Feature

Universal McCann looks to home to fill European post

Chris Shaw is a Universal 'lifer' with a vision for the future, writes Rebecca Beer.

The departure of Universal McCann's head of Europe, Brian Jacobs, means that once again an extra load has fallen on the shoulders of Chris Shaw, the UK and Ireland chairman. Given Jacobs' short tenure (18 months) it could be seen as a tough job -- but someone has to do it and Shaw has been nominated to take on the responsibilities of the European operation.

When the agency launched as a media independent in December 1994, Shaw worked with Fiona Smedley as a planning director before taking on the role of joint managing director in 1997. Since Smedley's departure in 2000, when Shaw took sole charge of the UK agency, he has made some interesting changes and took the chairman role in 2001.

Now in his early forties, Shaw has never been one to work the media circuit or get in on the golfing scene. Perhaps this is why, despite some successes at Universal, he still has a relatively low profile.

Despite Shaw's occasionally grumpy facade, Mark Waugh, the deputy managing director at ZenithOptimedia and a former colleague, confesses he is not surprised by Shaw's promotion. "Chris was born to be an international media man and has 'Universal' running through him like a stick of rock. He is a lifer."

Coming from a planning background, it's no surprise that Shaw has restructured the agency to put more of an emphasis on communications planning, rather than just buying.

The new arrangements also direct more senior management time toward client business. They have also helped make the agency recession proof.

"Part of moving the product forward involved creating 'specialisms', which generated revenue outside traditional planning and buying," he says. "I brought in Damian Blackden to oversee the interactive initiative and Phil Creswell to handle UM Programming, which was about developing client brands."

Having always run a tight ship in London, Shaw is surprisingly relaxed about his new role. In his own laid-back way he admits to being enthusiastic and "fired up", seeing the move as a great opportunity for both himself and the agency. Part of his plan is to extend the structure of the UK office across Europe.

He says: "We have a very strong team in London and we want to use this team to build individual offices as centres of excellence."

Shaw's new title is a real mouthful and the new role could prove to be a real handful. He will report to both Ben Langdon, McCann-Erickson Worldgroup's regional director and chairman, in a financial capacity, and to Robin Kent, Universal's global president, in the US. It looks unlikely that the family man will have time for an annual holiday this summer, as he is anticipating having to expend all his energies on new business.

"New business is going to be a primary role, with the biggest challenge being growth in this area. Getting Nestle back in the UK and in Germany would be great and I would also like to see the agency win a gold at Cannes Lions as well as increasing our billings," Shaw says.

RECMA figures show Universal McCann as the tenth-biggest agency across Europe, the Middle East and Africa with $4.8bn in billings, something Shaw hopes to improve.

However, Waugh sees Shaw's biggest challenge as making the Universal offering more distinct from the main creative agency and defining what Universal McCann stands for across Europe.

"Universal probably has a reputation for being quite a grey brand with McCann-Erickson having retained a tight grip," Waugh continues. "Chris needs to make it stand out, becoming more independent and more colourful."

Shaw disagrees, saying: "75% of our UK clients are independent of McCann-Erickson. We have worked hard, but we have created something that is very different. We have always stood for integrity, team ethic and striving to be the best."

Although there is a degree of surprise about Shaw's appointment from some industry players, nobody can question his tenacity in surviving previous agency culls.

The key to Shaw's success could be his strong yet understated character. At times his mask descends to reveal somebody with an occasionally wicked sense of humour who is capable of challenging the corporate line. Former colleagues also say that he can be stubborn and unmovable in his opinions.

Shaw now has the chance to prove he is capable of making the necessary changes to raise both the profile and the billings at Universal McCann. His relationship with Langdon and Kent will be key to this.

The Shaw file

1991 Optimedia, founding director

1992 Initiative, board director

1995 Universal McCann, group media director to managing director

2001 Universal McCann, chairman UK and Ireland

2003 Universal McCann, European vice-president and regional director, EMEA

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