Close-Up: Profile - 'Cute corporate operator' to reshape Universal

Does Nick Brien have the vision to successfully modernise Universal McCann's offering around the world, Ian Darby asks.

Nick Brien landing the top job at Universal McCann evokes the football manager Ian Holloway's infamous remarks about a scruffy away win for his QPR team. Comparing the victory to meeting an unattractive woman, Holloway said: "She may not have been the best-looking lady we ended up taking home, but it was still very pleasant and very nice, so thanks very much and let's have coffee."

In similar fashion, Brien might not have landed an absolute stunner with Universal but there's still plenty for him to celebrate - a network that, in 2004, was ranked seventh in the world with billings of $14.2 billion and fourth in the US, where its billings topped $7 billion, according to Recma.

However, some see Universal as a bit of a shocking prospect because of its recent new-business record. The $2.5 billion US General Motors buying loss to Publicis' Starcom MediaVest, followed by ZenithOptimedia's capture of L'Oreal Golden across Europe were bitter blows to Universal. Swift action will be needed to stem the client losses.

Moreover, the travails of its parent company, Interpublic, have hardly helped. Critics accuse IPG of taking its eye off the media ball, having originally spent so much time building up two media specialist networks in Initiative and Universal.

This might go some way to explaining why it's been a relatively long process finding a successor for Robin Kent, Brien's predecessor, who was shunted to a lesser McCann Worldgroup role back in March. Other names linked with the role included PHD's founder and chief executive, David Pattison, and MindShare Worldwide's chief strategy officer, Nick Emery.

One network boss approached for the role told Campaign he felt a downside to the job spec seemed to be some confusion over reporting lines and the scope of the role. This might have arisen because of last year's creation of IPG Media, a central media unit headed by the former Viacom executive Mark Rosenthal, and Universal's continued relationship with its sister creative agency McCann Erickson.

But Brien reports directly to Rosenthal rather than the McCann Worldgroup chairman and chief executive, John Dooner. Brien claims he is not too concerned over Universal's new-business record and is convinced the creation of IPG Media, (which will, among other things, find ways that Universal and Initiative can work more closely together), is a positive step.

He says: "It's a significant global job for a significant network and I was excited about returning to the media business. IPG has showed a strong understanding that media is crucial and it's clear from hiring Rosenthal that it wants to invest more in the breadth and experience of its media offering."

Reaction from Universal staff to Brien's appointment appears positive. Many are desperate for somebody to come in with authority, energy and vision and, for the most part, feel Brien ticks the right boxes. Some point to his experience in running advertising and below-the-line agencies as an important factor. Identifying Brien's strengths, Rosenthal mentions this breadth of experience as well as his strong client skills.

Brien started his London media career as a trainee media buyer at Grey before moving through Benton & Bowles and WCRS. He showed his entrepreneurial energy in 1989 when, at the relatively tender age of 28, he was a founding partner of the media agency BBJ. Backed by WCRS, this was essentially the spinning-off of the agency's Bass Buying Unit as a media specialist.

Even by this time, Brien was a well-known figure on the UK media scene, famed for his energy and whirlwind personality. Jerry Buhlmann, a co-founder of BBJ and now the chief executive of Aegis Media Europe, says: "I've got enormous respect for Nick. He's high-energy, very focused and clear-thinking. He's like a dog with a bone and will just keep going until he's successful. I think Universal will have liked him because he's a classic business leader."

After three years at BBJ, Brien left to head Leo Burnett's media department and was promoted, in 1996, to run the agency as its managing director. Burnett was struggling and its creative work moribund when Brien joined the agency. Yet by 2000, by which time Brien was the chief executive, it had established an award-winning reputation.

Brien left Burnett for a corporate role at Starcom MediaVest Group as the president of US corporate business development. Reporting to Jack Klues, SMG's chief executive, Brien was charged with improving the network's US new- business record, as well as modernising its services.

Observers say it's hard to judge the impact Brien made in this role, but it's mildly ironic that the network he helped to bolster in the early part of the decade was in a position to snatch GM from Universal - which is arguably in need of the modernising process that Klues has conducted with SMG.

Critics, who are few and far between, suggest Brien might not be the right man to lead this process. One says: "He's got a lot of energy and passion and he's a bright guy. He joined Burnett when it was in a mess and did an OK job but he's never been a great media visionary - he's more of a cute corporate operator. Universal right now needs the opposite of a corporate man; it has massive issues."

For his part, Brien is obsessed with the creation of what he calls "21st-century media companies" - modernising agencies through technology and creating a wider range of services beyond TV buying. He argues that Universal could be a leading player in this process due to learnings from technology clients such as Microsoft and Intel.

Brien says he is more interested in this than in Universal's recent track record. In February 2004, Brien moved within Publicis to run its global below-the-line network, Arc. He feels the experience he gained of digital and direct marketing activity will help him take Universal forward.

"For two years I learnt about the challenges of creating a network in the disparate world of marketing services. Working below the line has made me appreciate the tremendous complexity of targeted marketing and that creativity is crucial," he says.

But while he believes digital and direct will play more of a role in media, Brien has more general values he will try to instil at Universal.

He concludes: "The three things I will obsess about are innovation, creativity and accountability."

THE LOWDOWN Age: 43 Lives: Chicago Family: Wife Anastasia, son Lucas (4) and daughter Delilah (2) Most treasured possession: My passport Interests outside of work: Travel (which is ironic since my work is full of travel) Favourite music: After becoming a recent iPod fan, I am enjoying hundreds of different artists and genres Most admired media agency: Starcom: Jack Klues, my former boss, has created a powerhouse Motto: Fortune favours the bold.