Media Headliner: Starcom's new MD works to shed flighty image

Matt James may have had many last-minute changes of heart in the past, but he assures Jeremy Lee that Starcom is for him.

We thought we would wait a couple of weeks to profile Matt James, the new managing director of Starcom UK, just to make sure that he actually turned up; well, that's what the wags advised. But having started on Monday, we thought we could now take the risk.

To put it mildly, James has one of the most interesting CVs in the media industry. It would probably be churlish (as well as time-consuming) to catalogue his every move and later apparent change of heart, but suffice to say that he's taken a number of jobs and then subsequently failed to stay at some of them for very long.

In fact, his most recent position, sort of, was at Yahoo!, where he accepted the job as UK sales director before deciding that he didn't want it, after all.

It would also be a little unfair to dwell too much on this - he has been a loyal employee of Omnicom Group, most recently at OMD International, where Colin Gottlieb offered him refuge following his decision to quit Naked Ambition. This is something that James is keen to point out. "I've spent 11 years at Omnicom," he implores. Indeed, he stuck out OMD International for a total of six years.

But while there are few people who don't have the odd blemish on their resumes, given that listing James' variety of career moves and then the time spent at the company (Mediaedge:cia: three months, Naked Ambition: eight months etc) would almost count as a parlour game at a particularly boring party, there is no avoiding questioning his commitment to his new job.

He admits to regrets. "There are bits in between (the 11 years at Omnicom) that I regret - I've made some mistakes. But I understand that agency life is where I want to be and I like Starcom and its people; there are exciting times ahead."

Excitement is something that has been sorely lacking at Starcom of late, the agency having recently lost its Cadbury and InBev business. James seems aware of the challenge. "Starcom has had some ups and downs in the road but locally, over the past 12 to 18 months, they have been investing in a talented team. The business is still very healthy, it has a strong network and has been building its credentials in data analytics and search - all the assets are there," he says.

He says that his initial focus will be on getting to know Starcom's people and remaining clients.

Building client relationships is something that James is good at - he was particularly close to Starcom's former client BT when he was at CIA - and it's a skill that Starcom needs more than ever.

In fact, he's really quite a likeable person.

Yes, there's the propensity to slip into management-speak and meaningless generalities, but you get the impression that deep down, there's a decent person in there - albeit perhaps one who is a bit of a lost soul.

Indeed, some former colleagues say that one of the reasons he didn't stay in the managing director role at Manning Gottlieb Media for very long is because he was the person given the job of making a large number of staff redundant when the agency over-expanded in 2001. Because he's a nice bloke, they say, it got to him.

He's also a bit of a romantic dreamer, it seems - and there's nothing much wrong with that either, particularly in a sector where many of the agency heads seem to be faceless corporate automatons.

For example, James says that he is currently reading a book about the English Civil War in which his 16th century house in Somerset made a fleeting appearance. As well as being unexpected in someone who initially comes across as a bit of a geezer from the Medway towns, on a one-to-one conversational basis, it makes him more interesting company than someone who is enthused by a book on customer retention, for instance.

There is also evidence that he is quite capable when he puts his mind to it - he is generally thought to have done a good job at OMD International, where he most recently worked as the managing director.

These three qualities - likeability, character and capability - should be useful if Starcom is to turn around its current rather lacklustre performance and get itself back on the pitchlists for accounts other than its own.

Stewart Easterbrook, the chief executive of Starcom MediaVest, had no qualms about hiring him. "I had no doubt from the moment I met him. He has integrity," he says.

If James can stick to his word and defy those who label him as flaky - and it would be for the good of his career if he does - then he may yet prove to be a good hiring.

"There's going to be no jumping around. I'm looking forward it - I do like the challenge," he says. The biggest challenge for James is to suppress any itching of his feet and focus on the job in hand - the industry will be watching.

THE LOWDOWN
Age: 38
Lives: Somerset
Family: Married, three children
Most treasured possession: An old briefcase with a cartridge case used
by grandfather in the Second World War
Last book read: Ring Of Bright Water Trilogy by Gavin Maxwell

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