MEDIA HEADLINER: The dyed-in-the-wool agency man who saw the media light - David Wheldon’s job at CIA UK has made him rethink media, Claire Beale writes

When headhunting’s grande dame, Isobel Bird, first approached David Wheldon about CIA Medianetwork’s chief executive post, his response was exactly what you might expect from a man who has spent much of his working life at creative agencies.

When headhunting’s grande dame, Isobel Bird, first approached David

Wheldon about CIA Medianetwork’s chief executive post, his response was

exactly what you might expect from a man who has spent much of his

working life at creative agencies.

For Wheldon, media had always been the bit that came at the end of

presentations if everyone else had run out of things to say. So it came

as no surprise that he met the suggestion with disdain. He had just

parted company with BBDO after two disastrous years as European

president, and had been approached about a top job at Ogilvy & Mather.

Media? Christ, he wasn’t that desperate.

Almost 12 months on, though, and while Wheldon has not exactly

experienced a media epiphany, he has come to see media as an opportunity

rather than a downwards move.

’It’s a brave thing to do because - and I’ll exaggerate for effect - I

know bugger all about media. But that’s why I like it, too. Because I’ll

learn something different. I learned more in four years at Coke (as

worldwide head of advertising) than I did in 15 years in the agency

world. I learned nothing in two years at BBDO, apart from something I

didn’t want to learn about - politics.’

Certainly, the CIA job is not one you’d automatically expect to appeal

to someone who recently found himself introduced to a stranger as ’a

veteran guru of the advertising industry’. After all, this isn’t just

media, this is media at an agency which has seen billings slide by a

quarter over the past year and whose reputation hit rock bottom some

time back.

But for Wheldon ’something bizarre about the CIA job appealed to me: the

core company, the UK company, has had a tough time of it and I can see

that there’s a very clear job that demands something that I have really

missed in the last four years - people management, bringing teams

together and motivating them.’ Those who know the man talk about his

charismatic leadership, clear vision and notable lack of bullshit - no

mean feat for a former account man - though some question whether he has

the energy and hunger to tackle the enormity of the CIA job.

But Wheldon already displays a real ambition for CIA. While there is

undoubtedly a real opportunity to turn around the fortunes of the

agency, Wheldon has his sights set higher. ’CIA UK should be the best

media company and we want to be back in the top three within two years -

the place where anyone in the media business would want to work.’

Clawing back into the top three simply by organic growth seems to me a

near impossible task in a media market coloured by mergers, but Wheldon

is convinced that if CIA can offer the best strategic communications

advice, growth will naturally follow. Here he turns to his experience in

the client arena for a perspective on the real opportunity for media


At Coca-Cola, he says: ’I used to sit in on business plan meetings and

think, when are they going to start talking about the ads then? The

answer was never, because that’s the thing that you do at the end of the

line. At the front end they talked about the consumer, the media

landscape, where you invest your money and how you build your brand.

That’s where the opportunity is for media.’

It was something of a rude awakening for a guy steeped in the arrogance

endemic to the ad agency. ’The world looks completely different through

a client’s eyes and that was a real shock to me because I had grown up

thinking that advertising was the be-all and end-all of everything,’

Wheldon explains.

Now he knows differently. ’Giving advice on brands and marketing belongs

just as equally to a media company as to an advertising agency, and if

anything it’s easier in a media company because there isn’t this white

noise of people trying to sell something all the time, which gets in the

way of a rational, objective relationship.’

Mainardo de Nardis, CIA’s European chief and the man responsible for

hiring Wheldon, admits, though, that while the media industry is quick

to claim it can deliver rounded communications advice, the reality is

far different. ’The media industry talks about offering strategic advice

on building brands, but how many people in our industry do that? We


It’s not the business that media agencies are in today. We are in the

business of filling in tables, winning media audits rankings, delivering

percentages, delivering measured extra efficiencies, not strategic

advice on building brands, which is our job.

’CIA already does this, not all the time, but we are heading in that

direction. But many traditional media people refuse to change and they

are not going to help us in the future.’

Hence the decision to by-pass the obvious media industry candidates for

the CIA job and appoint Wheldon instead. Yet the appointment has divided

opinion. Interestingly, Wheldon says the kindest congratulations have

come from those who work in media. ’They’ve said to me, ’yeah, this is

good for media that a guy with your kind of experience joins it’.’

And his old agency muckers? ’Most of them think I’m nuts. There’s this

attitude that media is second division. But that’s fantastic, long may

it continue, because there’s the opportunity for us.’

Spoken like a true media man.