Media Headliner: Charlie Varley packs his bags for Manchester

MediaVest Manchester's new planning director tells Darren Davidson why he is fired up about making the move north.

If Charlie Varley is feeling apprehensive about swapping the London media scene for the rainy streets of Manchester after 25 years of plying his trade in the capital, he's not showing it.

After three years at Walker Media heading the Dixons Stores Group account, Varley is giving up his managing partner role at Cleveland Street for a planning director post at MediaVest Manchester.

He talks enthusiastically about the switch to the UK's second-largest independent media agency, saying: "David Lucas and Andy Jeal (the managing partners at MediaVest Manchester) have built a big and successful business and they don't need to bring someone up from London. But the fact they want me to join them is fantastic."

MediaVest Manchester hopes Varley has the right blend of planning skills and commerciality to take the business up a notch.Varley believes the accountability of his work on Dixons will be useful: "Hopefully, that grounds me reasonably well for what I find up there in Manchester, because that's what their business is all about; being wholly accountable and direct."

Launched in 1993, MediaVest Manchester - previously known as The Media Centre - remains independent, though Starcom retains a minority stake it acquired in 2002. Its clients include Holiday Breaks, Chupa Chups and Admiral. Last year, it centralised its buying operation into specialist groups and separated out the planning function, in a bid to make the agency more attractive to clients.

Varley says: "If I were a toga-wearing planning guru from one of the more cerebral planning agencies, I probably wouldn't survive, because it's a bit more rough-and-tumble, practical and hands-on."

Varley was surprised to be offered a job at MediaVest. He says: "I'm not a planning director or a name you would immediately associate with the role. MediaVest asked media owners - the eyes and ears of the industry - who they should get up to Manchester and my name came up."

Varley has worked in media since 1982, when he joined Saatchi & Saatchi after a brief sojourn in the Army, which ended when he failed the Regular Commissions Board for a lack of enthusiasm.

He cut his teeth on a number of big accounts at Saatchis, including British Airways, before moving to WCRS, where he built relationships with the likes of PHD's founder Jonathan Durden. After WCRS, Varley worked at the joint venture between Carat and TBWA, Eurospace. "It was the only agency to create a service with a media buying operation that wasn't giving up on media. All the creative agencies were letting it go to the big buying shops," he claims.

During this time, he was one of the key members of a team producing ground-breaking work for the Wonderbra "hello boys" campaign and the launch of the Nissan Micra.

But then came a move to Omnicom's nascent OMD operation, which Varley describes as "disastrous". He says: "I was seen as some kind of miracle worker who had done amazing things on Wonderbra and Nissan. I went a bit mad and started to believe my own publicity." He didn't hang around and, after 18 months, helped set up the ill-fated digital start-up Oxigen, which went into administration during the dotcom collapse.

His next move took him to Walker Media, where he has enhanced his account-handling credentials. Phil Georgiadis, the Walker Media managing partner, says that Varley works on the Dixons business as if it was his own: "Varley is a combination of a media anorak and a larger-than-life salesman. He's known for going the extra mile with media owners and cares passionately about his clients."

Now Varley has other things on his mind. He says the "monsoon season" has already started in Manchester and wonders if he will need to apply to the Greater Manchester Police for a gun licence. Clay pigeon shooting is one of his favourite pastimes.

Varley is a big man; well over six feet tall and with the personality and confidence to match. But regional media outfits are usually fiercely proud of their locality and wary of outsiders preaching London business values. Varley does not see this as a problem, but is aware he will need to tread carefully. "If MediaVest can offer a media service equal to anything anywhere else can offer, geography is irrelevant. However, I'm sure I will encounter some suspicion and a bit of 'fucking Londoner'. You can't be Johnny Londoner, you can't say 'well, we in London ...'."

One source says Varley's approach is "interesting" but could put people's backs up: "He's extraordinarily enthusiastic. In the past, this could quickly turn into being single-minded and big-headed." However, the insider says Varley has matured at Walker, becoming mellower and more pragmatic: "He is one of the more intellectual people in the media. He is controversial but quite an asset to have."

Beyond making a success of his new job and helping to take Media-Vest to the next level, Varley is hoping to slim down a bit. "I'm going to get a flat in the centre of Manchester and I'm quite looking forward to walking to work; getting fit and losing ten kilos." Just like Varley's New Year's resolution, MediaVest will be hoping that Varley can make their outfit a fitter, meaner media agency.

THE LOWDOWN Age: 43 Lives: Oxford Family: Married with four children, one horse, two dogs and one cat Interests outside work: Taxi driver for the family at weekends, clay pigeon shooting, walking Favourite ad: British Airways "Manhattan" Personal motto: Shall we have another bottle?