As the Advertising Association's chief executive-in-waiting, Tim Lefroy is preparing to take a role that's been compared to moulding plasticine. "It's different from almost any other job in the industry," a long-time observer remarks. "It really is what you make of it."
Surveying the legacy left behind by Baroness Peta Buscombe, soon to step down as the AA's chief executive, it's easy to see what he means, especially taking into account the numerous differences in management style between Buscombe and Lefroy.
As a result, the shape of the AA under its new leader, with his sharp eye for detail, may look rather different from the one fashioned by the mercurial Buscombe, who became almost a one-woman crusader on the industry's behalf.
She clearly impressed Lefroy, who claims that, had it not been for Buscombe, he might not have considered applying to be her successor. "As I read about what Peta was doing, I began to realise that hers was a job I could do."
Nevertheless, he admits he has a steep learning curve to navigate. Some question whether this will be more difficult at the age of 60 given the ever more youthful profile of a digital-driven industry and the fact that he hasn't worked in it for more than a decade.
"Age is a state of mind," he retorts. "You only have to look at Jeremy Bullmore and David Puttnam. And I think that having been away from the industry for so long means I can view it objectively."
Certainly, his measured approach is likely to herald a return to a more consensual way of working long considered essential for an organisation embracing agencies, advertisers and media owners.
After leaving school at 16, Lefroy went to work in the Cadbury finance department. "Cadbury educated me," he says. "It was there that I learned about finance, distribution and marketing." When he left the company for Gillette in 1977, he was the marketing chief for a number of major brands, including Cadbury Dairy Milk.
After a stint as brand manager for the Gillette-owned Paper Mate pens, he joined McCann Erickson. His plan was to stay a few years to get enough experience to become a marketing director. "But after three years, I'd given up any thoughts of going back," he says.
He moved on to Young & Rubicam, where, as managing director, he formed a double act with Rupert Howell to run the "Tell Sid" British Gas privatisation campaign. However, his time there ended badly when a management upheaval left him jobless.
Howell, now ITV's managing director of brand and commercial operations, says: "Tim will keep the initiatives begun by Peta moving in the right direction. He'll make things happen - but he's also focused on detail."
Toby Hoare, the JWT Europe chairman, whose 20-year friendship with Lefroy goes back to when both were at Y&R, adds: "Tim doesn't have Buscombe's chutzpah, but he's very good at building teams around him and he'll get his head around the complex issues at the AA."
One of the most worrying being the AA's finances, which have never needed to be more tightly managed. The problem, in the view of many people, is that too large a proportion of the AA's financial burden is borne by terrestrial TV broadcasters and newspaper owners and not enough by digital specialist members.
"The AA is underfunded but I'm getting conflicting stories about who is paying what," Lefroy says.
Once in the chair, it will be imperative that he gets his hands on the books and sees for himself exactly where the money is coming from before ironing out the disparities. Something that many believe was not in Buscombe's management style.
Her appointment in October 2006 was seen at the time as shrewd given her Westminster connections. "She was an out-and-out politician at a time when we needed a platform with the politicians," an AA executive explains.
Not that embracing Whitehall wins universal approval across the industry. "Trade associations need to be careful about supping with the devil," an industry body senior executive warns. Lefroy claims this view misconstrues what political lobbying is about. "Of course influencing politicians is important," he says. "But a lot of the AA's work is with civil servants who need help to make things happen. Not doing that would be like ignoring your friends until you need them."
Lefroy's hope is to strike the right balance by keeping the AA machine ticking over while continuing to make advertising's case to the Government.
In any case, as Mark Lund, the AA chairman, points out, Lefroy is hardly a political novice, having worked with the Ministry of Defence while chief executive of the change management consultancy Radical Communications. Half of Radical's work comes from the public sector.
"While Buscombe had fantastic access as a working peer, Lefroy will have to organise a more conventional lobbying effort," an IPA senior executive says. "But we're very keen on his appointment because he's very bright, energetic and well networked."
Probably his biggest challenge, however, will be the future of self-regulation. AA officials looked on in horror as the Government cleaned up the mess in the financial services sector after its self-regulation system failed. Now they fear ministers will try to extend more regulatory controls elsewhere.
The threat could manifest itself during the current consultation period before the introduction of a revised CAP Code early next year. Some industry leaders fear the Government could exert pressure to more closely align the self-regulation system covering non-broadcast media with the statutory controls that apply to TV.
"It's vital that the AA, and Lefroy, do not allow the self-regulation to turn into something else," a CAP member says.
Lefroy can also expect pressure from the IPA to augment a hitherto lean AA operation with a strategic planner to exploit the enormous amount of research and data produced by AA members. Lefroy says he needs no persuading.
Meanwhile, he's set himself a personal challenge. "I want us to have more fun," he declares. In the current climate, the strategic objectives may be more achievable than putting smiles on faces.
LEFROY'S BIGGEST CHALLENGES
- Helping preserve the self-regulation system by resisting any attempts by Government to more closely align it with the statutory controls applied to broadcast media.
- Ensuring that the AA remains properly funded by striking a fairer balance between what the terrestrial broadcasters and press members pay compared with that of the online specialist members.
- Make the AA's work more widely known across the marketing communications industry by educating staff throughout the entire business and not just in boardrooms.
- Maintain the closer relationship with Government nurtured by Peta Buscombe while ensuring the main mission of the AA isn't forgotten.
- Bring a strategic planner on board to exploit the huge amount of research material and data produced by AA members for the organisation's benefit.