Media Headliner: Why Booth aims to stay ahead of the 'lemmings'

Even though his earn-out ends in December, Steve Booth tells Ian Darby why he's keen to develop Arena as a global brand.

Three years ago, you couldn't mention BLM Media without someone asking: "When are they going to sell?" So it was no surprise when the largest of the remaining independents sold to Havas in a £20 million deal in January 2008.

BLM, which was launched 20 years ago, was swiftly rebranded as Arena BLM but now the decision has been taken to drop the "Booth Lockett Makin" name entirely and badge the agency as Arena Media to fit in with the wider network positioning.

A constant in this 20-year history is Steve Booth, the agency's chief executive. He looks relaxed and tanned when we meet at his offices on Tottenham Court Road but though his three-year earn-out period ends in December, it sounds like his passion is still burning for the agency he founded.

The agency formerly known as BLM celebrates its 20th birthday this year, and is of the same vintage as PHD and Manning Gottlieb Media. Much of its entrepreneurial, commercial, spirit stems from Booth, who left his job as a buying director at Zenith Media to join Charlie Makin and Nick Lockett at the helm of the start-up back in 1990 (Lockett then left the agency when it was acquired by Havas, while Makin is still on board as its chief strategic officer).

Now part of Havas' Arena network, the agency is expected to play a key part in Havas Media's growth plans. And central to this seems to be the strength of Quantum, the London agency's digital offering, which is now being rolled out as Arena's digital brand across Europe.

Which throws up the issue of whether it's smart to maintain a distinct digital brand post the i-level collapse. Booth argues that the specialism, with Arena Quantum sitting alongside Arena Media, remains vital: "As far as digital is concerned, I don't think that best practice lies in the big network agencies, yet the demise of i-level has led to the harsh perception that's what clients want - I'm not sure it's the case, I'm aware there is a massive advantage in evolving our digital product in a big way. It's convenient for clients to say digital is just a part of media but this belies the fact that best performance is dictated by best practice and that's not what many are getting."

Booth hopes that Arena's digital offering will help it differentiate itself in a commoditised world, where agencies seem to be chasing billings at any cost, and he characterises larger network agencies as "like a bunch of lemmings, but I'm not sure that the last lemming over the cliff counts as a winner".

This is all very well but as the current fierce pitch contest for Arena's Thomas Cook client shows, it has to play in this market. Booth's solution to this when Arena is a small player (ranked 18th in the UK with £50 million in billings by Nielsen) is to position around advertisers who want to "sell stuff", and he has unveiled a new positioning of "Media performance transformed into business profit".

It's workmanlike but does the job. And clients into hard targets, such as Tesco, T-Mobile and Domino's, seem to buy into it. It's also helping to fuel growth. The agency has recruited 23 people this year and it has a solid new-business record - recent wins include Mirror Group, ESPN and Red Driving School.

But what next for Booth? He still has ambitions for the agency: "I've not just sat here and noodled a three-year earn-out, but have got involved with Havas. It was the right deal, with the right people at the right time. I do love it and my enthusiasm is not dimmed one bit."

And those who know Booth say he hasn't changed. Steve King, the global chief executive at ZenithOptimedia, worked with him at Dorland, Bates and then Zenith Media. He says: "We were young, energetic and focused. Now we are old, energetic and focused. Steve is high energy and passionate and still cares about work and the clients. He's unbelievably committed."

Even the "lemmings" like him. Nick Theakstone, the chief executive of Group M, says: "Everybody respects Steve as a great media businessman. His passion, drive and energy shine through. And he's a good guy and super well-liked in the industry. In a world of big companies like ours, it's great that Steve has showed that smaller companies can do well."

Booth is still heavily involved with developing Arena in London but there seems to be the prospect of moving onwards and upwards within Havas Media. Mark Craze, the chief executive of Havas Media UK, says: "Steve and his management team get on well with colleagues across the group - which is massively important. And Steve has passion - he really, really cares and he's a perfectionist. He always wants to improve things and is looking at what's next."

And, Craze adds, Havas is keen to keep him post earn-out: "Steve has been very involved in the Arena network and in developing the global brand. He seems happy and we're very happy, and as long as he wants to be here we want him to be around."

Any move for Booth would create space for a strong local Arena team that includes the chief operating officer, Paul van Barthold, and the managing directors, Pippa Glucklich, Pedro Avery and Dan Clays (the highly rated head of Quantum). But it seems Booth is there to stay for the immediate future. And, as long as clients want help to drive profits, who better than a man who has made a handsome profit himself but is still striving to improve?

THE LOWDOWN

Age: 49

Lives: Seer Green, Bucks

Family: Wife, Juliet, plus Louis, Emily and Hal

Most treasured possession: Juliet

Interests outside work: Old cars and young horses

Best thing about working in media: The twin constants of challenge and opportunity

Motto: I'm fond of those of General MacArthur, including "A general is just as good or just as bad as the troops under his command make him" and "The best luck of all is the luck you make for yourself".

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