THE MEDIA BARONS: ROBIN KENT, Universal McCann

Kent's rise to the top has surprised those who regard him as an ineffectual charmer. He talks to Jeremy Lee about rolling out Magna and future plans for Universal McCann.

Robin Kent is the man who apparently managed to rise to the top of Universal McCann without trace.

Some of those who knew him in his early years greeted his elevation earlier this year to chief executive and chairman of McCann-Erickson's worldwide media network with surprise.

"He's not the sort of person to have had a career plan," one contemporary notes. Others, perhaps unfairly, thought he'd be lucky to reach the rank of a media baronet, let alone make it to be the chief executive of the world's sixth-biggest media network.

But this is probably because Kent does not live up to the stereotype of a thrusting, ruthless, break-through-brick-walls media shit. In fact, as even his bitterest rivals agree, he is extremely charming and those who dismiss this as him merely being ineffectual do so at their peril. "The public front is Mr Nice Guy but he's tough underneath it," a former colleague says. "He's a very political beast by nature and is smart enough to know to incorporate the thinking of his bosses into his own work."

"He's got on because he's delivered results in winning and retaining new business," another former colleague says.

On top of this, his business record in Europe, and now in the US, speaks for itself and part of this success must be down to this ability to get on well with people.

Although Kent's early career was relatively slow burning and he didn't seem to display the drive that has led him to the top, he did instantly make an impression on those around him with his colourful behaviour.

The publican's son from Hertfordshire joined Saatchi & Saatchi's media department under the benevolent gaze of its then media director, John Perriss, at the height of the 80s boom and he was very much a man of this time.

With a keen eye for the ladies and a fondness for the occasional pint or two, Kent fitted in to the media scene perfectly. After nights down the Saatchis local - the Carpenter's Arms - Kent, accompanied by Perriss, would fine-tune his now legendary charm on unsuspecting maidens in Watford's finest nightclubs.

But the times changed and following what some describe as Kent's wilderness years at Leagas Delaney, a sudden fire developed in his belly and he largely dropped his Jack the lad reputation.

While his wild days are long gone, this charm has held him in good stead and, combined with his reputation for diligence, has proved a powerful combination to help him shin up the greasy pole.

But then there is the question: is that enough to keep him there? After all, despite the relatively cohesive nature of the Universal network, its structure and relationship with McCann-Erickson is seen at best as quaint, and at worst as seriously dysfunctional and retrogressive.

Kent noticeably sighs when he hears this argument as if he's heard it umpteen times before. "It's a cheap shot," he says. Kent believes Universal's relationship with McCann-Erickson strengthens the network rather than detracts from it. "In the US, no-one thinks that Universal is the media department of McCann, it's just UK people who talk about it."

Indeed they do, and they discuss it at great length, but there is an issue with Universal's reporting structures worth exploring. There is a convincing school of management thought that you can only get people reporting into you if you control their pay and rations and, for the time being at least, it's McCann's regional chairmen who do this and not Kent.

This is best illustrated when Universal sought a regional director for its Europe, Middle East and Africa region, a position which Kent himself previously held. It was noticeable that it was not Kent who employed Brian Jacobs but rather Ben Langdon, McCann's regional chairman and chief executive.

This seems to suggest a certain retrogressive view to media services with the agency account men calling the shots while the media people are expected just to do media.

Kent's period as the incumbent on the EMEA patch was marked with great success in terms of winning new business, but things under Jacobs have not been so cheery. Kent admits that he'd like to see improvements there.

"I would like Universal McCann in the UK to win more independent business, but we are waiting for Magna to really kick in. I get the impression the UK isn't there yet," he admits.

While Universal in the UK has benefitted from global or pan-regional agency wins, its record of new domestic business has been unimpressive this year. A key test will be the ongoing £60 million Nestle review, which is due to be concluded at the beginning of next year. Universal is battling it out with MindShare for the account.

Generally, though, Kent says he is relatively pleased with the performance of the network - certainly the US is enjoying a renaissance, thanks largely to Kent's involvement, and Asia is also performing well. He proudly points out that the US agency has won every piece of business it has pitched for this year. These wins include prized pieces of business such as the Wendy's burger chain, Sony and Nestle Purina.

The hybrid nature of Universal's relationship with its creative parent means that it has full-service clients, clients with some shared links and fully independent clients in silos. "The past three months we've won in each of these sectors and we walk the line pretty well. There are more benefits in maintaining the links. It gives us a point of difference, albeit a slim one, because we all do the same things, and I benefit from the resources of McCann World Group when we go to pitch. We are not limited by McCann, though - we go after whatever comes at us," he says.

