By Arif Durrani, mediaweek.co.uk, Wednesday, 19 November 2008 12:00PM
It only takes a minute for MediaCom's new chief executive and shameless Take That fan Jane Ratcliffe to convey her passion for a company she's helped shape for the past 18 years. "We have a great culture built around entrepreneurial spirit. If people really want to achieve and develop, this is the place to do it," she says.
But despite such long ties to the agency, dating back to its inception as Grey, she's not one to court publicity, preferring to spend time with colleagues and clients. So when MediaCom was awarded the industry's highest accolade - Agency of the Year - at last month's Media Week Awards, it was viewed by many as the culmination of Nick Lawson's near three-year tenure in charge.
While no one will question the influence the straight-talking media man has had on the business, Ratcliffe, his long-standing number two who assumed the hot seat in September, is already planning the agency's next pinnacle.
"MediaCom has never been about one single person," says its new chief, who first worked with Lawson as joint managing director following the merger of The Media Business and MediaCom in 1999. Almost overnight, the pair were catapulted to co-managing the third-largest media agency in the UK, which has topped Nielsen's media agency league of annual billings since 2002.
"We continue to be successful because we never rest on our laurels and are always looking at how to improve our offering," Ratcliffe adds. In the current economic climate, she knows the importance of differentiating the agency from its rivals as it looks to maintain its position as the UK's leading media agency in 2009.
Such drive and pragmatism is typical of the 40-something-year-old's media career, which has spanned more than 25 years. Entering the industry as PA to Derek Morris in the media department at BMP, she soon won the respect of those around her.
"Jane has always possessed a common sense wisdom rather than the usual business book bullshit," recalls Morris, now chairman and chief strategy officer at ZenithOptimedia. "She's a really strong manager of people, issues and clients. She has a good antennae for problems and the unflappable presence to fix them."
But after a strong year in 2008, which saw the agency build on last year's milestone of being the UK's first £1bn-plus media agency, with a further £150m in net new business, next year is looking less rosy. The loss of the £56m Boots account to OMD will dent the bottom line before any fallout from the recession even begins.
Characteristically, Ratcliffe appears unperturbed. She is expecting an increase in account reviews in 2009, as embattled clients look to squeeze profit margins, but has confidence in the agency's ability to maintain and consolidate its existing business.
While it may sound trite, clients really do sit at the heart of the agency. Many big names, including Universal Music, P&G and Direct Line, have been with MediaCom since the beginning and relationships run deep.
But there is still room for potential new business in 2009, Ratcliffe adds pointedly. Adding further fuel to rumours the agency is courting Tesco, she admits: "We're not in a big retail sector and, yes, we are actively pursuing opportunities in that area."
Considered by many to be the natural successor to Lawson, Ratcliffe's appointment nevertheless heralds a new style of management for MediaCom's 583-strong staff. "I'm more personable and people-oriented than Nick," she says, admitting that this translates to "less confrontational". But the pair worked together successfully for eight years and Ratcliffe believes their styles have been largely complementary. She stresses the importance of having a sounding block, someone you can develop ideas with when in the top job.
This raises the question why, in one of her first moves at the helm, she scrapped the managing director role for a management board divided into three units - commercial and finance, trading and business solutions.
Ratcliffe says: "I have experts who are brilliant at what they do and I want them to run their parts of the business. They are better positioned to do that than a managing director."
MediaCom's chief strategy officer, Sue Unerman, has become Ratcliffe's accomplice when it comes to developing ideas.
Another MediaCom veteran, Unerman is among a roster of impressive female senior executives blazing a trail at the agency. Elsewhere, Claudine Collins co-heads the new trading board, Karen Blackett has taken the lead in EMEA, Clare Newman is in charge of econometrics, and Nancy Lengthor leads Direct.
Ratcliffe says: "We have more women than any other agency. I don't think it's been a conscious decision. We train people exceptionally well, whoever they are - we just happen to have cornered the market in exceptional women."
As the mother of a four and a six-year old, Ratcliffe understands the need for flexibility in the workplace and identifies the agency's ability to retain its best staff as key to its success.
MediaCom is the only media agency to have featured in The Sunday Times' Best Companies To Work For throughout the past five years - an achievement that resonates with its strapline: "People first, better results".
Morale is boosted still further by MediaCom's own Meet & Eat cafe and its in-house bar Rich's - both go some way towards offsetting the fact that the WPP agency's new chief executive fancies Gary Barlow.
2008: Chief executive, MediaCom
2006: Managing director, MediaCom
1999: Joint managing director, MediaCom TMB
1994: Client services director, MediaCom
1992: Media director, MediaCom
1991: Sabbatical: travelled Asia-Pacific
1991: Client services director, Grey
1990: Media account director, BMP
1982: PA, media department, BMP
Family: Married with two children, aged four (boy) and six (girl). Lives in West Hampstead and escapes to Sussex at the weekend
Loves: Oriental food, especially Hakkasan
Desert island media: Conde Nast Traveller, an iPod loaded with all Take That's greatest hits and a home movie player to watch Mamma Mia
RATCLIFFE ON ...
The TV licence: The BBC should not be funded by the licence fee as it is already morphing into a commercial entity. If the fee stays, ITV and C4 should see some of it.
Magazines: I don't think you'll ever get people opting to read a high-end fashion magazine online in the same way they pick up a finely crafted publication such as Vogue or Elle. Such titles will maintain their position in the market.
The media business: The industry has become far more sophisticated in the past 25 years. When I first came to the business, we were brought on at the end of a presentation and trading was calculated in the pub on the back of a fag packet. Now we are at the top table with the client, talking comms planning from the outset.
Fun: We have to have fun. If we don't, we ain't gonna succeed - because we'll just become machines and lose the personal side of what MediaCom is all about.
VivaKi: I can see the potential of VivaKi, but I also think its a bit late in the market. I can see the personnel issues they are going to face, as GroupM went through this.
This article was first published on mediaweek.co.uk