promotion. But he gives the clear impression that the rocky periods helped define what the agency has become.

"The tough times created a great camaraderie - a lot of people stuck it out and it was formative," he says of the long-distant historical events when the newly merged agency, created out of the smart planners of The Media Edge and the buying-led CIA, seemed to lurch from one crisis to another.

But that was all in the past and given how far MEC has come, it's almost as if the agency, tucked away in unfashionable Paris Gardens on the South Bank, never was the embattled Rorke's Drift media outpost but has always been a confident and independent beacon of all that's positive about the industry. This culminated in it becoming the first media agency to win an IPA Effectiveness Company of the Year award for its work on Morrisons in 2009.

Hatch is probably too modest to ask for any credit for the agency's renaissance but insists that nothing was ever really broken: "You'd have to credit Tom (George, the previous UK chief executive) for what he did and for galvanising people. It's revealing that he didn't make one external hiring when he joined - instead, he wanted to turn reality into perception."

While George undoubtedly proved to be an effective leader for MEC and got the best out of its people, the creation of Group M also gave it some much-needed clout.

George, who has now been rewarded with a broader EMEA job as the chairman of North Europe, will continue to act as the chairman of the UK agency, which has led some to question how much autonomy Hatch will really have. After all, won't George find it difficult to let go of operational management of an agency that he was so key in raising to its current level, and will Hatch be given the freedom that he needs?

"He'll give me as much freedom as I want. Even if he hadn't been made chairman, he'd have been the unofficial chairman as I'd seek his advice anyway," Hatch says.

The bond between the two (although they have very dissimilar characteristics aside from the obvious physical differences in height - Hatch is warm and engaging; George seems rather more aloof and standoffish) is clearly strong and, more importantly, works.

James Whitmore, the former managing director of MEC and current managing director at Postar, originally hired Hatch to run its UIP account. "He's very wise and good at understanding people's motivations, so they gravitated to him. He's very empathetic," he says.

Certainly, as Hatch gives a tour of the agency, which is undergoing a massive refurbishment after a period of rapid expansion, he is polite enough to smile and say hello to every member of his staff, even if, at 400-odd strong, it would be difficult to know all the names of recent recruits just yet.

He's also proud of the investment that is going into the building and of what it will look like when it's completed. The renovation of the offices from their previous grim 70s cheap hotel look - smoked brown glass, mother-in-law's tongue pot plants and burgundy carpet tiles - seems an apposite metaphor.

Whitmore also credits Hatch as having an inquisitive mind: "He's alert to new ideas and mulls them over before making a judgment." This could be useful as Hatch attempts to move MEC to the next level of its development.

"There's a lot of latent growth left in the business. This is a value-led business, which we need to be in an over-supplied market. We've got technology, culture and leading ideas," Hatch says. In particular, he believes that MEC's capabilities in real-time planning, combining data feeds with creativity, should continue to be a growing area and that agencies need to get away from relationships with clients based purely on trading.

Hatch also says he is "proud" to work for a media agency - and given that the sector sometimes seems to appear schizophrenic as it fights to define what it should do and what it shouldn't, this is a refreshing thing to hear.

"I think there's a category job to do to demonstrate the value of what media agencies do," he says. With his reputation for being one of the good guys and his faith in how media agencies can lead business success, Hatch is in a good place to start leading this. Someone ought to offer it to him as he's too polite to ask for it himself.

THE LOWDOWN

Age: 40

Lives: Muswell Hill, London

Family: Wife, Sophie, and children, Fred and Phoebe

Interests out of work: Eating and drinking, yoga and running, as well as all things film

Last book read: The Hell Of It All by Charlie Brooker

Best jolly: A toss-up between last year's Glastonbury (thank you, Orange) and a very memorable night at the Hotel du Cap during the 2004 Cannes Film Festival.

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