Media: Headliner - Is Paul Curtis more than Milligan's sidekick?

Jeremy Lee finds the Sky Media sales chief teaming up again with his best friend and new managing director.

Double acts are rare in media sales. This is what makes the relationship between Nick Milligan, the managing director of Sky Media, and Paul Curtis, his new deputy, so intriguing.

At first glance they seem unlikely bedfellows, let alone best friends.

Curtis is modest, affable and genuine and seems to be universally popular, while Milligan is brasher - pushy even - a slick deal-maker and ruthlessly ambitious (just ask Mark Chippendale).

But history has shown that the two make an extremely competent double act that runs tight, highly motivated sales teams. So it was no great surprise that Milligan turned to Curtis when a vacancy became available following Chippendale's predictable departure as Sky Media's sales director. In fact, some think that Curtis was in Milligan's plans for Sky Media from the outset, although Curtis, 45, denies it was a foregone conclusion that the pair would be reunited.

Since their first meeting in 1983 at TVS, where they started as assistants on the same day, they have been at each other's sides almost constantly.

Together they were instrumental in the launches and subsequent success of UK Gold and five. Curtis left five to run Viacom Brand Solutions following the collapse of the Channel 5 Interactive division, a dotcom-bust victim of which he was the chief executive.

His subsequent time running VBS, the MTV sales house, was a great success.

Revenues went through the roof and the reputation of the under-performing division was transformed. Curtis may have found the experience cathartic - it answered critics who claimed he lived in Milligan's shadow and also proved he was more than willing to tackle a challenge.

Curtis acknowledges that this made it hard for him to leave VBS to return to Milligan's side. "It was difficult because it was the first job where I had complete control," he says, "although the opportunity to run a team of 240 people rather than 60 is very appealing."

The pair will operate together, although only Milligan will sit on Sky's executive committee alongside Dawn Airey, the managing director of Sky Networks.

Although Curtis is one of Milligan's best friends - Milligan is the godfather of his 17-year-old son and they regularly spend weekends fly-fishing together - he seems to enjoy popping Milligan's occasional lapses into pomposity.

He recalls that on their first day together, he and their manager Andy Barnes, who is now the sales director at Channel 4, asked Milligan whether everyone called him "Spike". A rather po-faced Milligan replied that they didn't, so they have called him that ever since. "He makes me laugh, he's funny and fun to be around," Curtis says.

Curtis knows they are different characters. "Nick is more direct, and good at dealing with boards or presenting to a thousand people. I think I'm more considered," he says. Curtis seems to be playing the wise ancient Greek counsel to Milligan's rather brash and showier Roman, roles confirmed by people who have worked with them both.

Given Curtis' quiet and more modest nature, it would be easy to assume he has been employed just to do Milligan's bidding. However, Curtis is very much his own man and isn't afraid to speak his mind. It is already clear what he expects from the Sky Media sales team.

"In the past, Sky Media did not have enough direction - not everyone was facing the same direction," he says. "It was also somewhat one-dimensional and there was not the commitment to processes and systems."

This is only part of the job. "The interruptive TV advertising model is under threat and we need to find new ways of reaching consumers," he explains. "Sky is at the forefront of this because we have a deeper relationship with our viewers."

Certainly his deep understanding of the multichannel world will be useful to Sky, now that it is committed to growing its ad revenue.

There's quite a job to do. Agencies say Milligan is reducing the airtime debt problem from its £10 million peak to £4 million, but structural problems include top-heavy management, an oversized sales team and poor, incompatible airtime management systems.

Chris Hayward, the TV director at ZenithOptimedia, is a big fan of Curtis.

"I like Paul very much - he's done a very good job at Viacom," he says.

"He had this image as a good systems man but he does much more than this - he's very steady, lateral and calm. There is a feeling that there is a significant job to do sorting out Sky's systems."

Some still need convincing of Sky's place on the schedule. Chris Locke, the buying director at Starcom Group, is among them. "While Paul is an able and amiable negotiator, Milligan could have employed Gandhi, Jesus Christ, Mother Theresa and Bobby Moore and, based on this year's Sky channels' performance and their relative multichannel price, it wouldn't have made much difference to agencies' likely 2005 stance - there ain't no more share and we want it cheaper," he says. "He's in for a tough induction, I suspect."

If anyone can change Locke's mind, it is the resurrected pairing of Milligan and Curtis. The combination of the consummate and slick sales professional Milligan and the understated charm and considered manner of Curtis has proved a compelling one in the past and looks likely to be so again.

THE LOWDOWN

Age: 45

Lives: Highgate, London

Family: Wife Norma, son Joe

Favourite TV ad: Heineken "snowman"

Describe yourself in three words: Left of field

Most treasured possession: Chelsea season ticket

Interests outside work: Fishing, golf, skiing

Golf handicap: 20

Living person you most admire: Ernie Els

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