THE MEDIA BARONS: Alexander Schmidt-Vogel, global chief executive of MediaCom

The global chief executive of MediaCom, Alexander Schmidt-Vogel, talks with Ian Darby about the network's culture and its plans for taking on media's mega-groups.

It seemed possible that the interview with MediaCom's German-born global chief executive was arranged by someone at the agency with a sense of irony.

First scheduled for the meeting room "passion" at MediaCom's London office (the agency has adopted the practice of naming such rooms after its key values), it was swiftly rearranged for the "accountability" room instead.

A knowing nod toward cliched perceptions of Germans as cold, calculating and rational? An attempt to stress Schmidt-Vogel's key quality? Or merely a forced switch because MediaCom London is so busy?

It was time to find out. Schmidt-Vogel, 53, was announced as the chief executive of MediaCom Worldwide just over a year ago, replacing Alec Gerster, who left to take an equivalent role at Initiative Media. He has spent his entire career at Grey (MediaCom's parent network) and recently celebrated 25 years with the group. He was a key figure in the early days when Grey decided to launch its media independent - Germany and Austria were its first markets, and much of what the agency stands for internationally flowed from him.

MediaCom is now the ninth-largest global media agency with £12.35 billion in billings (RECMA). The network has strong, market-leading agencies in markets such as Germany and the UK but is ranked ninth in the US, with critics also suggesting its coverage in Asia and parts of Latin America is woefully lacking. These are points Schmidt-Vogel tackles throughout our conversation after he has first, in the politest fashion possible, offered lunch from a sumptuous spread from on top of a gigantic rectangular table inside the otherwise plain room.

Schmidt-Vogel is a tall man, in relatively good shape for somebody in his 50s and in conversation resembles a slightly more animated version of Arsenal's French manager Arsene Wenger. The grey hair and glasses look just the same.

MediaCom's top man is unstintingly gracious, ensuring that enough food is consumed before conversation begins in earnest. His favourite part of the job is working directly on client servicing and years of experience show. He jokes that he finds Paris hard to visit because he never eats lunch, which doesn't go down well with the gastronomically obsessed French.

It soon becomes apparent that while Schmidt-Vogel is affable enough, he is driven by a relentless work ethic. However, he attributes this to his enthusiasm and passion for MediaCom rather than an innate characteristic.

He started his career after a spell at Berlin University where revolutionary politics were fermenting. Taking little interest in this or in his study of economics ("I was a lazy student and not really interested in what the university offered"), Schmidt-Vogel despatched two resumes (one to Unilever and one to Grey) and was given a job by Grey working in its media department on Procter & Gamble.

Then the Grey Germany media team started pitching for media-only business, winning BAT and Knorr, and momentum was built that led to the launch of MediaCom as a standalone media brand in Germany and Austria in 1987.

Schmidt-Vogel's next task was to work on trying to build some semblance of a European network, which he admits was an uphill struggle. After months of visiting the various chief executives of European Grey agencies in a bid to persuade them to buy into the idea, he was frustrated. "Frankly, it wasn't that easy," he says. Some markets weren't interested and MediaCom was forced to back its own launches in those countries.

He explains that a definite MediaCom culture emerged naturally rather than as part of a grand plan: "Frankly, I didn't have a strategy. But there was a culture of very young people, very hard working, but a very human, friendly atmosphere like a soccer club and the coach is not hiding in the corner, he is training, pitching, presenting, working day and night.

So the coach is part of it. I wasn't bad at living that culture, making the people believe I wasn't the arrogant boss. I'm your coach and you're my team member."

Schmidt-Vogel believes MediaCom's various agencies still possess this ethos and that this, in turn, enthuses clients. This seems straightforward, almost banal, but it might explain why MediaCom is successful in those countries.

MediaCom has evolved along with other networks as the role of the media agency has changed. Schmidt-Vogel enjoys talking about how clients have come to treat media agencies differently but it is clear he used to relish the challenge of fighting his corner: "In the early days (of media specialists), agencies were positioned as the middle man between the media and clients and I never liked that because then you are trading with goods. I was always interested in the clients as people, their successes, and I have to say in those days I loved the underdog role in the full-service presentation.

