Media Headliner: White is relishing the challenges ahead at Five

Just when it looked as if he had been snubbed at Five, Mark White steps up as its new managing director.

Two weeks ago, there were those who feared for Mark White's future at Five. Dawn Airey, Five's new chief executive, had finally arrived after six months' gardening leave following her acrimonious split from ITV. One of her first acts was to announce a major appointment. The name in the frame wasn't White's, however.

Airey revealed that she'd succeeded in lining up Jeff Ford, the director of acquisitions at Channel 4 and Film4, to the new position of managing director, digital channels and acquisitions. This was to be a homecoming for Ford, who was part of Five's launch team back in 1996, staying to work his way up to the position of managing editor.

This, surely, was a symbolic appointment and a snub to White, who'd been Five's interim chief executive while Airey saw out her gardening leave. And, yes, it was true that White is just as much (if not more) of a Five stalwart than Ford, having also been there at the launch, but having stayed in a commercial role through thick and thin ever since.

Back in 2006, White had been responsible for overseeing the launch of the broadcaster's digital channels, Five US and Five Life. So Ford's arrival would surely leave him with very little room to manoeuvre - and he could hardly go back to his old role as the executive director, overseeing advertising revenue generation.

But the doubters got it wrong. Last week, Airey promoted White to the position of managing director. It is a hugely important position, especially at this stage in Five's evolution. White will look after the commercial and operational sides of the company, leaving Airey free to focus on strategic and programming issues.

But more pressingly, they'll be working together to implement a wide-ranging review of the company in partnership with a management consultancy. Last week, we suggested this might be Boston Consulting - but, in fact, interviews are continuing.

White's appointment is bound to be hugely popular both internally and externally, particularly in the advertising business. Having joined Five in 1996 under Nick Milligan (not for the first time: he was at Thames and UK Gold too), he became the executive director of sales when Milligan left. But even before his stint as the interim chief executive, his remit had expanded to embrace, or impact upon, almost all aspects of the business.

So, arguably more than anyone in existence, he knows how all the bits knit together and, as befits, an avowed "people person", he's as popular with the staff as any boss can expect to be, valued for his no bullshit straightforwardness, (without being abrasive) his dry sense of humour and his self- effacing modesty.

And his experience as the interim chief executive was extremely valuable, not just in acquainting him with some of the granularity and fine detail he hadn't been aware of before, but also in confirming his general management philosophy. "It taught me what I always felt to be true - that honesty works," he explains.

The sales director, Kelly Williams, will continue to front up airtime trading - as he has done for the past four years. The market tends to agree with White that this side of the business couldn't be in better hands.

So White's elevation has, as would be expected, been warmly welcomed on both the buying and selling sides of the airtime market.

As Steve Platt, the trading director at Aegis Media, puts it: "In the climate we're in, this sort of appointment will be beneficial. In fact, I think we'll see others follow suit. The lifeblood of a commercial television company is advertising, so it makes sense to have someone at this level who understands that. And he's very well regarded in the business. He's a good lad."

And a former colleague adds: "He's the glue that holds the whole business together and that's something that some broadcast companies don't have enough of. And there's no ego. He's a good Essex boy, not pretentious in any way. So, although he has more than enough intellect to drive whatever area he's involved in, he will always listen to other people's opinions."

Essex-ish, as it happens. He's a huge Liverpool FC fan because he was born on Merseyside and spent his early years there; but in other ways, White conforms to expectations. For instance, he's a petrolhead, as befits someone who, on leaving school, became a management trainee at Ford in Dagenham. According to industry legend, he changes his car every three weeks or so. Naturally, he tends not to drive Fords these days.

The only wrinkle here - and it's not exactly a small wrinkle - is that he's taking up his new role at a truly dreadful time, as far as the revenue outlook is concerned. And the great irony, perhaps, is that it's his former mentor Milligan who's going to cause him the most grief. Now that Sky's basic channels are back on Virgin Media cable, Milligan, now the boss of Sky Media, is going to be asking for an increased share of budgets, and the obvious speculation is that Five will be his primary target.

So is this about the worse possible time to be made the managing director of a television company such as Five? "You could say that," White responds. "But you could also say it's a wonderful challenge. And Dawn Airey is an exceptionally inspirational leader. It's an exciting time to be here."

THE LOWDOWN
Age: 45
Lives: Shenfield, Essex
Family: Wife, Julia, and sons, Jason (12) and Ethan (seven)
Most treasured possession: Liverpool FC season ticket
Favourite gadgets: Slingbox and Sky HD
Interests outside work: The other three Fs - family, friends and
football
Last book read: Pants by Nick Sharratt and Giles Andreae (to Ethan at
bedtime!)
Alternative career: Playing alongside Stevie G in the Liverpool engine
room

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