Media Headliner: Ffitch takes the helm after 15 years at MG OMD

Robert Ffitch, with MG OMD since before Manning or Gottlieb, is finally stepping into the limelight.

No-one could ever accuse Robert Ffitch of impatience. He's been at Manning Gottlieb OMD man and boy - but only now, it seems, is he getting the recognition he deserves. And after all, he boasts the rare distinction (who knows, it may even be unique in corporate annals) of joining a start-up company before either of its founders.

While Colin Gottlieb and Nick Manning were still embroiled in the niceties of extracting themselves from contractual obligations to their former employers, it was Ffitch (who'd also exited from CIA but was not obliged to take gardening leave) who came in each morning and opened up the Manning Gottlieb shop.

For a few short weeks, 15 years ago, he was lord of all he surveyed.

Now, at long last, he's reaped his reward - boss once more of the agency, but now in a slightly more meaningful manner. This time around, he'll have a staff of 140.

On the other hand, some observers are surprised he's taken on the top job at this stage. After all, if he'd been ambitious in the past, he'd surely have made more of the opportunities presented when first Gottlieb (now OMD's European boss), then Manning (the group chief executive of OMD) moved on to bigger things?

Until now, he's preferred to stay out of the limelight. So what's changed?

Well, for the past few months, he's effectively been acting as the managing director and has found, almost to his surprise, that he's enjoyed it.

"Sometimes you get to a time in your life when you go, 'fuck it... go for it'," he says.

John McGeough, the sales director at Capital Radio and a former colleague of Ffitch's at MG OMD, says the appointment will be a huge morale boost within the agency. He says: "He's a top bloke. He's extremely popular with the people down there and, in morale terms, I should think it will stand on a par with the account win."

A reference, of course, to last week's win of the £30 million account of the recently merged music behemoth Sony BMG. MG OMD already had the £11 million Sony account, but prising the rest out of Vizeum was no small achievement.

McGeough believes Ffitch is absolutely the right man for the job - he embodies the heart and soul of the agency.

"He has been an intimate part of its evolution, so I don't think there's anyone better placed to move it on," he says. "I think everyone knows he's massively emotionally attached to his clients and the amount of effort he puts into that is awesome. He has the ear of both Colin and Nick, which is important, but he's his own man and has strong views on how the company should move forward."

Good points. But McGeough's initial focus on morale is telling. Many observers have been perplexed by recent events within the OMD group - and indeed, rival agencies have not been slow to make mischief, arguing that there is a lack of structural clarity within the group as a whole, leading to a blurring of strategic vision at both operating companies.

They argue that the formation of Omnicom's buying unit, OPera, was less-than-deftly managed, and important egos were bruised in the process. Then there was the departure of OMD's planning guru, Mark Palmer. True, Palmer is seen by some as a maverick; so it's perhaps understandable that he and Manning might not have seen eye to eye, but nonetheless, his departure was, according to some critics, avoidable and ultimately careless.

While Manning has been focusing on events at OMD head office, the agency that still bears his name has, the mischief-makers say, experienced its own drifting feeling.

When Manning first moved up to take on group responsibilities, he gave the job of MG OMD managing director to Alison Wright. When that didn't work out, Wright was succeeded not by one but by three - with Ffitch, Neil Hurman and Phil Nunn running the agency as a triumvirate of managing partners. Meanwhile, its distinctive culture as an innovative and intellectually nimble operation most at home with iconoclastic clients (Virgin, PlayStation, Nike) has been blurring at the edges.

Some in the agency were not totally happy with the sort of solid and functional job they were being asked to do on the AA account (won as far back as October 2002), for instance; and when the account was reviewed earlier this year, MG OMD declined to repitch. 2004 wasn't the best of years either, another low point being the loss of the £18 million More Th>n account.

There's even been speculation about the ultimate fate of the MG OMD brand.

Won't it inevitably be subsumed - especially now the two OMD agencies will soon move to a shared office space?

Manning is quick to quash that that one, insisting that the two OMD brands will remain separate "in perpetuity". But just what does MG OMD really stand for these days? Can it rediscover its spark?

Absolutely, Ffitch says. And that's what really motivated him to put his head above the parapet this time around. He states: "There was a danger we were slipping into becoming a me-too media company. I couldn't accept this. We had always been an innovative, fast-moving, dynamic, challenging, creative agency - often leading the way in our thinking, ideas and services.

I want to put this right back into the heart of our company again."


Age: 41

Lives: Beckenham, Kent

Family: Wife Annie, daughters Connie (11), May (7), Madeline (4)

Favourite ad: Honda design ad

Describe yourself in three words: Cheeky, attentive, competitive

Greatest extravagance: Annual lads' week with old university friends

All-time favourite book: Hannibal by Thomas Harris

Living person you most admire: Lance Armstrong

Personal motto: Be gracious in defeat, even if deep down it hurts like