Media was at the end. Ten minutes at the end - I loved to come as the underdog and wow them. Take over the whole meeting. And this was one driving motivation to push for the media company."

So, given the initial difficulties that Schmidt-Vogel and his colleagues experienced with some Grey executives, what is the relationship with the parent company like now? "It's a very important, sensible, key question.

First, I love Grey because I always was a Grey man. I was hired by Grey, today I report to Ed Meyer, so this is very easy for me. In those days of growing MediaCom, it was sometimes difficult and I tried to convince, even argue, in fact, because if you ran Grey ten years ago in a particular country and then somebody comes to you to say that we should open up MediaCom, that it should be separated from your operation, and you report into a media network, then it's a change. This has to be sold in and worked at in some countries.

"Some people say 'today with communications planning we are coming back to full service' but I say no, but we are coming back to a group of companies in an organisation - specialised agencies for certain services that are in one group. I would feel lonesome if we were MediaCom totally on our own, not as part of the Grey group, because we can't do the creative, PR and other services. We are working with other creative agencies but if you have your family you're stronger."

However, logic suggests that in the relentless pursuit of consolidation, Grey's ownership is likely to change at some point in the future. After all, the aged Meyer won't be there for ever. Schmidt-Vogel claims not to be too concerned on this point: "In the next few years, I feel absolutely relaxed because I am happy that because of the structure and the Grey Group holding, nothing can happen with the Grey Group that Grey doesn't want, which gives you a strong base.

"The very long-term answer is that I don't know - even in other groups the position is very long term. I believe, and I called it the Godzilla change, that the super-super mergers went too far. Organisations combining size with flexibility survive long term. Maybe smaller units are better."

But isn't this just post-rationalisation, making the best of it because MediaCom is nowhere near the size of the top three or four global media networks? Not so, Schmidt-Vogel says. "In the US, the biggest media agencies don't necessarily get the best deals. Mega groups are not the right solution, so I expect Grey Group has a good chance to stay independent."

Schmidt-Vogel says each MediaCom agency has to develop into communications consultancy, research and planning or face decline. This, in turn, he concedes, means that in some markets the culture needs working on and younger, fresher people introduced.

Surely, though, size matters in all this? It may not be everything but most clients want to see scale combined with clever thinking. "We all know the billing and rankings list, even though it's not always quite correct. We know the structure but if I think all the time about size, that is useless. If I say size is most important I would lie but I would be proud to be number one by growth. Being number one or two by merger is a different story." Schmidt-Vogel argues MediaCom is already some of the way there in creating this ideal position. He cites the US, UK, German and Scandinavian operations as "centres of excellence" but concedes there is work to do in Asia-Pacific and Latin America (with the exception of Mexico and Argentina). "In some markets we are not second, third or fourth but seventh, eighth or ninth," he admits.

Schmidt-Vogel says he will lead from the front in trying to achieve these improvements. Not a man to let false modesty get in the way, he feels things can move more quickly following the departure of Gerster last year: "Alec dealt very fairly with me and we're still friendly but I believe in our business we have to move quickly because the landscape is shifting. At the end of the day, somebody needs to make decisions. That is something that has changed."

In the short term, Schmidt-Vogel is spending plenty of time in the US working on developing its operations there and his other immediate challenge is working on the roll-out of its Real World communications planning solution, pioneered in the UK, across other markets.

MediaCom faces difficulties ahead, not least in competing with international powerhouses backed by the likes of WPP and Omnicom. But in Schmidt-Vogel, it has a leader who has more experience than most in the world in developing media agencies. And, despite the grey, Germanic appearance he has had some fun doing it. A keen heavy metal fan, he has a drum kit in his Dusseldorf offices and gave an impromptu performance at his own 25th anniversary party two years ago. And, given his obsession for all things MediaCom, perhaps "passion" would have been the best room after all.