Group M global investment chief Nick Theakstone expected to step down

Tough negotiator was most important ad buyer in Britain for a decade.

Theakstone: became managing director of Group M in 2004
Theakstone: became managing director of Group M in 2004

Nick Theakstone, global chief investment officer of Group M and the most important advertising buyer in Britain for a decade, is expected to step down, after nearly 20 years at the world’s biggest media-buying group.

Group M would not comment on whether Theakstone is to step down. Theakstone did not respond to inquiries.

Theakstone made his name as a commercially savvy operator and tough negotiator during his time as UK chief executive of Group M between 2008 and 2018, when the UK operation quadrupled in size and took market share from rivals every year, according to the company at the time.

He joined WPP’s Mindshare in 2001 and played a key role in helping the parent company to harness the buying power of its individual UK media agencies for the first time in a single trading arm, Group M, which was founded in 2003.

Theakstone, who became managing director of Group M in 2004, foresaw the benefits of scale.

As he explained in a Campaign interview at the time, it meant Group M had “leverage” to extract the best prices from media owners – by agreeing volume and share deals, based on size of spend.

“It might sound a bit aggressive to say that this is all about matching might with might but we've already seen consolidation in TV and I’m absolutely certain we'll see it in newspaper sales and in radio,” he said in a prediction that proved accurate.

Following his promotion to UK chief executive in 2008, Theakstone consolidated Group M’s position as the biggest media buyer in Britain with well over a third of the market and £3bn a year in spend, as it won clients such as Marks & Spencer and Tesco from rivals.

He pushed innovative ways of trading such as programme finance, where the agency group would help to fund TV shows and in return receive advertising spots from media owners, which it could sell on to clients.

He could also be combative, as Group M pulled its estimated £250m-a-year spend from Channel 4 in a trading dispute at the start of 2013. Richard Desmond, the then owner of rival Channel 5, told the Royal Television Society conference later that year that he “hadn’t got” the “10-stone testicles” to negotiate with Group M.

Theakstone was a fierce defender of agencies, particularly following the industry debate about media-buying transparency in 2016, when he described claims that agencies might not always act in the best interests of clients as “an insult”.

In more recent years, Group M’s trading scale has been dwarfed by the global tech platforms, notably Google and Facebook, and a growing number of advertisers have been able to buy ads directly from them, without using agencies – although Group M liked to point out Google and Facebook both became clients.

When Theakstone moved to become global chief investment officer in 2018, he said of his time running the UK operation: “By every measure, our people, our agencies and businesses are market leaders, and I can look back with pride on all that has been achieved. It’s also been fun.”

Group M, which owns the agencies Essence, MediaCom, Mindshare and Wavemaker, as well as programmatic arm Xaxis, has maintained its position as the world’s top media buyer.

However, it lags in the US, the largest ad market, where it is third, behind Publicis Media and Omnicom Media Group, according to COMvergence.

Theakstone, who is 59, began his career in TV sales at HTV in 1982, before spells at BMP DDB and MediaVest.

There have been several senior management departures at WPP in recent months as the agency group battles with declining revenues because of the effects of Covid-19.

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