Cultured Manning ushers in 'velvet merger' as OMD chief

Manning thinks staff being precious will be the biggest problem, Alasdair Reid says.

Somehow, you always need reminding that Nick Manning was once a purchaser of television airtime. He's about as far away from the archetypal image of "Tommy time buyer" as you can get -- with apologies to time buyers everywhere, he just seems too cultivated and thoughtful.

In fact, some people will tell you (and they'll shake their heads almost sorrowfully while they're about it) that his one big fault is he has too much integrity. "Guilty," he admits. "It comes naturally, I'm afraid. But it's also true that it says a lot about a business when integrity is seen as a weakness."

Touche. But, that noted, the obvious question is whether he's ultimately going to be too nice to do the job he's just been handed -- OMD UK's group chief executive, with a task of carrying out a "velvet merger" in the capabilities of the group's two main operating units, OMD UK and Manning Gottlieb. The two units will remain as stand-alone brands but co-operation and skills sharing (including negotiation, research, analytical tools and digital) will be enhanced.

The appointment marks the opening of another chapter in Manning's relationship with his one-time partner and now boss, Colin Gottlieb, the chief executive of OMD Europe. Manning was the first person Gottlieb met when he started at CIA in January 1985 (by then, Manning was a veteran of five years' standing) and they have grown up in the business together.

It sometime irks Gottlieb that people think he is the one who's more likely to have a time-buying skeleton in his cupboard, whereas in fact it was Gottlieb who was the creative thinking planner in the partnership. But it would be an even greater error to underestimate Manning, Gottlieb adds: "He is quintessentially English in his approach. But actually beneath the surface he is highly competitive and though we go about things in different ways, we share a similar outlook on life. When Nick says no, he means no."

Gottlieb says Manning will do what it takes to achieve the ultimate goal - to make OMD group perform "more aggressively" in the UK market. He implies it has been punching below its weight. Manning's task is to make the two units work together in such a way as to make "one plus one equal three", as happens in other European markets.

That's partly Gottlieb's fault, he admits -- sitting in London and looking outward at the problems the network faced around continental Europe meant that the UK came low down his list of priorities. Now that's about to change.

Manning says he relishes the challenge. His analogies are taken from the worlds of engineering and architecture. Where other groups have approached a similar structural challenge by bolting on a bridge linking the tops of two silos, with OMD there will be many bridges linking many levels of the two operating units, he explains.

And, of course, there are times when integrity, tolerance and gentlemanly good manners come in handy. In short, the job will call on his diplomatic skills. "It will be about getting people to get on with it as a common objective, making them think about where we are going and what we need to do to get there," he says.

The only problems he can foresee stem from people being, as he puts it "precious". "I won't put up with that," he says.

Outside of work, Manning confesses to three Fs -- different ones, it has to be said, from those made famous by Dawn Airey. Manning's are Fulham, his family (wife and three "alarmingly large" sons) and France. He owns property in the Loire valley near Tours and is a lifelong Francophile, having studied the language at Oxford. As far as Fulham is concerned, he is keen to nail some of the whispers about him being a turncoat.

Those with longer memories recall a time when Manning was a Wimbledon supporter. Ah, but, you see, Wimbledon have now moved to Milton Keynes and he very much believes in supporting your local team and Fulham would be closest to chez Manning in Putney if they still played at Craven Cottage, which they will again soon, and in any case his grandad used to take him to see Fulham so, in one sense, he's going back to his roots. Not that this has been playing on his mind or anything.

He may get even less time for football, though, as he takes on his new role. Is it a timely move and was there a danger of him becoming bored at MG OMD? After all, he'd finished re-inventing it as a brand within the Omnicom fold and had cleared the way for the ultimate succession of a new generation of management. "No," he says. "Not bored. You're never bored in this business. But it was true I'd reached a certain point. I was ready for the next stage."

So where does this next challenge sit within the arc of his career? "It's the last mountain," he admits. "I think I've got one more left in me and this is the big one. I'm very much up for it."

The Manning file

1980 CIA, trainee time buyer rising to director

1990 Manning Gottlieb Media, founder

2004 OMD UK, group chief executive

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