Media Headliner: The globe-trotting architect of outdoor media

Eric Newnham, the PPL chief executive overseeing the Portland merger, has grown up with the medium.

In some respects, it's astonishing how quickly the outdoor medium has managed to internationalise itself. Gone are the days when this particular corner of the industry was characterised by two dodgy geezers and an Alsatian who owned the odd scabby poster site down by the railway arches.

The business has now consolidated itself into the hands of a few highly professional and visionary media owners - Clear Channel and Viacom from the US and JCDecaux with its French heritage. It was inevitable that advertising's structures would follow suit.

And that is the context within which we have to view the recently agreed merger between the privately owned outdoor media specialist Poster Publicity Limited and its WPP counterpart, Portland.

WPP has bought into a genuine network capacity and allied itself to the most accomplished internationalist on the planning and buying side of the business.

Eric Newnham, the chief executive of PPL and now of the merged (but as yet unnamed) entity, has always had an intrepid streak. Back in the mid-80s, he took time out between jobs to cycle all the way to Delhi. His route took him across Europe, then through Iran at the height of the Iran-Iraq war.

He has never lost his taste for travel - which tends to come in handy when you've set yourself the gruelling task of building a global network from scratch in less than a decade. While many perpetual business globetrotters eventually tire of an endless succession of identical hotel rooms, Newnham still focuses on the positives.

He still gets a buzz out of engaging with different business cultures, he says: "To be in, say, China one week and Latin America the next is incredibly stimulating. I really love it. And we have an apartment in New York, which helps. Doing this (Portland merger) deal has anchored me a bit in the UK. It has dragged on - but it would. It's a once-in-a-lifetime deal."

And it has been a lifetime in outdoor media too. Save for a four-year tour of duty in the wider agency world with Leo Burnett, the business has employed him man and boy, since he joined the catchily named Advertising Agency Poster Bureau straight from school at the age of 16.

There's nothing he doesn't know about the market - as he admits with an uncharacteristic lack of modesty. "I know an awful lot about outdoor," he states. "There's not much going on I don't know about. Knowledge and expertise are essential in this business."

Few in outdoor have been around as long as he has - which isn't to suggest he's in any way "old school". The rough-and-ready generation of outdoor traders who joined in the 70s have, by and large, been squeezed out of an increasingly professional business. But Newnham is not just a survivor.

He has always been ahead of the game and, in fact, he's been one of its principal architects - especially since acquiring Poster Publicity (then a peripheral player operating only in the UK) in 1993.

He already knew that the UK had outdoor media skills it could profitably export, and he rapidly set about using PPL as a vehicle for that. He pioneered the concept of the network - and to date, PPL's only serious rival has been Posterscope, constructed by Aegis out of the outdoor divisions of the media specialists it has acquired in its global expansion drive.

Newnham built the PPL structure; now the WPP billings deliver enhanced status and negotiating strength. He emphasises the fact that WPP has given him a mandate to continue in much the same vein as before - there will be no WPP media people, for instance, on the new company's board.

On the other hand, WPP will demand that the company delivers big things on behalf of its clients - and he's bound to start running into group politics of some sort or another pretty rapidly.

Jim Marshall, the chairman of Starcom UK Group, says Newnham will relish the task: "He commands a huge amount of respect. He's been an incredible driving force behind PPL and, culturally, he gets involved at all levels."

Jeremy Male, the European chief executive of JCDecaux, agrees wholeheartedly: "Mergers are never easy, for all sorts of reasons, and managing that process will be a challenge. But Eric's enthusiasm is infectious. He's bouncy. In fact, he's like Tigger in Winnie the Pooh."

It's just as well that Newnham has this new challenge - because surely the outdoor business is entering a rather dull phase?

Nonsense, Newnham responds. There are new technologies - media owners are building digital technologies into poster sites so people can interact with them - and architects are designing potential advertising opportunities into the very fabric of buildings.

If you couple new technology with the ability of the likes of PPL-Portland to service their clients' needs on a global basis, you have the first real opportunity to run truly global advertising campaigns.

Newnham concludes: "Culturally, a global advertising campaign isn't the problem for out-of-home it is for other media, because the medium doesn't have an editorial context and we're starting to see advertisers - iPod, for instance - looking seriously at global creative. For companies able to grasp this, we're going to be able to have some interesting conversations."


Age: 45

Lives: Oxfordshire

Family: Married with three children (Jack, Joe and Mary) and a dog

Most treasured possession: Home - a Grade II listed building with a

100-year-old walnut tree in the garden

Describe yourself in three words: Committed, energetic, driven

Proudest professional moment: Completing the joint venture with WPP

Interests outside work: Travel

Job you'd love in media apart from this one: Backing singer for Mark

Chippendale, who was the sales director at Sky TV and very well-known in

the industry for his singing