Close-Up: Newsmaker - Butler is confident of filling big shoes at HTW

The agency's new chief executive, John Butler, is not fazed by taking on such a high-profile role, Claire Billings writes.

When Harrison Troughton Wunderman named John Butler as its new chief executive this month, most of the direct marketing industry responded with a resounding "who?"

Selecting a virtual unknown for what is arguably one of the most powerful and high-profile positions in UK direct marketing seems a strange move, not least because the role entails working with the charismatic and high-profile HTW founder Steve Harrison, the man credited with building the agency's outstanding creative reputation.

Add to that the fact that Butler has to fill the shoes of another larger-than-life character, the HTW co-founder and former managing partner Martin Troughton, who departed dramatically and acrimoniously almost two years ago, and such a low-profile appointment seems stranger still. Troughton was considered not only a match, but also a good foil for Harrison. And when he left, many in the industry puzzled over who would take over.

Although he might not enjoy the same recognition as his new agency's founders, even the quickest scan through Butler's CV reveals why he's a good choice for the post.

Born in the US, Butler began his career at Phillip Morris, where he spent five years, first in corporate affairs and later in brand management for Marlboro before deciding to move agency side to get a more rounded view of marketing.

"I've built my career on the belief that you need to be broad and deep," Butler explains. "If you're going to be a good marketer, you need both sides of the equation. My ability to see what my clients' problems are is made so much better by my client-side experience."

In 1999, he left Phillip Morris and spent two years at the UK brand consultancy Imagination, working on brands such as Mazda. From there he moved to Grey Global as a business director on Masterfoods and transferred to TBWA's Disruption Consultancy as the managing director after the account moved there. According to Butler, the job came to an end after a year when his ambition to grow the business was not matched by the network, so they parted ways and he started interviewing for the HTW role.

One former colleague says that although Butler has no conventional DM experience, he's got the right skills for the role. "He's got gravitas and he's charming. He has the ability to have the wider business conversations and provide the consultancy role that clients expect from the chief executives of big agencies," he says.

It was a breakdown in the relationship with Harrison that led to Troughton's departure in 2004. And although Butler's arrival coincides with Harrison's three-month sabbatical, the two spent time getting to know each other before he took the role. "Steve and I are very similar in many ways - we agree on a lot of principles. But he and I will act very differently about how you defend certain principles."

One immediate challenge he faces is how to stabilise the agency after dramatic client losses. In the four months since Harrison was handed the additional role of worldwide creative director of Wunderman, two of the agency's flagship and award-winning clients, M&G Investments and Star Alliance, have left, fuelling speculation that the absence of a chief executive was beginning to take its toll.

"My sense is that there are things we can do in the short term to turn the tide the other way. The basic things you need to deliver, excellent work that gets results for clients, are here," Butler says.

Butler sees the HTW chief executive's task as one of "leader and lubricant". "One of the things I can bring to this agency is focus and clarity and a resolve to the little friction problems that haven't been solvable without someone sitting in that role," he says.

There appears to be no lack of opportunity for a man as ambitious as Butler. He will oversee the integration of HTW with its online subsidiary Wunderman Interactive, which will create an agency with 200 staff. "We're putting everybody together so online and offline will cease to exist as distinct territories and we'll get back to focusing on creating great ideas for clients," he says.

Butler will also work with Marcus Starke, the president and chief executive of Wunderman Europe, the Middle East and Africa, to harmonise HTW's offering with the rest of the network. "One thing I'm keen on is to win global and pan-European markets," Starke says. "Once John gets his head around the London office, he can look at the wider network."

Butler's long-term goal is to move into a bigger network role, but he has set out a three-year plan that, if successful, will enable the agency to regain its position at the top of its field.

"In three years, I want people to say this agency is the best of its type in London hands-down. Not one of the best. We have to write the blueprint. We have to say this is the best way to operate and that's not something that comes from me - that comes from the organisation."

It's fighting talk and there's no doubt the industry will be watching closely to see whether Butler's actions will match his words.