Media Headliner: Focused Wildman set to take Yahoo! up a level

Yahoo! UK's sales supremo says his TV background will help him propel the brand into the big league, Alasdair Reid hears.

James Wildman clearly feels comfortable in exalted company. He grants us an audience fresh from partying at the Brits one night and then taking his daughter to see Justin Bieber the next - a week that encapsulates (he might argue) his role as a Super Dad and all-round family man who can still party when called upon.

But that's not entirely the company we're referring to. At the start of the year, having seen out the last of his duties at the now-defunct TV sales house ids, he took up his new role as managing director and vice-president of sales for Yahoo! UK and Ireland.

He adds his name to an intriguing roll-call of UK sales supremos - a variegated club whose members include Martina King, Fru Hazlitt, Mark Chippendale, Alison Reay, Blake Chandlee and Mark Rabe.

Not much in common here, you might argue. Except for one thing - none of them, arguably, made complete sense of the job. It has never quite lived up to its billing as one of the biggest commercial jobs in the UK's media market.

There are fascinating historical reasons for this, of course. Factors include those relating to the brand's evolution, and to the ungainly (you could argue) structure as a US-focused global media owner.

Yahoo! has been through a tough couple of years, and is not yet out of the woods. It succeeded in repelling a takeover bid from Microsoft in 2008 - though it has subsequently formed a search alliance with the software giant in an attempt to win back some market share from the search market's utterly dominant force, Google.

Meanwhile, and perhaps belying its assertions that the search battle is still winnable, it has been accelerating its evolution from a primarily search-focused technology company into a big league media company, with a focus on news and entertainment content creation and distribution.

Some observers continue to wonder (noting, as they do so, that a huge chunk of revenue still derives from search and related activity) whether the Yahoo! brand has the powerful clarity it once had.

Although he concedes that this impacts on his role, Wildman prefers not to dwell on speculation (quite rightly, no doubt, as he's powerless to affect it directly) other than to reflect that it has become rather too "fashionable" of late to take a pop at Yahoo!.

Instead, he's single-mindedly focused on what he has to sell and how he's going to set about selling it. As such, he argues that he's served an ideal apprenticeship for this job, having been schooled in media sales at challenger brands in that toughest of markets, television.

That included spells at GMTV and Granada Sky Broadcasting before moving on to Flextech. He stayed on as its sales operation morphed into ids, owned by Flextech's successor company, Virgin Media. Though ids consistently punched above its weight, much to Wildman's credit, it eventually fell victim to bigger-picture corporate manoeuvring and the sales house consolidations that saw wholesale rationalisation of the UK's TV airtime market last year.

Tellingly, though, ids always pitched itself as something considerably more sophisticated (and technologically savvy) than your average airtime bucket shop. "At ids, we sold a digital platform - and it gave me a nursery slope introduction to this fabulous new world," Wildman explains.

And he now has some interesting inventory to sell. Users visit the Yahoo! family of sites for all sorts of reasons (for instance, to use e-mail, search or use Flickr or Kelkoo, as well as using it as a content portal with premium static and video content such as Premier League highlights). With a comScore total in January of 28 million unique users, it is the UK's fourth-biggest web operation. Recent market research tends to indicate that Yahoo! remains one of the most trusted technology brands among UK consumers.

The opportunity for growth, Wildman says, is in selling display advertising to an engaged audience attracted to quality, and he's come up with a catchy mantra - "science, art and scale" - to encapsulate his philosophy. He is aiming to sell "contextualised advertising" and stresses the engagement Yahoo!'s users have with its content - a factor that sets it apart from rivals.

And he has another couple of tricks up his sleeve. Service, he claims, will be second to none in this market, and he'll be pitching the sales story further up the food chain than ever before. He pledges to ensure that the Yahoo! story is heard and understood more clearly at the top of media agencies and client companies.

Ambitious stuff. But Mark Howe, previously Wildman's boss at ids and now, as the UK country director at direct rival Google, reckons he has the right sort of contact book: "He's a great salesman - he's very skilful at packaging up products, and he has a great network of high-level contacts. One of the challenges he will face relates to the international politics of a global company. But James has the tenacity to see that through."

And Steve Platt, the trading director at Aegis Media, argues that Wildman is actually in a different league to any of his illustrious Yahoo! predecessors.

"Looked at commercially, no-one in this market has been really progressive in the way they've sold themselves," he says. "The market hasn't ever had someone operating at his level before - no-one with his contacts and ability. He'll certainly stir things up."

Age: 44
Lives: Warlingham, Surrey
Family: Happily married to Mandy, with three children: Josh (16),
Harriet (13) and Milly (7)
Interests outside work: My children's progress, good food and
Must-have gadget: iPhone
Most treasured possession: Time
Motto: Not strictly a motto, but I believe that in life, you tend to get
out what you put in