MEDIA FORUM: Are media companies stifling their young talent?

Are the media specialists any good at bringing on the next generations of senior management talent to succeed the present? By Alasdair Reid.

Career opportunities can often seem pretty limited in the media specialist sector these days. Consolidation means there is only a handful of top jobs to aim at. In these straitened times, Plan B - setting up on your own - doesn't seem like such a good idea any more.

That doesn't mean a complete lack of motion, though, as witnessed by last week's events when two of the big players, Publicis and Omnicom's PHD, revamped their senior management line-ups. PHD promoted two (Louise Jones and Mark Holden) to join Morag Blazey in forming a triumvirate at the head of the company.

Meanwhile, Publicis, having acquired full ownership of Starcom Motive, rejigged the management line-ups across both Starcom Motive (where Peter Edwards takes the top job) and its sister company, Starcom MediaVest (where Iain Jacob moves across to become the managing director).

Such milestone moments are rare, however. In a recent Campaign article, an industry commentator pointed to the dangers that media owners face when the only route to internal promotion is via dead men's shoes. Organisations such as that, he claimed, quickly become stale. Notwithstanding recent events at Starcom and PHD, is the media agency sector good at bringing on senior management talent and giving it the right opportunity at the right time?

Mark Cranmer, the chief executive for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Starcom MediaVest Group, obviously thinks it's possible. He concedes consolidation has made more impact among media agencies compared with creative agencies and that means there isn't the continual movement that happens in creative agencies at managing director or creative director level.

"There's a lot less transfer activity," he states. But that is not to imply that the industry is moribund. "The agencies that have survived are differentiating themselves through culture and taking things beyond the merely executional perception that we still have in the industry.

The ones that have differentiated themselves best are more successful than the others and the more successful ones are also the ones that have demonstrated they have the clearest management succession. If you look at some of the companies in the market that have not been maintaining their status, you could argue they've been less good about succession issues."

It comes down to this, he argues: "At a time when it's important to define what business you're in, those who accelerate their culture will be the most successful."

But isn't it harder to take risks when there are just a handful of huge companies dominating the market? Nonsense, Cranmer says: "It's actually easier to take risks. As media companies have become bigger, they have a wider portfolio of clients making up their revenue base so no one client is as vital as it is at a creative agency - because that sector hasn't consolidated to the same extent."

Rob Norman, the UK chairman of Mediaedge:cia, says that media agencies, on the whole, aren't too bad at bringing through talent. He states: "The test is whether the entities set up by the likes of Chris Ingram (CIA) and David Reich (TMD, now Carat) are still going and are still recognisable - you can clearly trace the lineage from the foundation. In fact, I'd argue it's far easier to do that in the media sector than it is for creative agencies."

He points out that you will always have a blend of internal promotion and new blood. "You have to have organisational structures to give a clear notion of where people are, where they can go and how to achieve what they want to achieve. But there has to be a mechanism for refreshing the gene pool too. Having that blend is important. But I would feel disappointed if I didn't have three-quarters of my future department heads already in place. There is something wrong when you have to hire too much from outside."

And Norman argues there are relatively few frustrated managing directors out there; many middle managers think they are ambitious but most lose their enthusiasm when they realise the full extent of the commitment required.

Nick Manning, the chief executive of Manning Gottlieb OMD, feels the industry is realising there's a nettle here that has to be grasped. He states: "We've been through a long period of merger mania and what has tended to happen with merged entities is that all the senior management has been retained in the expectation there will be some natural fall-out.

But with a recession looming, everyone has been nervous about moving so the whole industry has been in stasis. You have to ally that to the fact that in the recession ten years ago, few people were taken on so we're missing a generation of really good people able to push through. But it's starting to change now because the industry is realising that this can't go on much longer. We have to get on with it."

Jonathan Durden, the chairman of PHD, is proud of the agency's track record in bringing through top talent. In fact, he says tongue in cheek, the last time he put a whole new senior management team in place, they were so good that they upped and left to form Naked Communications. "They felt so empowered and enterprising that they set up a whole new agency," he states. "Maybe in their case we left it a little bit too late. The trick is to give it to people not after they are ready but just before they are ready. The skill is in having faith. If you look at what Allan Rich did at MediaCom - he put them in place a long time before they were ready and now they are in great shape. Some of us have been in position for a long time, so there is little outlet for creativity and enterprise. You need thirtysomethings involved at the top."

But how can recent trends in the media agency world benefit thirtysomethings seeking empowerment? There are fewer than half-a-dozen top media companies and the danger is the up-and-coming have no hopes of running them.

"Anything that thwarts development becomes dispiriting," Durden agrees. "The industry needs an influx of energy. We all need to be challenged more by younger managers who are ambitious for the company. It has been a grinding few years (in terms of the structure of the industry as a whole).

I'm lucky. There's a fence around me and I can still pretend I own the agency. But if you are empowered on a local level you can still be enthusiastic about what's possible."

And Durden actually argues the sector is due a clear-out. "We're due some new faces and I hope PHD, rather than ZenithOptimedia or MindShare, can provide a model (both brought in professional managers from outside the UK). When you bring in outside people, it says that what we do for a living is not as important as being a business manager. I'm afraid we're not that grown-up yet."