Initiative's global chiefs, Alec Gerster and Marie-Jose Forissier, talk to Ian Darby about how the company's rebranding will help it overcome shyness and win more business.

"You can tell a lot about somebody from their office," Marie-Jose Forissier, the chairman of Initiative Media Worldwide, says when we meet in New York. She's talking about Jean-Claude Decaux, the billboard magnate, but her comment applies to our current location.

The interview takes place in the office of Alec Gerster, Initiative's global chief executive, who joined Initiative in April 2002 from MediaCom.

And you can tell a lot about Gerster from his fifth floor, L-shaped office in the improbably named 43-storey 1 Dag Hammarskjold Plaza in mid-town Manhattan.

It's an office full of character. Acres of dark wood (cabinets, desk, round meeting table) complemented by boating pictures, books and an image of the Gerster family retreat in Vermont. It's like entering a New England gentlemen's club, rather than the clean-lined, austere office of a captain of media.And Gerster fits right in - sporting preppy, Ivy League apparel, you could imagine him sipping a martini on Ralph Lauren's yacht, gazing into the sunset.

Gerster is initially cautious. He makes little eye contact, preferring instead to look at the pen he fiddles with as we talk. In contrast, Forissier, a petite figure dressed with understated Parisian elegance, starts in lively fashion as we explore the first issue: Initiative's new livery and positioning, beseeching clients and employees to "expect more".

Initiative, working with the branding agency Springpoint, has introduced a streamlined, consistent positioning across its network of 99 offices - a difficult task, especially in light of the merger with Western four years ago that brought together diverse cultures. The positioning attempts to draw on Initiative's heritage in buying, technology, research and econometrics while introducing a more forward-thinking edge.

Forissier explains: "The problem is we are a little bit shy. People say 'you don't speak a lot about yourselves - you're called Initiative, yet you're the most invisible company we could dream about.' This could be related to the technology dimension and hiding behind this."

Gerster agrees, adding that much of the work on exploring the Initiative brand was to make the network act in a more unified way: "We are probably the most fluid of the networks. There are very few obstacles to leveraging our network and there is a real interest from people on the ground to be global."

They say that they shared a common vision for the future of the network, the world's fourth largest with billings of $16.9 billion (RECMA). And the relationship between Gerster and Forissier is certainly an interesting one. Though Gerster is ultimately in charge, they split responsibilities along regional lines and make key decisions together.

This dual responsibility has long been the Initiative way. Forissier, a great survivor at Initiative since 1976 (when it was a Paris-based operation billing the equivalent of $20 million), previously worked closely with Gerster's predecessors in the chief executive role, Lou Schultz and Larry Lamattina (who retired in 2002 and 2000 respectively).

Gerster admits that his working relationship with Forissier was a worry coming into the job: "When I came over here it was 'okay, what's all this about?' as we only knew each other by reputation. But I am about collaboration."

But why did Gerster join Initiative in the first place? After all, he had been at Grey's MediaCom for close to 30 years and Initiative in the US was experiencing something of a rocky patch, having lost its Unilever and Disney accounts. "There were multiple reasons, nothing negative about Grey or MediaCom. I'd had excellent opportunities and a great career. The people in place at MediaCom were doing a great job and I was doing other things at Grey but I thought I'd rather stay close to media."

As the interview moves on, Gerster becomes more animated, bounding over to get coffee. Forissier refuses to drink Gerster's coffee (she has her own machine in the New York office despite being based in Paris). "It's the only thing we don't agree on," she says, as she pulls a face at Gerster's granules.

However, the two have some things in common. Both are 55, share a love of sailing and can speak Latin. They are both well connected. Gerster, born in Connecticut, grew up in the Grey media department in the 70s with Joe Uva, now OMD's chief executive, the NBC sales president, Keith Turner, and Larry Goodman, Turner Broadcasting's sales president.

Forissier, who came up through the media departments of Publicis and McCann-Erickson in France, is at the top level of the European media scene but admits that until recently she knew little about the US market: "By chance, in the past three years I've spent a considerable amount of time in the US trying to understand the company after our merger (with Western).

When Alec came I was relieved because we shared the same intellectual curiosity. I had been fascinated with the US market and he had already a pretty large international experience."

Initiative executives seem to rate the duo. One was not impressed by Schultz but says of Gerster: "He's really focused, sensible, dynamic and untypical of the people we've been used to at the top. He has the support of senior managers."

Of Forissier, the same source says: "She's phenomenal. Focused, dedicated, likeable and chooses managers well. She never lets people down and feeds through any information you need."

However, others believe the partnership won't last and that Gerster will be running the network within the medium term. And although Forrisier and Gerster are slowly turning Initiative round, problems remain. One client believes that the network is still implementational and not strategic enough, while another thinks that there are still problems stemming from Initiative's old-style management and its old-fashioned local structure; the benefits of a cohesive network have been slow coming. Both clients highlight recent improvements and stress that many of the issues are those suffered by most media networks. Initiative's recent history with Unilever underlines the strains, with the business leaving the agency in Germany and the US, and just staying in the UK.

And Initiative needs to raise its game as the top four holding companies jostle for position in the media hierarchy. Recent new-business success has been local and it rarely seems to compete for multinational or global accounts.

Have Interpublic's problems held it back? No, Gerster says: "IPG has done a very good job of talking with core clients and explaining where the company is going. David Bell (the new chief executive at IPG to whom Gerster reports) in particular has done a good job. I can't cite any situation where that has come up as an issue on a piece of business."

Gerster argues IPG's attitude toward Initiative (unlike Universal McCann, it is not beholden to a creatively led network) has been beneficial: "We're in a unique position that gives us a certain financial and emotional flexibility to deliver. If we want to invest capital in product development, we do it on the basis of our own priorities. If we want to invest in a market, that's our decision as long as we deliver bottom-line numbers."

One area of group co-operation is Magna, the negotiations unit launched two years ago in the US and UK that combines the Initiative's and Universal's buying clout. Forissier says: "We are still in competition with Universal - we can be together in a pitch but we don't know their clients' conditions. We try to have a common backbone of obtaining benefits from the media in gathering market intelligence and sharing costs."

Gerster says in the US, 20 per cent of broadcast media spend goes through Magna. This provides the potential to be "big enough to change the rules, not to shove it down people's throats, but for the legitimate benefit of clients."

Magna is here to stay but with procurement departments crawling all over media accounts ("very frustrating" Gerster says) and existing client spend being squeezed, Initiative needs to keep the new business flowing. As Forissier says: "In regions outside the US, the economy was difficult during 2001 and 2002 and we grew only because of new business. Last year, in North America, existing clients were minus, minus and you only make numbers because of new clients."

The elegant duo will carry the fight in this tough climate. "Expect more" does capture the zeitgeist but Initiative must throw off its shyness to capitalise on this.


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