Media Headliner: City boy Woodward discloses SMG survival plan

But not everyone is confident the company's new chief executive can reverse its dwindling fortunes. Alasdair Reid reports.

There were some observers drawn to Rob Woodward's first public outing as the SMG chief executive last week by an almost morbid sense of curiosity. This, after all, was a man who'd stalked the Scottish media company obsessively for more than a year. His coronation speech, considering all the corporate bloodshed preceding it, carried a certain weight of expectation.

Because, of course, his elevation to king of the SMG castle was not a pretty business. It was a protracted, grinding affair with a gory denouement, as spattered as your average episode of Inspector Morse or the final act of Hamlet. So, obviously, analysts who attended the SMG presentation - a results announcement plus a strategy update - were more than a little curious to see if it had all been worthwhile.

Unfortunately, they're still not sure. Woodward's big idea is to hive off one of SMG's plum assets, Virgin Radio, as a separately listed public company, while retaining (for now) a lesser asset, the Primesight outdoor contractor, which had been marked up for sale months ago. Profits for 2006 were down as expected (£10 million as against £20 million in 2005), but there was cautious optimism about improving prospects in the ad market.

So, break out the bubbly. Small glasses, mind. Babycham, ideally. Woodward still has much to prove - especially to the media industry, where his credentials remain shakier than they are in the City.

And the 47-year-old truly is a City boy. Following a degree in business administration, he trod the classic path into strategic consultancy at Deloitte & Touche (media and telecoms sectors) and from there into investment banking at Braxton Associates. He was plucked from this comfortably remunerated obscurity in 2001 by the then Channel 4 chief executive, Michael Jackson, who made him the managing director of 4Ventures, the holding company for Channel 4's digital pay- TV and film-making interests. He then became the commercial director of the Channel 4 Corporation.

Woodward wasn't blessed with the greatest of good fortune. As the recession began to bite, Channel 4's diversification strategy started to waver under Jackson's successor, Mark Thompson, and then changed radically when Thompson was succeeded by Andy Duncan. Duncan has always believed in the primacy of Channel 4's free-to-air remit; Woodward thought that pay-TV should be the driver.

When he challenged Duncan's strategy at board level, there was only really one possible outcome. Woodward left Channel 4 in January 2005. He became an adviser to LongAcre Partners, a corporate finance house with a track record of advising companies in the marketing and communications sectors - for instance, on the £20 million management buyout of WCRS.

Then came his long march on SMG, which began in earnest in March 2006, when it was rumoured that the former Mirror Group chief executive, David Montgomery, was about to mount a takeover bid that would install Woodward as the chief executive. The bid didn't materialise, but Woodward's name would continue to hang in the air.

In July, with institutional shareholders increasingly disgruntled at SMG's perceived inertia, lack of strategic direction and (worst of all) sagging share price, the SMG board attempted to appease City opinion by sacrificing the then chief executive, Andrew Flanagan. And once again, with the apparent backing of the institutions, it was Woodward's name that popped into the frame as a possible replacement. But the remaining SMG board members, feeling their Flanagan gesture was enough to be going on with, dug their heels in and elevated one of their own, Donald Emslie, to the position of acting chief executive while they sought a non-Woodward option. They only succeeded in postponing the inevitable through a protracted period of particularly spectacular dithering, during which a merger proposal from Ulster Television was considered.

When, at the end of February, this proposal was rejected, the institutions made their move, forcing the SMG chairman, Chris Masters, to resign. Six fellow directors resigned in sympathy. Woodward was in. And thus the Flanagan era was finally laid to rest. Flanagan's strategy was to protect the crown jewels - the STV and Grampian ITV franchises - by becoming a multimedia player on the wider UK stage. "A very poor strategy, very poorly executed," was Woodward's unsurprising assessment last week.

The focus will now be on television in Scotland, with other assets such as Pearl & Dean and Primesight eventually, it is to be assumed, going the way of Virgin Radio. But worryingly, perhaps, there are many, not least at Channel 4, who question if Woodward is the right man to make sense of a television company - no matter how sincerely Woodward himself believes that this is his destiny.

"He was a nice enough bloke, but a lot of people here didn't really know what to make of him," one Channel 4 source says. "He came across as extremely focused and quite cold - uncompromising in his pursuit of certain financial and operational goals."

He was treated with suspicion by programme-makers and, according to Channel 4 insiders, made it clear the feelings were mutual. He was rarely comfortable, some say, in the company of creative types.

Woodward may need to learn new skills if he fancies his chances as a TV mogul. He knows how impatient institutional investors can be - and ITV is hardly a licence to print money these days. So, sooner rather than later, they'll want to see reasons to be cheerful at STV. If they don't, they'll inevitably seek to extract maximum break-up value from that side of the business, too.

It's going to be fascinating. And it's fair to say there are more sceptics in the TV world than there are in the City. As another of Woodward's former colleagues puts it, rather pithily: "There were many people here who thought he had absolutely no feel whatsoever for the difference between good programming and bad programming. He was clearly happiest with the numbers. You can argue that he never claimed that content was his forte, and that he can always bring in people to do that for him - but it's always going to be a slight disadvantage for someone with ambitions in the media sector."