Gerry Boyle comes full circle at Zenith

Gerry Boyle, group chief executive of ZenithOptimedia, tells Harriet Dennys why he was liberated by the £80m Lloyds loss, why Zed Media's demise was inevitable and how the split into Zenith Media and Optimedia will create two 'even, vibrant divisions' for the agency group

Gerry Boyle, group chief executive, ZenithOptimedia
Gerry Boyle, group chief executive, ZenithOptimedia

It is the fifth day of Radio Immersion Week at ZenithOptimedia, and Global Radio has set up camp in the agency’s reception to promote their sales offering and hawk tickets to Capital Radio’s Jingle Bell Ball.

Rihanna blasts from the speakers as fashionably dressed 20-somethings stream through the revolving doors fashionably late for work, making the lobby feel more like a central London bar than the UK’s original media buying powerhouse.

Into this scene walks the agency’s group chief executive Gerry Boyle clutching two cups of coffee, which slip from his hands to the floor as a clipboard-wielding Global rep rushes forward to ask if he would like to win an iPad. But spilt hot drinks are but minor upsets in the life of Boyle, who has had to contend with potentially devastating loss and unsettling change over the last 18 months.

To recap: on a Monday night in September 2009, Boyle convened a full-company meeting in ZenithOptimedia’s reception to break the news to his staff that they had lost the £80m Lloyds pitch, having been outplayed by MEC.

And on a Monday night this October - Monday nights aren’t good for Zenith - the management was forced to divulge details of its split into Zenith Media and Optimedia rather sooner than it had hoped, after the trade press got wind of the story before management had had a chance to inform employees.

So you could expect Boyle, a 39-year-old, eloquent Glaswegian, to be somewhat on edge when Media Week catches up with him to talk about life, loss and everything in between following the company’s Agency of the Year win and its subsequent decoupling into two separate divisions.

Yes, Boyle’s jiggling, jean-clad leg betrays his unease at certain questions, and yes, he is quick to point out areas of conversation that "won’t, of course, be suitable for publication". But on the whole he is expansive, if guarded, and his dedication to the agency he has helped shape over the last 11 years - "the history of where we were born from is something I hold very dear" - is unquestionable.

Liberated by Lloyds

With the benefit of hindsight, he is even philosophical about the Lloyds Banking Group defeat, saying the loss allowed the agency to approach subsequent pitches "in a more liberated way".  "We did a good pitch; we didn’t do a great pitch. And we learned a few lessons in how not to do things. We had become a little bit [here Boyle pauses for a very long time]. It’s a difficult one to put into words."

He adds: "Look, in many ways more people at the agency were worried about losing the business than they cared about winning it. Agencies win and lose business - firstly, you have to respect the fact you lost, which means someone else has been better than you, and secondly, you have to deal with it. And the best way to deal with [a loss], in my opinion, is to replace it as quickly as possible."

As it turned out, Zenith replaced the business more than three times over, winning £179m of new billings over the 12 months to October 2010 from clients including Aviva (£52m), Molson Coors (£17m) and Reckitt Benckiser (£85m) and retaining the O2, Mars and Comparethemarket accounts, with additional work for O2 in the Czech Republic, Germany and Slovakia. This year, Boyle estimates Zenith Optimedia UK will bill about £700m, compared to 2009’s £452m.

This pitching success, combined with the agency’s people development ethos and growth in new services such as data led to Zenith being crowned Agency of the Year 2010 at the Media Week Awards, and the dark days post-Lloyds now seem a very long time ago indeed. Which is lucky, because the next item on the agenda is the back-to-2001 restructure into separate Zenith Media and Optimedia brands, which will realign the UK with the group’s top 10 international markets.

By the time ZenithOptimedia’s 380 staff return from their Christmas break, Zenith Media will occupy the third floor of the building and Optimedia will take up the first floor, with International and Worldwide sandwiched inbetween. The group’s clients will be split between the two divisions - and they are divisions of the parent group, stresses Boyle, not separate companies - although he refuses to share exactly which clients will sit where with Media Week’s rival media agency readers.

