Media: Headliner - ZenithOptimedia head seizes chance to make clean break

Perriss believes the timing of his exit suits the agency well, Alasdair Reid reports.

John Perriss, the worldwide chief executive of ZenithOptimedia, has been around a while. This is not to insinuate that he's slightly ga-ga and needs to be wheeled around the ZenithOptimedia headquarters in a bath chair with a tartan travelling rug over his legs. He's only 55, after all. But let's put it this way - a matter of weeks into his first job at a Mayfair agency, he took an extra-long lunch break, distracted by the small matter of The Beatles' last live performance as they lined up on the rooftop of the Apple building in Savile Row. The year was 1969.

So, in some respects, it's no surprise to hear that he has decided it's time to move on. This is not an industry that's glad to be grey and Perriss has never made any secret of his desire to leave full-time employment well before his 60th birthday.

"The timing is good," he says. "We've just come through one phase (the consolidation of the Zenith and Optimedia brands) and we're about to enter a new one. This next phase will take two to three years and if I was going to be around I'd have to be here (for the duration). I didn't want that."

The decision was made all the easier, he adds, because a "succession plan" has been clear for a while now. Perriss also hints that he has become thoroughly bored by many of the routine management issues.

He is now seeking a range of consultancy and non-executive roles within the industry and there will be no shortage of offers. Perriss created Zenith Media 16 years ago as the first media specialist operation to be set up by a traditional advertising agency holding company.

The industry since 1988 has been forged in this image.

But he will also be grateful for the opportunity to spend more time with his family. And his horses, come to that. This week, being Cheltenham Festival week, has not seen Perriss put in much time behind his desk.

Dedicated as he has been (sometimes, according to some, obsessively so) to the media world, it still comes second to steeple chasing, especially during a big meet such as Cheltenham. He even owns a couple of horses.

According to some sources, he's been in winding-down mode for a few weeks.

As one observer puts it: "The joke is that he has gone part-time without telling anybody. He has been focusing on areas outside the job spec you'd associate with the group chief executive role."

On the other hand, many senior ZenithOptimedia insiders admit they were shocked to hear the news. Rumours about Perriss departing have pulsed through the company on more than one occasion and have proved unfounded.

It's the end of an era, certainly; but how to interpret the wider implications, especially as to the future structure of the media companies in the Publicis Groupe? Steve King, ZenithOptimedia's chief executive for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, directly replaces him.

But one way or another, Perriss' departure cannot be divorced from the whole issue of the Publicis Groupe chief executive Maurice Levy's desire to forge closer links between the group's two main media sub-brand clusters - Starcom MediaVest and ZenithOptimedia. Some sources in the US, who cast doubt on Perriss' version of events, believe he's been a bit of a refusenik, the man whose bluff was called when he said "over my dead body".

So the departure of Perriss may well be seized upon as an opportunity to accelerate that process. However, Publicis seems to be committed in the short term to preserving both media brands. And the appointment of King, a Zenith man since its formation, would suggest that Publicis wants it to continue as a strong network in its own right.

Speculation at regional and local levels that there might have been opportunities for individuals to broaden their roles proved to be unfounded. Some had thought, for example, that there would be scope for Mark Cranmer, Starcom MediaVest Group's chief executive for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, to extend his power base.

But going forward, of all the big holding companies, Publicis arguably holds the most diverse properties on the media side and is the least advanced when it come to streamlining, dovetailing and restructuring.

So, as Perriss no doubt fields all sorts of jokes about being put out to pasture and other witty analogies from the racing world, his colleagues are resisting the temptation to indulge in speculation.

As one put it last week: "Yes, John's departure will have major ramifications but even if a successor is named this week, I don't think anything will actually happen for a good long while. So, obviously, now I've said that, we'll probably find ourselves rearranging furniture tomorrow."

THE PERRISS FILE

1972: Compton Advertising, media planner/buyer

1983: Saatchi & Saatchi, worldwide media director

1988: Zenith Media, founding chief executive

2001: ZenithOptimedia, worldwide chief executive

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