Media Forum: Is media failing its top talent?

As some of the wiser heads leave, does it reflect badly on media, Alasdair Reid asks.

It has been a careless sort of a year for media agencies, one in which they've managed to lose some of their most valuable and celebrated assets. In March, Mark Cranmer, Starcom's European boss and one of the most talented strategic thinkers of his generation, left the industry to join Research International - a WPP company, admittedly, and therefore part of the industry's extended family, but not a media company as such.

Then, in September, Nick Manning, the founder of one of the last start-ups to make a significant impact on the UK market (the agency now called Manning Gottlieb OMD) and the man who's been instrumental in reinventing the Omnicom media product in the UK, also announced he was leaving the industry.

These things come in threes, so they say. So perhaps it was no surprise to hear that David Pattison, the P in PHD, has decided to call it a day, having spent the past year and more building the agency brand into a global network.

These are people with huge experience, enviable reserves of energy and vast amounts to offer the industry. They also have the gravitas and charisma derived in part from the fact that they have all been, in different ways, pioneers - and are different from the new generation of media agency bosses, who've largely been promoted internally on the back of patient manoeuvring and administrative excellence.

Is this a just a natural process? Is it actually healthy for the industry to see its old guard culled now and then? Absolutely, Dominic Proctor, the global chief executive of MindShare, agrees. He says it's a shame when the industry loses talent - but argues that it happens for the best of reasons. He points out that the business has consolidated to the point where there's just a handful of truly global media agencies and fewer major agencies mean fewer career development opportunities within those agencies at the most senior levels.

So, in fact, he argues, the current generation of bosses has probably hung on too long. He explains: "The reason why some of us have lasted that long is because our companies have constantly been reinvented as we have moved further up the value chain. In my own experience, no two years have ever been the same, or even similar. It is a different and much better business now. Global growth, constant reinvention and the sheer competitiveness of this business are both exhilarating and exhausting, and there comes a time when it is just somebody else's turn."

But Mainardo de Nardis, the global chief executive of Aegis Media, can't agree with any of that. He comments: "By sheer coincidence the three people you mention were, along with Chris Ingram, the first British media people I met and they have been, for me, the most wonderful examples - they were responsible for inspiring my interest in the industry. So I'd have to say this is a big loss of talent for our market. They work hard, they are capable, smart and good fun. These were people who were still adding a lot of value to their agencies. And you can't say they are the old guard because you could not describe any of them as old men."

Paul Phillips, the managing director of the AAR, isn't so sure - he would number himself among the Darwinians. He says: "The major agencies have paid a lot of attention to ensuring smooth succession management as the alternative can be costly and disruptive. I think the stage is set for the industry's new chief executives to make their mark - and do it in a different way to their predecessors as they face new objectives and challenges. I'm sure they have just as much ambition and entrepreneurial flair as their predecessors that each of them will deliver in their own style."

And Nick Manning, the chief executive (for a few more weeks only) of OMD UK Group, tellingly, agrees. He says: "It's a good thing that we are giving the next generation headroom. But I do agree there's a broader issue about how the industry motivates and incentivises people who are not in the position we [as agency founders] are in. The big groups are finding that increasingly hard. There has to be some light at the end of the tunnel for the next generation of senior management - and you don't want to be employing people who are staying just so they can pay the mortgage and the school fees.

"The choices are setting up your own shop or joining another industry - and it's increasingly difficult to see a situation where there would be room for media agency start-ups."

NO - DOMINIC PROCTOR, global chief executive, MindShare

"It is really sad to see these talents leave the business, but it isn't at all surprising. Most media agencies were established ten to 20 years ago, so there is a natural generational change as the founders move on."

YES - MAINARDO DE NARDIS, global chief executive, Aegis Media

"It's true that this is a youthful industry, but it also needs people with a bit more experience. The UK has always had more personalities than in any other market. So I can't see a good side to any of this for the industry."

NO - PAUL PHILLIPS, managing director, AAR

"It's the natural order, people move on. Having made serious money and achieved what you set out to, there has to be something that motivates you. So while this leaves a gap, it also presents an opportunity for others."

NO - NICK MANNING, chief executive, OMD UK Group

"It's not surprising that those of us who've built businesses and sold them have chosen to move on. You could argue that we've hung around longer than the norm. In many cases, as soon as a buyer comes in, the founders are off."

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