Big game lures Morris to new ZenithOptimedia challenge

Ambition is a key motivator for a man who always plays to win, Ian Darby discovers.

You'd be forgiven for thinking that the game is up. That Derek Morris's move back into the traditional media agency world signals the end of a brave, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to bring a creative agency (Publicis) closer to the media planning process.

But you'd be wrong to think this, according to Morris and his new employers at Publicis' media agency, ZenithOptimedia. In fact, far from conceding defeat in the attempt to bring creative and media together, his move is an attempt to take things to another level.

Morris joined Publicis two years ago from Unity, the consultancy he launched with Andy Tilley and Ivan Pollard. He arrived with the title chief strategic officer, and was briefed to provide integration and a media-neutral approach across departments.

Briefly, Morris occupied the position of joint chief executive at Publicis (following the departure of Richard Hytner) but reverted to his original role after a few months. Now, of course, it's all change at Publicis with the recent arrival of Tim Lindsay as the UK chairman.

So what does Morris see as his challenge? "It's gone well at Publicis but it wasn't an easy and fast thing to do. The industry is talking about 're-engineering companies' but it's not like just flicking a switch. It's about changing processes and the next step is to bring media into it."

And Morris' link with Publicis will remain. He will continue to serve on its board and a key part of his brief at ZenithOptimedia, as well as looking after several large clients, is to help Publicis and the media agency work more closely together.

Some suggest Morris had achieved all he could at Publicis and was an underused luxury. At ZenithOptimedia, he will have more to get his teeth into because of the level of resources in place.

Morris' arrival completes the new-look line-up of ZenithOptimedia's senior management team. The chief executive, Antony Young, has filled the gap left by the departing managing directors, Tim Greatrex and Greg Turzynski, both TV traders by background, by promoting a planner to managing director (Gerry Boyle) and bringing in another planner (Morris) in a key role. The hiring of the creative director, Lucy Banks, will also boost ZenithOptimedia's planning resource.

So what will Morris bring to the evolving "ROI agency"? "A core element in ROI is working more effectively with creative agencies. Derek had a lot of strong views on how this could be done," Young says.

"It appealed to me that he [Morris] had a unique CV - he ran a creative agency, a media agency, a start-up consultancy. He's seen the whole communications pro-cess and will be trying to join us up with Publicis management," Young adds .

Currently attending a course at Wharton Business School, Morris will move over to ZenithOptimedia when he returns to the UK in late July. In addition to his new role at ZenithOptimedia, Morris will also be taking up the post of chairman of the Radio Advertising Bureau, to which he will commit at least one day a month and help on defining its future strategy.

Those who know him say that he is extremely bright and capable and combines this with an incredibly competitive streak and an almost obsessive attention to detail.

He spent 16 years as part of BMP's media operation working alongside the likes of Pollard, Kevin Brown and Paul Taylor. Colleagues from this time say that his ambition and competitive nature led him to be bitterly disappointed when Nigel Sharrocks was appointed media director in 1987.

He is recalled fondly, although one former BMP colleague comments: "Derek was highly competitive -- there was a point where we played basketball at lunchtimes and we had to ban him from playing because he turned it into a blood sport."

One friend says that this drive lay behind Morris' decision to join Publicis from his "boutique" agency, Unity. Others argue there was tension between Morris and the other two Unity founders, Pollard and Tilley. But mainly his decision to leave was driven by ambition, one former colleague says: "He wanted another shot at the big time. Unity had stalled with around seven staff and having to pitch for every single project."

Morris says of this decision: "It was a great four years [at Unity] and I really enjoyed it... but I realised, collaborating and working with content, that that game is a big game played by big players. There is a smaller market but the game had become mainstream and that's why I chose Publicis."

Now he's moving even further into the mainstream by joining an agency famed for the bulk of its media buying. Changing this perception will be no easy task.

The Morris file

1980 BMP, media planner

1991 BMP, joint media director

1997 Unity, founder

2002 Publicis, chief strategy officer to chief executive

2004 ZenithOptimedia, vice-chairman

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