Media Headliner: David Pugh prepares to effect Titan turnaround

The chief of the newly private company is hoping a nurturing, team-building style can put it back on track.

It's a world of contrasts. Minutes after we are informed that David Pugh, the new boss-in-waiting of Maiden, has just left Liverpool on a train bound for London, we pick up the phone and Bill Apfelbaum, Pugh's new boss, is on the other end of the line.

He tells us to hold on while he swings his car out of the Los Angeles commuter traffic, finds a decent cell-phone hotspot and pulls over. "Afternoon, Bill." "It's seven-thirty in the morning," he responds in irrepressibly raucous Apfelbaum fashion, complete with an almost audible exclamation mark. "But it's OK, I've already had two shots of coffee."

You can't help thinking that Apfelbaum doesn't exactly need artificial stimulants such as caffeine. He's at the good-natured end of the high-energy spectrum - and if they make a cartoon version of recent events in the outdoor media business, then the odds are he'll be played by Tigger.

That's exactly what Maiden needs right now - in morale terms, this company is stuck on a dirty train on a dreary March afternoon on the outskirts of a northern town. You just know the sun is already shining in LA.

Did we say Maiden? One of Apfelbaum's first acts following his acquisition of the stricken outdoor company was to call one of the company's previous directors, Ian Maiden, to tell him that, after 80 years in business, the family name was bowing out of the outdoor medium. As of last week, it became Titan Outdoor Limited. Titan is, of course, the name of Apfelbaum's company in the US.

And so to the dawning of a new era. Characteristically, the new boss moves quickly to demolish any subtext of pessimism lurking in the questions put to him. The assumption in the outdoor market is that Maiden has dug itself into a very deep hole indeed, making promises that it can't hope to keep in order to win recent contracts. Such as the Network Rail business it retained last year.

Apfelbaum, whose company, when it came down to it, was the only bidder for Maiden, won't hear of such nonsense. "We believe we can grow revenue rather significantly, and if you keep expenses on a sensible level then increases in revenue come right through to the bottom line. We will be significantly profitable next year," he says.

And he's done it before in the UK. Back in the late 80s, Apfelbaum took over as the boss of TDI (a company that was subsequently acquired by CBS and eventually morphed into Viacom Outdoor) and turned the company around, trading it out of awkward situations on many of its contracts.

He hints that, actually, the underlying situation at Maiden is more than sound. He goes on to imply that, had it not been a publicly quoted company beholden to blinkered short-term attitudes in the City, it would have been able to see out a few little local difficulties with comparative ease. "We will be a private company," he underlines. "We won't have to live quarter to quarter."

The prescription is good, old-fashioned, honest hard work - majoring on an enthusiastic and irrepressible approach to sales and marketing. He promises: "We will be first in the door to advertisers and specialists and if they ask anything of us we'll get back to them instantly. To the market, it's not going to seem overly different from what they know already. Our people will maybe be getting in earlier and working a bit later."

Maiden's previous chief executive, Ron Zeghibe, has departed and Pugh is set to replace him, with the former Yahoo! commercial director Alison Reay and the former Viacom Outdoor managing director Andy Moug coming in as joint managing directors.

So, business as usual for Pugh - only more so. As we talk, his mobile rings non-stop - though his stockbroker probably isn't among those queuing for a minute of his time. Pugh had 502 Maiden shares. Apfelbaum took the company private on an offer of 20 pence a share. The Vimtos are on Pugh.

Even in this day and age, Pugh remains a somewhat rare character in the outdoor medium, where, despite waves of modernisation and corporate investment, many rough diamonds of the old school survive. He has a history degree and an MBA and served his apprenticeship in the sophisticated media academy that was the Telegraph Group from the late 80s to mid-90s. His boss was Stephen Grabiner (still a close friend) and contemporaries included Kathryn Jacob and Andy Jonesco. When Pugh, as the marketing director, was given responsibility for the online version of the paper, he hired Hugo Drayton to run the operation.

He learned the ropes in the outdoor sector at Mills & Allen and was the boss there for a year before the company was acquired by JCDecaux - at which point he jumped ship to Maiden.

One thing is sure - if it is confirmed, the outdoor specialists will welcome his appointment. As Roy Jeans, the chief executive of Magna Outdoor, puts it: "David absolutely deserves this for the way he has stewarded the business through a very difficult period. He will offer continuity between the past and the future. He is utterly reliable, has a good brain and has a presence."

Pugh is, in short, thoughtful - and he admits he likes to be seen as a modern, nurturing, team-building manager, rather than your old-fashioned, barking non-commissioned officer. He says he is ready for the next step in his career.

"Everyone needs luck and I have had some great breaks in the business, especially when you think of the people I have worked with," he reflects.

"For instance, Colm O'Cuilleanain (his boss at Mills & Allen) helped me gain wider, tougher business experience and I owe Stephen (Grabiner) a huge amount too. At the Telegraph, I saw the last days of Fleet Street, where nothing was possible, then was part of the move to Canary Wharf, where everything was. It was a buzzy period.

"When I first joined, Conrad Black had just come in (as the new proprietor) and the challenge was to keep the best of the old while injecting a new commercial approach. And that's very much the challenge now facing Titan."


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