Media Headliner: Big screen provides big opportunity for Bowley

A burgeoning cinema sector is the latest to be added to the diverse CV of Martin Bowley, DCM's new MD.

Martin Bowley's back. Again. And this time it's cinema. What's more, this may turn out to be a rather diverting partnership.

When Bowley was recently announced as the new managing director of the sales house Digital Cinema Media, we were mildly curious and vaguely tickled by the notion that one of the industry's most redoubtable (and adaptable) salesmen had moved even closer to collecting a full set of media.

He has worked in radio and magazines. He has spent some time recently at the leading edge that is (or, possibly, was) mobile and flirted fashionably for a while with branded content.

And, of course, he made his most enduring mark on the television medium as the sales director at Carlton, one of the most voracious of the companies driving consolidation within ITV across the 90s - and he only just (by a whisker) missed out on the top sales job in 2004 as merger frenzy reached its climax, leaving Granada, not Carlton, with the whip hand in running ITV plc.

Old ITV bosses don't become fully paid-up golf bums overnight - they usually keep things ticking over nicely, covering school fees and topping up the pension pot via a succession of comfortable and unchallenging sinecures. Non-executive directorships, figurehead roles, consultancy gigs.

Actually, Bowley's done slightly better than that. He talked a good game when he set up an ad-funded programming agency, Amplified, in 2004; and he whipped up more than a few headlines when he was hired to help launch OK! in the US for Northern & Shell. More recently, he's been the chief executive of the mobile entertainment company PlayPhone.

But still. We assumed that Bowley, now 53, must have viewed cinema as a rather agreeable safe haven as he continued to navigate his post-Carlton career. And then we looked at last week's figures. Cinema, it seems, is on a roll. It may yet emerge as one of the industry's few bright spots.

Year on year, admissions were up 7.7 per cent in January. More importantly, revenue was up too - 5.3 per cent year on year, according to The Nielsen Company, to £9.5 million. Audience performance isn't always rewarded in a small medium like cinema - and for it to be making headway in a downturn is rather creditable.

Actually, it's more than creditable. It feels like a minor miracle. Even a matter of a few weeks ago, it was easy to depict cinema advertising as a rather stagnant backwater. Both of its advertising sales outfits, not just Digital Cinema Media (formerly Carlton Screen Advertising) but its rival Pearl & Dean too, have had a tricky run in recent years - and both, ironically enough, have seen their problems compounded by being owned by ITV companies.

Pearl & Dean, for instance, was acquired by STV's owner, SMG, when it was bidding to become a British (as opposed to a purely Scottish) media owner a decade ago. But when that strategy unravelled, it was put up for sale in September 2006. Tellingly, despite a small price tag, there have been no takers. Potential suitors have, to put it mildly, been sceptical about growth prospects.

Digital Cinema Media has been through an even more agonising mill. Formerly Rank Screen Advertising, it was acquired by Carlton Communications in 1996, when it was rebranded as Carlton Screen Advertising - and Bowley was actually a nominal chairman back then, though he had little operational involvement in the business.

But ITV plc, which absorbed it alongside the other Carlton assets, had no real appetite for the cinema advertising business - and the heart and soul of the company, the chief executive, Debbie Chalet, left in November 2006 as ITV sought an exit strategy.

It was eventually sold for the knockdown price of £500,000 to a joint venture between two of its biggest clients - the Odeon and Cineworld chains. As a part of the deal, the management team that had succeeded Chalet (the sales director, Adam Mills, and the managing director, Trevor Davies) was compelled to step down and Chalet was drafted back in as the interim chief executive of the company, renamed Digital Cinema Media as the deal was finalised in June 2008.

More recently, as the path was smoothed for Bowley's arrival, Chalet was given a consultancy role, but it is understood that she will soon be parting company with the organisation once again.

Kathryn Jacob, Pearl & Dean's chief executive, says she's looking forward to working in tandem with Bowley to promote the medium as a whole - but she adds that his first responsibility is rather more basic. "I hope the thing that Martin will bring is a bit of stability to the company - given the upheaval there has been there in recent times," she says.

Bowley comes over all (unbecomingly) modest when it's put to him that he will undoubtedly boost the medium's profile. He says he merely counts himself lucky to be associated with a sector that's creating a bit of a buzz currently.

It's a villagey sort of medium, though - and it's not difficult to find one or two (buyers and sellers alike) who are predisposed to be suspicious. "The worry is that he swans in here and tells us we've been doing it all wrong," one says. "I do hope he remembers he's not at ITV anymore."

Bowley says there's no danger of that happening. In fact, he says that his biggest regret is staying too long in television: "I've learned more since leaving Carlton than in the previous however many years at ITV. It was fun when it was a regional sell, when you were scrapping for share against (say) Anglia. After the bean counters turned up, it wasn't really fun at all."

In fact, he says it's going to be a privilege working in a sector that's moving forward and evolving to embrace the digital world while still allowing him to exercise his core skills.

And, he adds, his appetite for that side of the business is the one aspect of the Bowley brand that will never change. You can count on it. "I love getting up there," he confesses. "I love selling. Absolutely love it."