The rapid rise of MG OMD's new 'people-first' leader

Tim Pearson has been thrust into the CEO role after two promotions in quick succession. But his prized client John Lewis has no doubt that he is the right man for the job.

Pearson: 'if we have very talented people who are given the right support, and if they get on well together, then the magic happens'
Pearson: 'if we have very talented people who are given the right support, and if they get on well together, then the magic happens'

The year has started well for Tim Pearson. Three months into a new job, his most high-profile client, John Lewis, has just reported another impressive Christmas

He was already on a roll. Pearson’s rise to chief executive of Manning Gottlieb OMD last year (replacing Robert Ffitch, who joined Telegraph Media Group)  came just two months after his promotion from executive director to managing director.

There then followed two golds, for clients including Specsavers, at the Media Week Awards in October and another innovative Christmas campaign for John Lewis.

The retailer’s marketing strategy appeared to have been vindicated after it posted a 5.1 per cent lift in sales over the festive period, in contrast to the lacklustre performance of Marks & Spencer and Next.

But how much of John Lewis’ success is down to the media planning and buying, as opposed to the creative work developed by the ad agency Adam & Eve/DDB?

"The basic premise behind every strategy should start with a great creative idea," Pearson says. "It’s very simple. What is happening is that brilliant creative work has generated a level of buzz, which has meant the social element of the plan has become bigger and more impactful. That’s why you can break an ad on Twitter first before it is seen on television.

"Our job is taking an idea and explaining what that is in all kinds of channels. You can experience that idea in-store, on your smartphone or at home with a poster on the wall. We have done a fantastic job of that. The heart of it is video content and a TV campaign, but it lives and breathes in several places now." 

Pearson joined MG OMD in 1999 from Carlton Television, where he was a sales executive. Back then, the agency had 40 staff – a far cry from today’s 350-strong team that occupies its Marylebone offices.

After six years as a TV buyer, Pearson admits to developing a fascination for planning and a tendency for control-freakery. He says: "The market is so diverse and fragmented now. But the most important things in our business are still creativity and effectiveness. Really good planning brings all that together."

Pearson may be a control freak, but he is also eager to praise colleagues, and words such as "collaboration", "teamwork" and "together" crop up as he describes his leadership style: "I am calm and ambitious. I want to be a ‘people-first’ leader. I am aware that if we have very talented people who are given the right support, and if they get on well together, then the magic happens."

Pearson admits to being "shocked" at the exit of Ffitch, who he considers a "close friend" after working with him for 16 years, but insists that MG OMD has the right team in place to succeed him: "It was a surprise, but we’ve moved on and we’ve got deep bench strength; we have a very strong leadership team."

Craig Inglis, the customer director of John Lewis, is confident that the agency has the right person in charge. He says: "Tim could simply not be more suited to this new role. He has the commercial astuteness and planning rigour you would expect from a media agency CEO.

"But, just like Robert before him, what makes Tim really special is his disarming personality and his ability to take people with him. He is understated, genuine and funny, and that allows him to build strong, authentic relationships that stand the test of time."

MG OMD has more than 60 clients and billings in excess of £500 million. After a number of years as the star of OMD Group, it had a quiet 2015 – picking up relatively little new business and splitting with Virgin Atlantic after 22 years

There is plenty of competition within Omnicom Media Group after 2015 brought a string of awards and new clients for sibling agencies OMD UK and PHD. But being part of Omnicom also means having muscle, which it flexed by pulling clients’ ads from Channel 5 and redirecting money elsewhere in TV amid a year-long trading dispute. Pearson won’t talk about that experience or whether all Omnicom clients are back on Channel 5 after the parent company, Viacom, moved its TV sales to Sky last spring.

What is clear is that, while modest and softly spoken for a chief executive, Pearson is sure how to make his mark and help clients: "We have a brilliant agency but we have to change and adapt. Change injects an energy within the organisation, whether that means developing younger people, ensuring we address the gender imbalance or making sure we are diverse.

"Our relationship with clients is becoming more consultative. We offer services outside of the traditional agency. The picture is becoming more complicated but also more interesting."

Pearson, who is 6’4", comes across as self-effacing. But he needs to motivate the troops to get MG OMD walking taller in 2016.


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