Media Headliner: Smith plans to take Starcom to the next phase

Starcom's recently installed chief executive thinks getting the basics right will reap the rewards, Darren Davidson writes.

On the same day that Campaign visits the recently installed Starcom chief executive, Linda Smith, the new England manager, Steve McClaren, is facing Fleet Street's finest, only a few streets away.

Smith's appointment was greeted with muted approval - unlike McClaren's - but there are comparisons to be made, with both leaders facing the challenge of renewing the teams they have inherited and moving their outfits on to the next phase of their development.

Once Sven has passed on the baton, McClaren will be hoping that three weeks into his job, life will be much quieter than it was for Smith in January. With her feet barely under the desk, Starcom's key client, Barclays, called a pitch for its £70 million business.

The account was closely tied to Mark Cranmer, Starcom's former chief executive for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, whose departure not only triggered the UK chief executive vacancy at Starcom (with Smith's predecessor Iain Jacob moving upstairs to replace Cranmer), but also the Barclays review. Smith is acutely aware she could do little about the account reviewing, but could more have been done to keep it from moving to Walker Media?

She says: "Barclays was a massive blow, but it enabled me to look at things that possibly went wrong. It was also an invaluable lesson in terms of the importance of client relationships. If you've got a very personal relationship with a client - and an agency should have them - it enables you to keep the client close, but I think we dropped the ball. On the other hand, I'm proud of the work we did. It was a roller-coaster of an induction."

Smith is now almost five months into the job and last week, she announced a restructure of the agency's senior management team in a bid to stamp her mark on the Publicis Groupe-owned agency and address what she sees as some of its weaknesses. The departure of the directors Pete Edwards, Jez Groom and Will Saunders to launch a start-up had created gaps that needed filling.

Smith has reshaped the agency into five divisions, including a strategic planning unit, as she felt the planning offering had lost its way. "I feel strongly that you can make things as black-and-white as possible and that by eradicating grey areas you can get things delivered. I have a principle about getting the basics right. There's a danger you can become introspective talking about complicated ideas and making quite confused messages," she says.

The obvious problem is that Smith has yet to appoint a candidate to head the planning unit, but it's likely the strategic planning director will be an external candidate. This is vital because Starcom's planning offer has arguably fallen behind the likes of PHD and MediaCom, which have invested time and money in new planning ideas and resources. As Smith says: "I think our planning has ranged from the sublime to the ordinary. You have to refine what you're doing constantly and make sure it's hitting the right buttons."

Smith's other appointments last week were internal promotions, with the former client services director, Avril Gallagher, the operations director, Stewart Easterbrook, and the managing partner, Andy Roberts, promoted to run its client relationships.

From the outside, this looks uninspiring. Chris Locke will continue to run trading and is highly regarded by the media industry, but though Gallagher and Easterbrook have great reputations within the agency, they are unknown quantities in the wider market. Will it be business as usual or will the market notice a real difference?

"If people think the restructure doesn't have the wow factor, it's not the most important thing. If the clients see we are thinking differently and achieving results, that's what I'm interested in. I've got a strong commercial background and a track record for delivering against promises," Smith argues.

Smith, whose previous jobs include a career in TV sales and two stints at Capital Radio, as well as a spell as the commercial director of MediaVest in the late 90s, will also be faced with repositioning Starcom as a counterpoint to its Publicis sister agency ZenithOptimedia. Smith has already entered a dialogue with ZenithOptimedia's chief executive, Antony Young.

Young says: "Smith has a real opportunity. 'Fuelling brand power' (Starcom's strapline) works on a global level and in the UK and it is the only agency to talk about brands. Publicis is committed to having two independent, competitive, distinct brands in the market. The head of planning is an important part of this, the buying product is strong, it's one area that is well shored up. She's right to put the focus on strategic planning."

Smith talks with a dogged determination and genuine desire about making Starcom a fun place for people to work and is proud of initiatives she has designed to make staff feel closer to the decision-making process.

These include regular informal meetings with staff and a suggestions box.

However, she has decided against allowing men to wear shorts in hot weather.

She argues that nobody wants to see Jacob's legs every day.

For now, Smith will be concentrating on the more important matters at hand. As she says: "What I'm really interested in is developing the Starcom culture and what it stands for. It's got quite a good heritage but it's now about deciding what the next phase is."

THE LOWDOWN
Age: 43
Lives: Clapham, London
Family: Husband Phillip Carling, three children
Last book read: What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt
Last film seen: Memoirs of a Geisha
Hobbies: Horse-riding, piano, reading
First job: Media sales trainee, Yorkshire TV
Personal mantra: What goes around, comes around

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