CLOSE-UP: NEWSMAKER/MIKE SMALLWOOD; Logical media expert relishes chance to blossom

The chief of Lowes’ brand new operation is shy but confident.

The chief of Lowes’ brand new operation is shy but confident.

There was a natural sweetness to the choice of the Hyde Park Hotel for

the unveiling of Lowe Howard-Spink’s new media dependant last week

(Campaign, 6 December).

Almost exactly a year ago, ensconced in the hotel’s bar, I happened to

overhear Tim Lindsay, Lowes’ managing director, illustrate for a

prospective employee the absolute necessity of Lowes becoming a serious

media player, getting into the volume market and moving into the top

five or die.

It was an argument many around town had long been making on Lowes’

behalf, though in truth the agency’s in-house media department, headed

by Mike Smallwood, suited most people as it was: increasingly

marginalised in the competitive media market.

But it was not an argument that Lowes - the staunchest of defenders of

the full-service ethos - had ever been prepared to brook. For Mike

Smallwood, the man responsible for the success of the Lowes media team

but only one cog in the wheel that could revolutionise the status quo,

it must have been a testing time.

Smallwood had seen Lowes rise to claim one of the best media departments

in London, skilfully (and with a distinguishing degree of integrity)

playing the quality card well before it became the requisite new-

business tool it is today. At one point, the agency was proud to say

that it handled 100 per cent of its clients’ media in-house at a time

when more and more voices were being raised in favour of the media


But Smallwood, who says he ‘came to Lowes for 18 months and stayed for

13 years’, also oversaw painful media losses such as Whitbread and, more

recently, Lloyds-TSB. The shine wore off the department and, for many,

Lowes was held to have lost its media edge. It rarely made it on to

media-only pitches, had a low profile at a time when the media

specialists were polishing their PR act, and consistently failed to

trumpet the strengths of its in-house media operation when the whole

philosophy of the full-service solution was under siege.

It would be easy to hold the 37-year-old Smallwood - one of the

industry’s few Geordies not to have elocution lessons in the Newcastle

dialect to maintain his Geordie street-cred - accountable for some of

this decline. But talking to Smallwood now, freshly unveiled as the new

chief executive of Western International Media Europe, it is clear that

he had felt more than a twinge of frustration at being left behind.

At the beginning of this year, Smallwood confesses, he was pretty darn

fed up. ‘I decided that it was time for me to do something more serious.

I’d been at Lowes forever, and I felt it was time to change things.’

Mind you, Smallwood says that whenever he’s felt like that in the past

13 years, something’s come along within the agency to keep him happy.

He joined Lowes in 1984 as a planner/buyer, made it to the board three

years later and shared the deputy media director’s title with Andy

Troullides, now the managing director of MediaCom, in 1988. In the

battle for the top job, Smallwood triumphed, climbing later to media

director for Lowe Group Europe in 1992.

Smallwood says that if there was ever any question about his natural

accession to the Western throne, it’s not something he was privy to. As

far as he’s concerned, he’s the right man for the job. ‘Our first

priority is not to lose any clients and one of the reasons I’m right for

this job is that I know our client base, what they want and how to put

it together. I also know the media marketplace inside the UK and across

Europe, so I’ve got a lot of experience of the issues.’

Troullides should know as well as anybody how suited Smallwood is for

the top job. ‘Mike is a really astute business person,’ Troullides

explains. ‘In fact, he’s more of a business animal in the rounded sense

than he is a hands-on media practitioner.’

Troullides also adds that Smallwood’s is the first Christmas card to

land on his desk every year, a fact that illustrates Smallwood’s, shall

we say anal, attention to detail. ‘His desk is always tidy, he’s always

well turned-out, hair neatly cut, motorbike clean and shiny,’ Troullides


It’s a mental neatness that knits seamlessly with Lowes’ careful,

considered approach to media. Martin Bowley, the managing director of

Carlton UK Sales, says that, as well as being ‘smashing, bloody nice and

trustworthy’ Smallwood is renowned for setting high standards. ‘Lowes

spends bloody hours identifying the best programmes for its clients to

advertise in. If Lowes’ clients are advertising, you really do see the


Smallwood likes to think of himself as ‘well-considered, logical, the

sort of person who negotiates by reason rather than brawn - I understand

what I want and why and I don’t get rolled over easily.’ Since skeletons

will out anyway, he also confesses to being ‘autocratic, a touch

cynical, crap at taking criticism and too strong-headed. I’m well aware

that I’m not perfect.’ As if to illustrate this last point, he even

admits to being a Newcastle United supporter.

Mark Cranmer, the media director to Smallwood’s deputy at Lowes in the

80s and now managing director of Motive, agrees about the headstrong,

sensitive-to-criticism bit, ‘which is a rich irony given my own failings

on that score’. Cranmer admits that these mutual flaws led to ‘a few

clashes over pride’ with Smallwood, but insists ‘I like Mike, actually,

which might come as a bit of a shock to him. He’s extremely good at

media, particularly planning, and a very decent human being.’

Now as chief executive of Western, Smallwood will take charge of a

company with a formidable line-up of partners. Western is a joint

venture between the Lowe Group, Initiative Media and Western

International Media, the largest media management company in the US with

billings in excess of dollars 2.6 billion.

But for all the undisputed calibre of the partnership, Smallwood’s game

is now a very different one. Running an in-house media operation offers

an in-built excuse for any failure. Hamstrung from branding your media

team, more clients who prefer the a la carte option, perhaps lack of

resource for an increasingly expensive media chemistry set, even

inability to attract the top staff who want to work for companies where

media is the first and only priority - all can bedevil the in-house

media department. Now Smallwood and his team are exposed in a way they

never were before. And mettle is about to be tested.

Smallwood says he’s relishing the challenge and isn’t at all nervous

about the spotlight. ‘We’ll soon find out if I’m up to it,’ he jokes,

before going on to make it quite clear that he already feels he is more

than up to it. ‘The things I’ve been involved in, in the past, have been

successful and that’s not a bad testimonial in this business.’

Still, Smallwood remains one of the least visible senior media figures

around. He acknowledges shunning the media social circuit: ‘I can do it

for the agency, but it’s not really something I naturally enjoy.’ When

asked why he’s got fewer name checks in the trade press over the years

than almost any other media director, he replies ‘it’s because I’m shy’.

However, he insists he loves getting up on platforms, or standing in

front of clients in new-business presentations, which is just as well

because there really must be more of that stuff now. But if there is a

question mark over Smallwood, it’s not his ability but his hunger that

is doubted. ‘Mike puts so much emphasis on his family, his life outside

of work, that I wonder how much he actually wants this,’ one observer

says. Another asks: ‘How much is Western borne out of defensive

necessity rather than drive and ambition, and how much drive and

ambition does Mike have left?’

‘I’m a survivor,’ Smallwood insists. But in Western, he has the

opportunity not just to survive, but to thrive. Merely surviving with

the gift that Western presents will be tantamount to failure.


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