Media Headliner: Tess Alps brings steel and passion to Thinkbox

The first chief executive of the TV marketing body believes fervently in the health of the medium.

When Thinkbox parted with its former chairman, Justin Sampson, two months ago and the hunt for the TV commercial marketing body's first chief executive began in earnest, the weekly speculation rapidly developed into the media equivalent of Newcastle United's search for a new coach.

Many names have been linked with the post. However, unlike the untidy situation on Tyneside, Thinkbox has now found its new leader.

The Newcastle market has seen a betting spree in 2006 and if there had been a Thinkbox market, the odds on the PHD chairman, Tess Alps, landing the job would have been long. Indeed, last week, Campaign wrongly stated that the job would go to BT's Steve Huddleston. Although he had been contacted by headhunters at an earlier stage, Alps and the former Nestle marketer Andrew Harrison were the final contenders for the role.

Until last Thursday, when Thinkbox issued a release confirming Alps in the role, the popular consensus was that the body should appoint someone from the client side, with the inside knowledge and nous to convince decision-makers that TV is not in decline. No-one could accuse Thinkbox of failing to think outside of the box.

Alps has just presided over the most successful year in PHD's history.

In 2005, PHD pioneered a new planning approach, launched two new ventures with ad agencies, won £63 million of new business and capped it all off with Campaign's Media Agency of the Year. So why leave now? Has Alps achieved everything she wanted to at PHD?

"This is a unique opportunity. I would have stayed at PHD until the end of time and I'm terribly sad to leave." But she's also "absurdly excited" about her new job, almost apologetic. "I couldn't be more pleased. I'm a mature person but I can't contain my excitement."

While it's great news for Thinkbox that it has managed to find someone who is overjoyed at the prospect of leading an organisation that has lost its way since its launch last year, could Alps' unrestrained happiness also be a failing? Few would argue with the assertion that there's something of the luvvie about Alps, and it's amusing to imagine her jumping for joy and air-kissing the hard-nosed TV boys of the Thinkbox board.

But former colleagues agree she is right for the new role. Alps may seem to have a non-threatening, motherly persona, but there's a steely core. The Starcom chief executive, Linda Smith, who worked with Alps at the TV sales house Media and Airtime Sales in the late 80s, says: "She's as tough as old boots but with a smile.

She won't have a problem knocking heads together and anyone who thinks it will be a happy tea party is wrong. She's been employed to regenerate energy and dynamism at Thinkbox and with that will come upheaval."

It's a view shared by the PHD co-founder Jonathan Durden, who has worked with Alps for 13 years. "Alps is soft, caring, sensitive and funny. She also has a skeleton made of titanium." Mary Poppins with a dash of the Terminator, if you will.

Alps is instantly likeable and warm; disarming with a nice line in self-deprecation. Smith says she taught her to "always leave the door open".

It's easy to see why Thinkbox feels she will be ideally suited to championing its cause to advertisers. Chief executives, finance directors, marketing directors and procurement directors are not known for being instantly accessible. As Durden says, it helps if the voice on the other end of the phone belongs to a "very popular person".

It's all very well having lots of friends, but is Alps qualified for the job? In fact, her CV dovetails very nicely into the Thinkbox role.

After reading English at Durham, Alps began her career as a sales assistant at Westward Television in 1980. This was followed by stints at Yorkshire Television and MAS. In 1993, she joined Pattison Horswell Durden and, two years later, became a managing director at PHD BigTime. And as a former president of WACL, she also has experience of addressing industry issues.

Alps' appointment has met with a big thumbs up from the broadcasters.

The ITV sales director, Gary Digby, sees it as a "real coup" and adds that he "can't think of a more passionate, knowledgeable and evangelical person about television". Alps' passion for TV is her trump card. As a member of Bafta and the Royal Television Society, she is known as something of a TV nut. The managing director of Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy, Helen Calcraft, says: "She can bore for England when it comes to her consuming passion for television - media neutral she ain't!"

The Thinkbox chairman, Andy Barnes, says Alps' main task will be to "debunk the myths surrounding television", namely that it's "expensive, fragmented and not as powerful as it used to be".

Alps is tight-lipped on how she might set about doing this, but it's clear she already has some concrete ideas: "What we need is a period of listening. I know as an agency head what I would like to see Thinkbox do.

"I'm astonished when I read the negative headlines. Every year there are more impacts; TV is in terrific health. It's still the future for any brand and it doesn't have to be huge budget; brands need to think harder and smarter about how they stay close to consumers."

As media fragments and advertisers pump more money online and into other media, it's refreshing to hear someone sound so upbeat and optimistic about the future of the medium. This could be just the tonic the industry needs.

As Alps says: "I want to bring the joy back into TV."

THE LOWDOWN Age: 52 Lives: Aldbury, near Tring Family: Married for 30 years, with one 11-year-old son Favourite: TV ad The Guardian's "points of view" Favourite TV programme: At the moment, Green Wing, but also loving Dancing on Ice, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Brainiac Interests outside work: TV, classical music, singing, gardening, film Most treasured possession: You can't possess people so of course it's my 52-inch plasma telly! Personal mantra: I try to find the joy in everything

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