Media Headliner: Why Altman is betting his career on Initiative

Alex Altman's decision to join Initiative has surprised many, but others tip him to turn the agency around, Alasdair Reid says.

There is really only one perspective on Alex Altman the man - he is a thoroughly decent bloke, undemonstratively charismatic with a dry sense of humour, a tremendous leader and team player, an extremely deft operator when it comes to client relationships.

But there are, tellingly, two diametrically opposing views about his latest leap into the dark - even among his friends and closest colleagues. A couple of weeks back, he was unveiled as Initiative's next chief executive, to replace Gary Birtles, who is being eased upstairs into an EMEA role. The date of this changeover has yet to be decided, subject to talks with Altman's current employer, M4C, a Group M agency ultimately owned by WPP.

In other words, he is leaving an innovative agency within the market's leading media group to join ... well, an agency about which we have all learned, in recent years, to be, at best, charitable and polite.

Our stock of Initiative euphemisms is, we're afraid to say, almost exhausted.

So, one perspective is that Altman is making a terrible mistake. It's telling, some say, that a handful of similarly qualified people are believed to have turned the job down. There might just be a good reason for that. Altman's head was turned, surely, by Richard Beaven, Initiative's worldwide chief executive, who probably offered him shed loads of cash.

Not to mention the chief executive title, which most ambitious players find an irresistibly attractive bauble. But if he'd been patient, surely he'd have landed a suitably similar berth elsewhere. One with (how shall we put this?) better prospects.

Utter nonsense, others say, including, naturally enough, Altman himself. This, they say, is a stonkingly good opportunity. In this version of the story, Initiative is a sleeping giant just waiting to be roused - and if you want an analogy, look no further than Initiative in the US, whose fortunes have been turned around thanks in no small part to personnel changes orchestrated by Beaven.

Or, closer to home (and closer to Altman's personal experience), look no further than Tom George and the wonders he has worked in the past five years as the chief executive of MEC, formerly an ugly duckling in the WPP media pond and now something of a swan.

In other words, how better to prove yourself than in taking on a supreme challenge? And this, of course, is where all of the Altman perspectives converge. Because no-one is foolhardy enough to downplay the enormity of the task ahead.

Tellingly, when asked what qualities he will bring to his new role, Altman focuses on one aspect of his time more than a decade ago at Carat, where he helped turn around one of its specialist divisions. "I have experience of change management - in making difficult and considered decisions," he says. "You need to take a good look at what's there, take the best of it and run with it."

Initiative, which has 60 staff, had billings of £151 million in 2009 (down from £221 million in 2008). Having carelessly mislaid a handful of blue-chip accounts (Unilever, Vauxhall, Orange) during the noughties, the agency now has only one major client, Tesco, which accounts for well over half its billings.

And to succeed, Altman will have to make the agency punch well above its weight, because it can't back up its individual offering, no matter how clever and sexy, with the group buying clout of an OPera, Group M or VivaKi.

As one rival agency boss explains: "Initiative's parent company, Interpublic, set up a group buying unit, Magna, a good while back but no-one has heard very much about it in recent years. And the one good thing it had, even on a part-time basis, Mick Perry, has just left to join Channel 4. I'd say that 99 per cent of media pitches have pricing as a major component. Initiative just isn't competitive on that front. So what's going to happen if Tesco comes into play? It's absolutely top of everyone's hitlists across town."

Ah, yes, Tesco. But some sources warn against too glib an assumption that Altman is just inheriting another accident waiting to happen as regards this biggest surviving client. After all, the big retailers are probably the most loyal advertisers in the marketplace.

What's more, Altman, by all accounts, is gifted with a potent form of charisma when it comes to client relationships. Altman joined MEC in 2008, becoming its deputy managing director. Previously, he had been at Carat, most latterly as its commercial director. His breakthrough moment, clearly, was when he was chosen to head M4C, the agency created by Group M to pitch for the centralised COI account last year.

He effectively won the biggest media pitch the UK market has even seen. Not a bad entry to have on your CV. Apparently, the senior COI team (not the easiest bunch of people to win round) warmed immediately to him - in hindsight, some say, that was an important factor in the ultimate outcome.

And that, says his former Carat colleague Neil Jones, now the director of commercial strategy at News International, is why it would be highly inadvisable to bet against Altman succeeding. "He is excellent at new business and it's clear Initiative needs to compete in that area. It's fundamental to its future," he reasons. "I'd also argue he's a good fit with the Tesco business. I'd back him to make his mark on the agency and turn it around."

THE LOWDOWN
Age: 42
Lives: Totteridge, North London
Family: Wife Amanda, Natalie (11) and Sasha (nine)
Can't live without: Family and Xbox 360
Favourite media: My new Kindle
Musical tastes: 1982/3
Last book read: A Journey by Tony Blair
Interests outside work: Five-a-side, computer games, squash and walking
our dog

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