Media Perspective: Initiative needs a lot of network support for a return to form

Life at the London outpost of Interpublic's Initiative can't have been easy in recent years.

God, everybody has had it tough but the situation there reminds me of those Chilean chaps trapped down the mine. You can relieve the pressure from time to time with happy pills and a bit of a singsong but, ultimately, you're still stuck down some dirty great big hole.

Initative's leaders might not accept that things are this bad but, in my view, the agency has never really recovered from the loss of accounts such as Unilever, way back in 2004, and Orange in 2008.

Like it or not, the lifeblood of a media agency is new business. Other agencies - ZenithOptimedia and MPG Media Contacts spring to mind - have proved able to bounce back from their losses to win big accounts. Initiative, although it has manfully retained its Tesco business, just doesn't seem to have had the energy.

IPG, belatedly in my view, has acted and last week hired as its chief executive Alex Altman, the managing director of Group M's COI "agency" M4C (a media unit whose growth prospects seem less rosy than even Initiative's have been). The hunt for a London boss has been a long one with Initiative, led by its able worldwide chief executive, Richard Beaven, considering some younger names from planning and digital backgrounds alongside more established agency management figures.

Altman replaces Gary Birtles, who was solid enough to save the agency from the brink but was not identified as the right man to inspire it to a new future. As the naysayers point out, Altman is neither young nor digital but he does come with an excellent reputation. Beaven praises Altman's "entrepreneurial" drive and he has a varied range of skills on his CV - he was a planner and then commercial director at Carat before joining MEC as its deputy managing director and is rated as a strong all-round operator and leader by everybody I've spoken to at both Aegis and Group M.

Altman is the right appointment but even Jose Mourinho would struggle to motivate Initiative into a successful force. It needs help from its network, in much the way that MEC and then Maxus in the UK have had from Group M, if it is to succeed.

Luckily for Altman, he's likely to get this support as Beaven is keen to talk-up the stronger network and worldwide team he has put in place on the back of the success of Initiative in the US. Should this support materialise and should Altman succeed in bringing some old-fashioned leadership and business drive to the table, then it has a chance. Things will look up and, who knows, maybe there will be light at the end of the mineshaft.

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