Zenith Media, led by Stephen Farquhar, will be slightly bigger than Mark Howley’s Optimedia, says Boyle, but that is simply due to "the volume of people that work on some of [the Zenith Media] clients". "The temptation will be to think about Optimedia as the home for smaller clients or a second brand. It is not," states Boyle.

"There is a range of our biggest clients [O2, L’Oreal, Mars, B&Q, Aviva] existing in each of the brands. It is not a big agency and a small agency; the ambition is to have two even, vibrant divisions. Differences will evolve between the two over time, but they won’t be stamped with a different proposition from the start."

Why Zed's dead

The restructure also means the end of the road for Equinox and digital division Zed Media, which has become "less relevant" as clients integrate digital - although the Newcast, Ninah and Meridian brands will continue to specialise in branded content, econometrics and outdoor media respectively. But there will be "categorically" no loss of jobs, says Boyle sternly, the restructure is about growth and development for people and clients’ business and is "in no shape or form" about efficiencies.

"Each division will be run predominantly as strategy, planning, search and online display, and that is a play to ensure the strategic thinking and execution in the digital space becomes much more clearly joined up." In short, the restructure into two globally aligned brands is about ensuring the agency is best-placed for the future, and providing development opportunities for the next generation of agency leaders by exposing more people to the "machinations and the running of an agency".

A new digital and technology hub will work across both divisions, but trading will be shared at group level, as will areas such as recruitment, finance and new business and marketing. "We continue to trade with media owners as a group, we continue to contract with clients as a group and we report as a group. Everyone will work and have an identity as part of ZenithOptimedia Group, as they do now, because we have to have fluidity and the ability to move from brand to brand."

Boyle joined Zenith as head of planning in 1999, back in the pre-merger days when the group was split into Zenith Media and Optimedia for the first time around and the agency’s media pioneers spent their evenings drinking in The Dudley Arms near the company’s former headquarters in Paddington.

"The gene pool of Zenith is something to be celebrated," says Boyle, pointing out the meeting room called The Dudley where a stuffed Paddington Bear sits on the table. "A fantastic commercial acumen was born out of the whole Zenith Media proposition and we are very keen to ensure that entrepreneurial attitude lives on."

But don’t be fooled that the ROI media business has come full-circle; the second coming of Zenith’s twin brands is about "contemporising what we do and making sure it is as relevant as it possibly can be".

As Boyle wraps up the meeting to continue evolving the personality and culture of the "pragmatic" and "restless" agency, he offers: "We have worked hard and had some good reward for it, but there is still lots more to do. There is always lots more to do," he repeats, thoughtfully, "and that’s what makes it interesting".

Family: Married to Caroline with two children: Caitlin, nine and Rory, six
Lives: In Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire
Age: 39, "but I look much older"
Hobbies: Plays golf with group chief operating officer Tim Neligan and VivaKi’s EMEA managing director Marco Bertozzi, restaurants, wine and cooking.
Outlook: Boyle shuns the overtly media lifestyle, preferring to spend his spare time socialising with a handful of close colleagues from Zenith and eating in local restaurants in Beaconsfield with his wife and children.

Boyle on…

The timing of the restructure: "We first started thinking about the move 18 months ago, but then 2009 came along with all its attendant problems, and to embark on a massive restructure would have been rather foolish. We then revisited the idea at the start of 2010, but then the O2 and the Comparethemarket pitches came along, which required all our attention. I wanted to have the time and space to focus on the restructure properly."

The demise of Zed Media: "Zed was a hugely successful business of its day, but the trend towards market integration means its proposition has unfortunately become less relevant. We see large-scale digital and direct business aligning with traditional all the time - look at the British Gas and Aviva pitches and what Orange and O2 are doing. However, Zed leaves us a legacy of a fantastic search product, fantastic technology and some fantastic people that we can use in the new brand structure."

The pitching scene in 2010: "There has been a greater proportion of business retained by the incumbent this year. I think this is because agencies are better at retaining business, and because the number of lines of data generated by some of the online businesses adds another complexity to shifting business. Agencies invest a lot of time, effort and money in our clients’ business, and when you see accounts moving around really quickly, it devalues our investment."