Media Headliner: Durden returns to bring some star quality to MPG

After a spell in the limelight, Jonathan Durden is back on familiar terrain to work his magic at the Havas agency.

This week, politics wasn't the only arena to welcome back one of its "big beasts". While Ken Clarke settled back into the once-familiar leather of the front bench, those who bemoan the lack of characters in the media agency world were toasting the news that Jonathan Durden is making a return. And like Clarke, the maverick, novel-writing, Big Brother-appearing, rehab-surviving Durden certainly brings a bit of life, not to mention devilment, to whichever space he inhabits.

It might just surprise some that he has washed up at MPG, an agency that has traditionally inhabited the middle ranks of the UK agency world both in terms of size and reputation. But when you study your media agency history, it makes sense.

Durden, 51, and Marc Mendoza, the chief executive of MPG, go back a long way. Durden hired Mendoza as a media executive in 1986 when he was a director of the WCRS media department (which also featured the likes of Nick Brien, Phil Georgiadis and Charlie Varley). And there is evidently much affection and respect between the pair.

Now it's Mendoza doing the hiring, with Durden joining the Havas agency as its creative partner, a roving role that will focus on improving the standard of MPG's thinking and innovation in the work it delivers for clients. Such roles can be achingly vague, offering little more than a grazing post for past-it dilettantes intent on a final payday before setting sail for the sun.

Yet Mendoza and Durden are determined that this won't be the case at MPG. And Durden, who seems refreshed after an abstemious period which has seen him join the creative agency Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy, argues that he still has much to offer. "I'm at the peak of my powers and I don't want to waste this somewhere that won't listen," he says.

Since leaving PHD two years ago, Durden has devoted most of his time to writing. He says his first novel, Essex, Drugs & Rock 'n' Roll, has sold out of its first print run and is set to be made into a film. He has started writing his second novel, titled The Tragic Roundabout.

Following his spell in the media limelight, he has settled down somewhat and his partner is seven-months pregnant with their child. In between the NCT classes, he's also spent a significant amount of time and money on a "grand design" house project in Andalucia, which has involved sticking a glass box on top of a hillside cave house. His wider business interests include stakes in a restaurant and in a production company. Durden maintains that this broader perspective, plus time spent at MCBD (he will continue to work with the agency alongside the MPG role), means he has something broader to offer.

Durden is joining an agency that has enjoyed four years of strong growth: doubling in size in terms of people and billings and adding clients of genuine import including the BBC and Nationwide. However, Mendoza admits that there is still work to do: "One area where we could do better is in creativity and innovation for our clients. We need somebody to challenge and interrogate us. I liken what Jonathan can give us to what a personal trainer can do - they push you and sometimes you want to kill them, but they force you to a new level."

The MPG role came about after Durden approached Mendoza and Mark Craze, now the chief executive of Havas Media UK, with the proposal of joining them. Durden says MPG and its people have the Mendoza values of being "professional, decent and funny". He says: "I'll be disappointed if we don't pioneer new services and ventures this year ... I don't think media agencies aim high enough - nobody's gone directly to Hollywood, to the likes of Steven Spielberg. We've all sat and pid-dled around with toilet doors and doing a bit of product placement around the edges, but who has had the nuts to go and knock on the door at Miramax? Somebody's going to do that now."

Mendoza sees the hiring of Durden as an investment in the future, something that will make MPG "a better agency in two or three years time". Both talk about differentiating the agency and argue that now is the perfect time to do this. "Today's market is made for us, what with people retrenching," Mendoza says.

When pushed, Durden says he hasn't been given a set number of days or hours a month to work at MPG. He simply says "what needs to be done will get done" and he will spend time with Mendoza and senior management but also with teams across the agency, such as client services teams, in a bid to influence the way the agency works.

There might be a danger in letting a maverick like Durden loose among the "familial" culture at MPG which Mendoza says he is so proud of. However, Durden is convinced that it will work: "I'm one of the few people who is as blunt as he (Mendoza) is. And I don't mean by that being rude but cutting through things. The culture of MPG has always had that."

Durden is relishing the chance to influence this culture and Mendoza seems up for some of the inspired disruption that Durden is capable of providing. Assuming the man nicknamed Beelzebub can keep his focus, MPG deserves to be rewarded for its bravery in hiring him.

DURDEN TIMELINE

1985: After spells in media sales at Anglia TV and at the media agency John Ayling & Associates, Durden joins WCRS as a joint media director

1990: Launches PHD along with David Pattison and Nick Horswell

2007: Leaves PHD

2007: Appears as a contestant in Big Brother, leaving the house on hearing the news that his grandmother has died. Joins Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy

2008: Publishes his first novel, Essex, Drugs & Rock 'n' Roll

2009: Joins MPG as a creative partner.

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