Media Headliner: Burley eager to grab the reins at ambitious MCHI

The full-service agency feels the chief executive it has hired to take it to the next level is an 'inspired choice'.

Jessica Burley was probably one of those annoying girls at school who hung out with the mischief-makers behind the bike sheds but was chillingly organised and always had her homework done.

Before she's even been given the short questions that accompany this profile (in the Q&A box below), she hands over a neatly folded page containing answers to her self-posed "lowdown" questions. "I wondered whether you needed these," Burley says. The woman is nothing if not prepared.

Burley doesn't, however, feel the need to do much prep for her new role at MCHI. She believes she is already primed to be its new chief executive, proclaiming: "I feel very ready." The former managing director of The National Magazine Company seems genuinely excited by the job and so keen to get stuck in, they might have difficulty keeping her out of the MCHI offices before she officially starts next month.

Her appointment is part of a move to take MCHI, the full-service agency formed almost a year-and-a-half ago as a joint venture between CHI & Partners and WPP's Group M, into its next phase. The deal sought to combine the media buying might of Group M with the creative heritage of CHI, yet its distinctive model prompted some chin-stroking about whether it represented a new blueprint for the industry.

And, so far, MCHI has stayed on the sidelines. While picking up some accounts off its own bat, such as Virgin Money and Betfair, MCHI has, in the main, worked with CHI clients, including Talk Talk and The Carphone Warehouse. Its billings are around £80 million.

CHI's founding partner Johnny Hornby and the Mindshare chief executive, Jed Glanvill, are now in the process of turning it into a fully fledged company. The 45-strong MCHI team (27 of whom are CHI people and 18 of whom are Mindshare media buyers) have been given MCHI contracts, as the shop becomes a company in its own right.

Hiring Burley, whom the MCHI managing partner Tim Allnutt calls "a grown-up business person", is a key part of the process. Her arrival coincides neatly with the departure of MCHI's other managing partner, Enyi Nwosu, who is moving to M&C Saatchi. Allnutt is, naturally, sad to see the person he has built up the agency with depart, but he views the change as a good thing.

"We need to go to that next level. It's too easy to rest on your laurels and become stale," he explains, adding: "Jessica is an inspired choice."

But Burley is also an unexpected choice when you consider she has never worked agency-side before (she has spent the past 20 years in magazine and newspaper publishing roles) and has never previously held the position of chief executive. She doesn't see this as a hindrance: "Clients, media owners and agencies are all saying we need to think about new ways of doing things and challenge tradition. My background feels like it fits."

She was the eternal bridesmaid at NatMag, the home of Good Housekeeping and Cosmopolitan. After being with the publisher for eight years, she was overlooked for the top role in favour of the French media player Arnaud de Puyfontaine. She admits to being more than a little miffed at the time: "Of course I was disappointed. It is one of the best, if not the best, magazine roles in the country." But she doesn't hold a grudge: "If you are going to get beaten, you want it to be by someone like Arnaud."

Hornby believes Burley's experience of managing a large business (NatMag has around 700 staff) makes her ideal for the role. They previously worked together when NatMag appointed CHI to launch Reveal magazine in 2004.

"I remember thinking at the time that she was the sort of person I wanted on our side. She was always pushing us and wanting more," Hornby says.

Though NatMag is far removed from the set-up at MCHI, there is a similar mixture of skills to manage. Burley had to herd a huge variety of people, from editorial to commercial staff, at the publisher and predicts running things at the considerably smaller MCHI will be a breeze in comparison. "This feels more manageable," she says.

Burley will be, in traditional ad agency speak, the suit to Allnutt's planner. Glanvill is confident of Burley's ability not only to manage the team but to woo clients. "Tim can focus on strategy and innovation and she'll run the ship on the commercial side," he says, adding: "Jessica's a good laugh and she can get lots out of a team."

Claudine Collins, the joint head of investment at MediaCom, notes that Burley brought "personality" to NatMag and praises her professionalism. "She never let me down," Collins says. Burley's old colleague Colin Morrison, the former chief executive of ACP-NatMag, believes the hiring is a coup for MCHI. "She's quick, smart and has bags of energy," he says.

Burley will need to keep those energy levels up. Hornby wants MCHI to double in size by the end of the year. The plan is to win greater levels of standalone media business, as well accounts on the back of CHI and Mindshare relationships.

Global expansion is also on the cards. The agency has already set up shop in Australia and now the US and China are in Hornby's sights. "I am really ambitious for MCHI," he explains. Traditional media shops should be aware that MCHI is now preparing for battle.

Age: 44
Lives: East Sheen
Family: Husband, Mark; Fred the cat
Most treasured possession: My watch, a present from Mark for a
significant birthday
Favourite TV shows: The X Factor, House
Favourite gadget: iPhone
Last book read: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
Motto: The German poet Goethe wrote: "Whatever you dream you can begin
to do it, boldness has magic and power in it"