Mediaedge:cia picks a young Turk to drive agency forward

Matt James plans to apply perspectives acquired on a year out, writes Jeremy Lee.

As the builders prepared to leave Mediaedge:cia's south London offices, following an extensive modernisation of its grim Paris Gardens headquarters, Matt James was joining as its new UK managing director.

James, 32, quit the media scene last year when he handed in his notice as the managing director of Manning Gottlieb Media to explore more entrepreneurial avenues outside the traditional agency arena. At the time, few would have predicted that he would turn up in a staff job, especially at Mediaedge:cia - an agency that's had more than its fair share of troubles.

Nobody felt the shock of James' appointment more than James Whitmore, Mediaedge:cia's outgoing managing director, who had worked at the agency in its various incarnations for 16 years.

The two men are poles apart - where Whitmore seemed an awkward figure who kept both a low profile and his own counsel, James has a blokeish, more relaxed outlook on life and is a familiar figure on the media scene.

Whitmore was responsible for running a neat media boutique in the old The Media Edge. He is a bookish, almost intellectual figure, whereas James' relationship with books is different - he seems to have swallowed the whole of Waterstone's management section. One of his favourite phrases, delivered in his South London accent, is "driving the agency forward".

While full of bullish intentions, James does not underestimate the job ahead of him. "This is a very, very tough challenge. I'm under no illusion about what's going to be required from Mediaedge:cia in terms of projecting the position of the agency going forward," he says.

James' appointment follows the parachuting in of Rob Norman as UK chairman. Norman has considerable energy, passion and industry and the two men look like being quite a formidable team.

However, some observers remain sceptical. After all, haven't we been here before when James, at the tender age of 28, became the youngest head of a London agency when he took on the Manning Gott-lieb managing directorship? His departure after just two years in the job was startling, particularly after he'd hinted he was in it for the long term. But James puts paid to any rumours of a dispute with Manning Gottlieb's partners.

He says that the reasons were actually rather prosaic. "I just got to a point where, 13 years in, I wanted a break and this industry is not fantastic at saying 'have a sabbatical'. I had three very young children and had worked extremely hard. I just wanted time out because I was becoming disillusioned."

James rose up the media ranks with great speed - during a previous stint at Paris Gardens, and at the age of 23, he become a board director before decamping to Manning Gottlieb after CIA's TV trading dispute with Laser.

Following his departure from Manning Gottlieb, James maintains that he kept his eye in, working with production companies to see if there was an opportunity of combining cross-media strategy and production. He believes that the skills he acquired during this time will help provide Mediaedge:cia with some differentiation.

The big question is why he decided to return and particularly why he chose Mediaedge:cia. James says the WPP connection was irresistible. "It's had a lot of turmoil and now that I've given myself a completely new perspective on the industry in the year that I've taken out, the job is very, very appealing."

James knows that, in the super-served media agency market, Mediaedge:cia has to develop its own positioning to differentiate itself from its rivals and get itself back on the new-business lists. "What we've got is 85 per cent of the ingredients. The first thing we've got to do operationally is get ourselves organised to function collectively. We need to truly understand what our position externally is going to be," he admits.

But for the time being, he is going to sit back and see just what he has got to play with before committing himself to the exact nature of this positioning. "I don't know what it's going to be yet - I've only just found out where the toilets are," he says.

Operationally, change is on the cards. But both James and Norman, while having strong personalities, don't want to be seen as the sole drivers of change at the agency. The agency's staff, who have been criticised for failing to embrace the merger, will also be expected to do their bit.

"This isn't the Rob and Matt show. We're going to drive collective responsibility to put Media-edge:cia where it should be," James says.

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