Feature

The Ideas People: On the Record - Steve King

ZenithOptimedia's chief executive, Steve King, likes to surround himself with talented people to both inspire and gain inspiration - so much so that he has almost turned it into an art form.

For a man who spends his life on a plane, ZenithOptimedia's roving leader seems almost too calm when compared with his tub-thumping peers. But in a 20- year career at Zenith, Steve King has made an art form of working with people and building teams that can conceive, describe and fulfil ideas.

His diplomatic leadership of ZenithOptimedia has led to greater co-operation between the network and other Publicis Groupe businesses. The 49-year-old was also key in the creation of VivaKi, the new media holding unit and trading arm of Publicis media agencies. Taking The Economist's Ideas People test revealed him as a "catalyst": a central casting CEO, you might say, but with a definite dash of British individuality.

- Tell us about your inspiration.

Inspiration doesn't suddenly come to you. Inspiration in media is a constant thread. I've been in this business since 1982 and the more time I spend in media, the more I realise it's possible to be inspired by everything that media touches. Consumers, technology, strategy, advertising and creativity. If it's interesting, then I'm interested.

- How do you make your working environment work for you?

The ZenithOptimedia Percy Street operation is very different from Zenith's grim and cramped Paddington offices and is a reflection of how far our business has come. My office is used mainly for hearing about and trying to solve problems. I travel a lot, so my working environment is often a plane or a network office. My computer is HP (of course) and, like everyone, I'm a BlackBerry addict.

- How do you turn a good idea into a great one?

The more you share an idea, the more you perfect it. Very few people can conceive, describe and fulfil an idea on their own. Too often in media an idea is a nice stunt, tactics versus true impact. To develop a strategy with media as a communications enabler, we'll go to our smartest thinkers and to specialists.

- How do you unstick an idea when it's stuck?

Share it with the right people. In Jim Collins' book Good To Great, he found that the main factor for businesses achieving the transition from average to great was not the obvious stuff like pricing or being first to market. The common thing about great organisations was getting the people right. Often the most surprising individuals make the greatest contribution.

- Give us a real example of how you came up with a good idea.

Occasionally this might come from one or two key individuals, such as our work in the UK with the NSPCC. It might come from working collaboratively with third parties, such as our recent work for AEG/Electrolux or in the case of 20th Century Fox where we had a team of eight or nine individuals situated in all parts of the globe, communicating by e-mail, phone and video. They developed the most amazing professional chemistry, which was infectious. We don't enter pitches with our ideas done and dusted. It's the thought, the on-going process of meeting a client's challenge that unsticks the process. I am continuously amazed and humbled by the strength of our innovative and effective ideas.

- Great ideas are often so risky or difficult that frequently they are hacked to pieces. What's your advice for nurturing a gem and selling it to a client?

When we come up with good ideas that don't succeed, it's because we haven't demonstrated sufficient understanding of a client's business. My advice is always to combine a great idea with strategic insight and solid research. Again, have the right people.

- What are your creative trade secrets?

Take talented people from one market and plunge them into more nascent industries and countries. Establish talent programmes and embrace technology - our survival depends on it.

- Tell us about a turning point in your career.

Moving to New York in 1993 to launch Zenith Media in the US. John Perriss persuaded me to make the move. Charlie Scott (Saatchis CEO) and Michael Bungey (Bates) told me that there were US media owners and clients who literally couldn't wait for Zenith to arrive. In fact, the opposite was the case! The competitive full-service agencies and many of our own creative agency management tried to kill the concept at birth. That was the point that I found myself in the eye of a perfect storm; somehow, I - and we - survived.

- Name the most inspiring person in your working life.

A terribly sycophantic answer but I'd have to nominate Maurice Levy. With his drive and tenacity, he has transformed Publicis Groupe into an amazing global operation. He understands the value of nurturing a diversity of cultures and personalities and has an infectious (and demanding) enthusiasm and energy.

- You have 24 hours away from professional responsibilities and a brief to re-energise yourself. What will you do?

Run, ski, sail - not all at the same time. As I'm permanently knackered from travelling, 24 hours won't be enough.

- What motivates you?

Growing our talent base. Seeing our sector increasingly being recognised as providing a more critical service to clients.

- What idea should we be taking more seriously?

Technology and talent in the developing countries. The UK is probably one of the more isolated markets and there's quite often an anachronistic view that we're still at the cutting edge of everything.

TAKE THE TEST

The Ideas People is drawn from major research conducted by The Economist in 2007. It is built on essential truths about the world we live in and The Economist's readership. One is that ideas, not products, are the currency of the modern economy. Another is that Ideas People are the stars of the 21st century. They produce and implement new thinking, they influence others, they have stamina. They are turned on by new ideas and opportunities. Are you an Ideas Person? Go to the quiz at www.theideaspeople.economist.com and find out for yourself.

Steve King is a ... Pioneer Catalyst Builder

Topics