Media Headliner: Heyworth aims to turn Arena into the next PHD

Sarah Heyworth is hoping Arena Media can also become synonymous with planning excellence.

People who have jumped ship from a large agency to a smaller one often stress the "entrepreneurialism" or "flexibility" of their new employer. Sarah Heyworth, who has just joined Arena Media in the role of planning director from MEC, gushes other small-pond cliches - she feels "liberated" by Arena, which is a "breath of fresh air" and "innovative". Here, they just "get things done", she says. Later, it's that the bigger agencies are "paralysed with indecision" and that they can "get a bit sluggish".

Certainly from Heyworth's perspective, three months into her new role, the grass seems a shade of brown in the former field. Or else she's a really good liar. It remains to be seen, however, if Heyworth, most recently the client services director at MEC, ends up one day missing the adrenaline of batting with the big fish such as Morrisons, which she looked after in that role, rather than Arena's tiddlers. Particularly as she admits she spent "the first two weeks wanting to pick up the phone and talk to clients, because that's what I've been doing for the last four years".

One thing she doesn't seem to miss yet is the madcap demands of clients. While at MEC and heavily pregnant, Morrisons pulled a tantrum when Heyworth said she couldn't make an important meeting at their HQ in Bradford. In the end, she capitulated. When she got there, the client asked her when she was due. "Four days' time," she said. "Thank God for that," they said. "We thought you were due last week." "That was over and above the call of duty," Heyworth says. Still, she tells the story in good humour - it is clear she just gets on with the job.

So why the hire of Heyworth and why now? Her appointment has come within the same breath that the agency's co-founder Charlie Makin decided to leave after 20 years to pursue consultancy work. Makin's departure has left Steve Booth as the last of its three founders standing (Nick Lockett left soon after the Havas takeover in 2008).

Makin, a cerebral planner with a heavyweight reputation, was increasingly co-opted by Havas to work on wider projects in the twilight months of his tenure and his absence left a gap for a planning figurehead. So when Dan Clays, the managing director of the digital sibling Arena Quantum, was made the chief strategy officer following the integration of both agencies last year, he decided to bring in a head of planning. Heyworth, who, in her own words, is there to "evangelise" about planning, is therefore an investment in the planning heritage that Makin established.

Still, this doesn't answer the question of Heyworth's planning credentials. After leaving university and having a miserable stint on The Times' classified team (the girls were "bitchy", apparently), Heyworth wrote a speculative letter to Mel Varley at Leo Burnett Media, was interviewed for a planner role and got the job. She then notched up two-year stints at WCRS media (later Mediapolis) and Walker Media before moving to Starcom for seven years. There, she worked as a business director across accounts such as ITV and Barclaycard, and then as the new-business director before heading to MEC.

Heyworth tries to play down the fact that as a strategic planning figurehead, she is effectively stepping into Makin's shoes. Accepting it would no doubt be daunting, considering how clown-sized those shoes would be. But if her eulogies are anything to go by, she has the energy to aim high. "She delivered in spades at MEC," its chairman, Tom George, says. She is "inspiring, creative and a great team player", MPG Media Contacts' Emma Thwaite, who worked with her at Starcom, adds.

Arguably, Heyworth has not spent the best part of her career on the planning frontline. But it was the "roundness" of her experience that she says impressed Arena's chiefs. And evangelise she does. She is particularly excited about Arena's new behavioural economics tool called Architect that is about to be rolled out across the agency. She has also made her first hire in the heavy-hitting Justin Gibbons, the founding partner of Work Research, who is helping to integrate behavioural economics into the agency's planning process - else, without it, planning would be like "panning for gold".

The former IPA president Rory Sutherland came into Arena the other day to talk to the agency. Heyworth says Sutherland "verified that agencies have talked to their clients about how important behavioural economics is as a discipline, but then have done nothing with it". She claims her plan to enthuse the agency about planning is working: books about behavioural economics are flying out of the internal library, she says happily.

What's for sure is that a new Arena has emerged since the laddish heyday of BLM and the separatist days of Arena Media and Quantum. It is clear that Booth and Makin made the right call to integrate. "There are still some big agencies that haven't decided what to do about it," Heyworth says. And what of Arena's future? "I want Arena to be up there and renowned for its planning credentials, along with the likes of great agencies such as PHD."


Age: 39

Lives: In Clapham with husband Nick, son Theo and a cat called Alan

Ambition: My husband and I have a grand plan of buying a property in Crete

Favourite media: Radio. At the moment, I'm loving Absolute

Regrets: No, never. Otherwise, you'd have to list them all

Mantra: Who dares wins