Steve Allan’s sartorial style belies his business mind,Anne-Marie
Colin Gottlieb told me to check out the suit first. ‘If he’s wearing
Armani or Versace, there’s something seriously wrong,’ he warned.
Those who know Steve Allan, managing director of the Media Business,
know that the likelihood of him turning out in smooth designer threads
is about equal to the chairman, Allan Rich, shopping at Mr Byrite.
Gottlieb cheerfully admits to taking the piss out of Allan’s fashion
sense to his face, adding mischievously that, although Allan was in the
year below him at school, Allan is ‘33 going on 53’.
Then there’s the story about the time the Media Business Group was
preparing to shoot its corporate video and the new-business director,
Nick Lawson, pleaded with Allan not to wear his favoured pinstriped suit
and City shirt because it would upset the picture. In the event, Allan
did turn up in pinstripes, but at least Lawson managed to get him to
take his jacket off...
He sounds depressingly like a serious young fogey in a boring suit. But
still, what I’m really here to discover is the stuff Allan himself is
made of and to hear more about TMBG’s plans for expansion and global
domination following the launch of its new Manchester office (see news
Waiting in the reception area on the first floor, the agency seems
strangely deserted. There is club-type music pumping out from one of the
adjacent meeting rooms, and a surprising selection of style magazines
jostling for space with the Financial Times.
I’m just settling down happily with a copy of the Face, when Allan
himself appears. He’s not wearing a jacket, but the shirt is plain
white, the tie is not stripey and the trousers are inoffensive. So far,
True, the hair is thin and he could probably pass for nearer to 40 than
30, but Allan appears fresh, greets me enthusiastically and starts
chatting about all the old ladies they’d had in the agency that morning
(shareholders attending the AGM you understand, not potential clients)
before whisking me off on a tour of the building.
The boardroom first with its drum ’n’ bass soundtrack and untouched
plates of biscuits, the computer in reception where visitors can surf
the Net, then upstairs to the main hub of the agency, where people work
busily on TMBG’s many and varied accounts and Rich hovers Hitchcock-like
in the background.
Back downstairs in a meeting room, tour concluded, Allan pours me coffee
and I note the stylish gold cufflinks that glint at his wrists (perhaps
he’s borrowed them from Rich). He seems so friendly and eager to please
that I feel a bit mean hitting him with accusations of being dull.
TMBG is an outfit whose profile has stubbornly refused to grow in line
with its achievements. Examine the facts: in just three years, the
company has tripled in size, from Register-MEAL billings of pounds 48
million to some pounds 153 million, according to latest figures.
It has a sparkling new-business record: this year alone, the agency has
put on pounds 35 million worth of new business - most recently, the
pounds 5 million RAC account, which was handed over without a pitch. It
hasn’t lost a client in 18 months. Allan can’t remember who the last one
Add to that its increasingly rare independent status and a successful
partial flotation last year (Campaign, 1 September 1995) and you’ve got
one hot ticket - haven’t you?
Allan admits that the lack of an in-your-face quality has rankled at
times, but adds: ‘We don’t worry too much about profile and fame. We
want to be a successful business and that comes if you do a good job.’
That means TMBG is a steady ship, ‘we don’t have the same highs and lows
as others’, and if that makes it seem dull or serious at times, then the
agency has learned to roll with it.
Allan himself is all too aware that he is an easy target for the slings
and arrows his peers might - and do - aim in his direction. He’s worked
at the agency for 15 years, he’s not a big drinker, he doesn’t do lunch,
he plays golf and he’s a private family man who plays a reluctant after-
hours role in the media circus. Moreover, Rich, his chairman, is a
flamboyant and unusual character beside whom most personalities would
When Allan says he is perfectly happy being himself you believe him. The
truth is, he is a perfect foil to Rich and between them the pair harbour
tremendous ambition. With Manchester as the catalyst, the two have now
embarked on an era of empire building which will result in such changes
in the years ahead that TMBG will de facto become the agency to watch.
And all of it played out under the watchful eye of the City. It could be
anything but dull.
The Allan file
1982 The Media Business Group, trainee media executive
1985 TMBG, associate director
1987 TMBG, board director
1988 TMBG, head of new business
1993 TMBG, group managing director