Media Headliner: Future offers Spring an antidote to Clear Channel

At Future, Stevie Spring should be free from the power struggles that marred her time at Clear Channel, Alasdair Reid says.

They are more than a little put out at Future Publishing when you suggest that, in becoming the company's new chief executive, Stevie Spring is doing the equivalent of marrying beneath herself. This, they remind us, is a public limited company; then they pull out press clippings from the nationals covering Spring's appointment. The Times, The Daily Telegraph, the Evening Standard. Would she have been given the same coverage if she had become the boss of an ad agency?

Fair point. The world, we might grudgingly agree, does not necessarily revolve around the advertising community and mainstream consumer media owners. There are big bucks to be had in magazines covering gaming (Xbox Magazine and PlayStation2 Magazine, both the official titles), motoring (Total BMW, Trucking), hobbies (Cross Stitcher and Good Woodworking) and music (Metal Hammer and Total Guitar).

To name, in each instance, only a couple: Future now has 150 consumer titles. No mean outfit. On the other hand, it is hardly in the best of health. The announcement of Spring's appointment coincided with the departure of her predecessor, Greg Ingham, who resigned on the back of disappointing interim results - a loss of £12.1 million on turnover of £114.7 million for the six months to March.

This, some analysts say, is not as bad as it looks - much of the loss was down to costs incurred in bedding in titles (38 of them, including Fast Bikes and Fast Car) acquired last year for a total of £30.5 million from Highbury House.

Still, this does not seem Spring's bag at all. Spring, 49, is a West End girl, the self-styled Ruby Wax of advertising, the queen of air kisses and widely acknowledged as the best networker in the world, ever. Future's headquarters are in Bath.

However, friends of Spring's claim this is exactly the right sort of opportunity at the right sort of time. It ticks all the right boxes for her at this point in her career - and it is the perfect antidote to her experience at the hands of her previous employer, Clear Channel.

After all, Future is a company in the creative and media space but, as boss of a plc, she will have full control - and it is a company of the right sort of size. She will be able to make a real impact. It will not involve spending forever on planes and, the charms of Bath notwithstanding, she will spend a lot of time in Future's London office, so there will still be bountiful networking opportunities.

They also add, pointedly, that she will not have to suffer at the beck and call of fickle US managers - a reference to her less-than-happy experience at Clear Channel. For years, as the UK chief executive of a multinational media owner, she had been given a large measure of autonomy; but when the company restructured and more power was centralised in the US, interference began ramping up and it is believed her position became untenable. She departed in January.

Her face was never likely to fit with the more conservative strands of US corporate business culture - Spring is unconventional, larger than life and twice as colourful.

Anything but staid. Interestingly, though, there is a continuing Clear Channel theme here, because the Future chairman, Roger Parry, was Spring's boss at the outdoor contractor in her earliest days there.

He comments: "Stevie has a long and successful track record of managing and developing creative businesses, both at media owners and advertising agencies. This experience, together with her energy, vision and extensive contacts with advertisers and agencies, will complement the very strong publishing teams we have at Future."

So, yes, it all adds up - but it is also true that many had expected her to fetch up back at the helm of a creative agency. Her mix of qualities seems uniquely designed for the role. Before joining Clear Channel in 2000, she had spent almost six years as the managing director of Young & Rubicam's London office and before that had been the managing director of Woollams Moira Gaskin O'Malley and the deputy managing director of Gold Greenlees Trott.

She is the ultimate party animal - in one interview a few years back, she confessed to having been out on the town for the previous 15 nights solid. According to those close to her, she has eased back on the social calendar somewhat these days - wining and dining clients maybe only four evenings out of seven.

She's a Fellow of both the IPA and the Marketing Society and sits on the boards of Nabs and Wacl. In this latter role, she is often to be heard bemoaning the fact that there are few women like her in the advertising or media businesses. Some feel this somewhat misses the point - there are just very few people like Spring, full stop.

So how will she take to the nitty-gritty of publishing? Neil Jones, the managing director of Carat, is not convinced that her focus will be on internal product-based issues. "I wouldn't be surprised if her role was more outward-looking," he speculates. "I think she'll help raise the profile and she has a contact book to die for. She'll help to get Future on the agenda."

Unfortunately, though, the people she knows best are in mainstream advertising and that will not help Future very much. Its advertising revenues tend not to come through the mainstream West-End media shops.

But sources close to Spring insist she is very keen to get her hands dirty. Julie France, one of Spring's divisional managing directors at Clear Channel, suspects there may be more than a little of the micro-managing tendency lurking there but, if so, it's hardly compulsive. She explains: "It sometimes takes her a while to feel she can trust someone, but once she does, she gives them freedom to operate."

France admits she was surprised when she first heard that Spring was taking the job at Future. On reflection, though, it made a huge amount of sense. "For Stevie, I'm almost certain she looked at this in terms of not wanting to go back, which she and others would have thought if she'd returned to agency management," France says. "I think it's great she's going for something new and challenging."

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