This successful US new-business drive has been to the surprise of some who thought that the Americans would resent having a Brit as the boss, but again Kent's charm seems to endear him to his staff, clients and contemporaries alike. "People who said there could be a problem are wrong. There are more Brits on the US media scene now, such as the PHD chief executive, David Pattison, and Mediaedge:cia's worldwide executive chairman, Charles Courtier. My advice to them is to get into the skin of the domestic, otherwise I am not sure you gain the respect of the people there," he says.

Whether this success could have happened under Ira Carlin, his predecessor, is arguable, but Kent isn't going to stick the knife in and is too generous of spirit to take all the credit for the success. "I changed the structure a bit, got the guys a bit more motivated," he says, somewhat enigmatically, but there are few who doubt his charm, combined with his natural ability, helped win over the clients.

Carlin was moved into what some see as semi-retirement, and the ultimately face-saving, position as the worldwide chairman of Universal and Initiative Media's combined negotiation unit, Magna Global, which has been touted as a key part of IPG's media offering.

Kent maintains that Carlin's job is a proper one and Carlin has his work cut out given the concerns that some big clients may have over their budgets being used to cut costs for smaller ones. Unsurprisingly, Kent dismisses this suggestion and claims that because of the broad spectrum of clients everybody can get what they want and, therefore, everyone can benefit.

Given the importance of Magna Global there are some who argue that Carlin is not the right man for the job. After all, unlike Kent, he doesn't have a background in broadcast. "Carlin's job is to fly around the world to establish (Magna) around the world quicker," Kent claims. "It is a diplomatic role - not a negotiation one."

But Magna isn't without its critics and there are accusations that it has yet to make the impact that it really should have done. In fairness, though, the rival media networks have clearly been rattled by its creation and have rushed to do the same. Kent claims Magna has made a difference in negotiations with five out of six US TV companies already.

While Magna is already established as a concept in the UK and the US there is still a fair way to go before it can live up to its potential.

"The idea is to roll out Magna to markets where additional clout would be an advantage. France is difficult, Hong Kong too but 90 to 95 per cent will have some form of set-up to varying degrees," Kent claims.

To a lesser degree this could include merging Universal and Initiative's back-office functions such as research - already Universal negotiates the purchase of all non-proprietary research systems. As well as potential political problems with clients unhappy that they are seen to subsidise rivals there is also the possibility that neither of the IPG media networks want to go down this route.

"Each market has a feasibility study to see whether Magna will work and it's the job of the global board to take the politics out if the answer is yes," he says. In Germany the creation of Magna was very much a defensive move to stave off the threat from MediaCom and Carat.

Revealingly the global board is largely made up of McCann people rather than Initiative, which might reveal the primacy in the relationship. Kent maintains that the relationship is "pretty amicable" at the bi-monthly board meetings between Universal and Initiative but admits that the early days were marked by some friction between the two networks.

Perhaps it's no real surprise Universal McCann has emerged on top. Initiative has had a thoroughly unspectacular time of late whereas at least Universal McCann's name has been present on some of the global or pan-regional pitches.

Kent claims that this is not the beginning of the end for Initiative and that as well as providing greater clout in negotiation it is an information source used by the two agencies. He can't rule out the two networks merging together eventually, however. "Never is a long time. In the foreseeable future no, because there are too many clashes," he says, so in the meantime the status quo is likely to be maintained. "The beauty of Magna is that it doesn't see clients' individual strategies. The model works and we'll keep on growing," he says.

Because of Kent's career at Saatchis, Leagas Delaney and then internationally at Carat he is au fait with the media world. Having been at the chalkface, Kent still wades in at Universal's US office. "It's like working at a London agency only bigger and I like rolling my sleeves up and getting involved. I like being hands on," he says.

While Kent's success during his time working both here in Europe and currently in the US should be acknowledged, there is still the issue of bringing the rest of the network, especially Europe, up to the same standard.

This is going to be difficult, with Kent still devoting so much time to the domestic North American market, and he appreciates this. "Apart from resolving Magna Global, I need to find a regional executive for North America so that I can be more global," he admits. Kent says he is in the process of appointing this person.

Whatever the criticisms of the Universal McCann structure and its sometimes tortured relationship with Initiative Media it has managed to survive in its present form relatively unscathed, whereas its competitors have fought hostile bids and takeovers to survive. This provides Universal with strength and stability.

The point isn't lost on Kent. "Over the past five years we haven't had to merge with anybody or reorganise ourselves. There haven't been these pressures whereas all our competitors are experiencing change. It'll be interesting to see how they cope with it."

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