CLOSE-UP: NEWSMAKER - ERIC SALAMA. WPP's strategy chief returns to consultancy roots

Eric Salama's new Kantar role sees him leave WPP's board, Jenny Watts writes.

Eric Salama. Even the name has a ring of mystery to it. But Sir Martin Sorrell's right-hand man at WPP has ditched his board position to take a more front-facing role as the chairman and chief executive of the holding company's market research operation, The Kantar Group.

Sources agree that Salama, as the group strategy director of WPP, had been looking for a new challenge - that he wanted to make a bigger difference in a narrower field for some time. He says: "Of course I'm going to miss my WPP role ... but does any part of me think I'm making the wrong decision?

No, not even my little toe. There's no job I want more, within WPP or outside it, than the Kantar job ... unless, of course, David Dein asked me to manage Arsenal."

Salama started as WPP's strategy head on April Fool's Day nine years ago. During his tenure he was responsible for developing integrated approaches for client businesses, overseeing the group's digital capabilities, acquisitions and joint ventures. Significantly, he's credited with successfully encouraging the group's companies to work together on cross-client business, such as integrating Tempus into the group, and leading the industry with moves such as the formation of MindShare, in which he was heavily involved.

Salama says: "I'm proud of what we've done in developing talent and bringing more talent into the group. And we've made big strides towards getting a group of individuals across companies to work together for clients."

The move to Kantar sees the former managing director of The Henley Centre return to his consultancy roots. The Kantar Group includes the Millward Brown, Research International, Henley Centre and BMRB brands. He replaces David Jenkins, who will retire to the US.

With revenues of around $1.4 billion, taking over Kantar, the biggest research group in the world, is an important move for Salama and WPP.

Kantar comprises around 30 per cent of WPP's revenue base, but its growth, along with other research companies perceived as recession-proof, has slowed significantly over the past year. And although WPP has quality research interests, they could benefit from greater consistency. As the chief executive of Kantar, it will be up to Salama to use his proven integrationist experience to achieve this aim.

With the desire to grow Kantar to about half of the group's revenue base, helping to ease WPP's reliance on its advertising assets, there's huge potential for Salama to stretch and challenge himself further. But, significantly, the Kantar job has forced Salama to come off the WPP board.

As the head of Kantar he is on a level with WPP's group heads such as Ogilvy & Mather's worldwide chief executive, Shelly Lazarus, and J. Walter Thompson's Peter Schweitzer, neither of whom hold main board positions.

Salama rubbishes reports that he asked to stay on the board, but was refused: "There are no other operating company chief executives on the board, so there's no reason for me to be an exception."

Salama's role as the director of strategy and chief executive of WPP.com is being taken over by Mark Read, described as "another favoured fledgling of Martin's". Read's career history includes managing WebRewards before selling it to Bertelsmann AG and four years strategy consulting at the strategy consultancy Booz Allen. He also spent six years at WPP, including a spell at O&M.

However, while Read will oversee the integration of clients within WPP as well as its overall strategy, some of Salama's other functions will be handed to other individuals. Among them are Peter Dart, the chairman of Enterprise IG, who will be working on Unilever, while David Wheldon, who was instrumental in getting Vodafone centralised into WPP, will have an advisory role. Beth Axelrod, WPP's chief talent officer, will run the group's management and talent development.

But why would Salama sacrifice a board role and take what can arguably be seen as a demotion? One credible answer is that running one of WPP's groups will give Salama the credentials he lacks, should Sorrell ever name him as his successor.

However, the more cynical WPP sources say the move has been designed by Sorrell to convince the City that a successor is being trained up.

"The City gets pissed off if it feels companies are a one-man band. It's good corporate governance, even if it's paying lip-service to succession management."

Salama, who lives with his wife and two children in North London, is an approachable person with a big-picture view of the world. Ros King, the managing director of JWT, says: "What defines Eric is that it's very rare to find someone who combines huge visionary intellect with being a lovely, cuddly, people person."

His "visionary intellect" has certainly proven that he has the credentials to improve Kantar, and sacrificing his position on the WPP board indicates a sturdy commitment to the job.

"I'm very excited about what I'm doing and it's tinged with an element of sadness," he says.

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