Media Headliner: Howell represents a new force for change at ITV

His appointment has split opinion, but Rupert Howell and Michael Grade are on the same wavelength, Alasdair Reid says.

Rupert Howell is in a rather tetchy mood. He is irked at last week's front-page story in Campaign because it states he has been appointed to succeed Ian McCulloch as the commercial director of ITV. He hasn't, he points out. He has, in fact, taken the new role of managing director, ITV brand and commercial. It is a totally different proposition with a far wider remit.

Howell also corrects our assertion that his appointment comes after a "long trawl" by the broadcaster. We reply that speculation about the role seems to have been swirling around the media industry for weeks, if not months, with scores of names being touted.

Ill-informed speculation, Howell asserts. He says there were only ever three names genuinely in the frame, and the recruitment process, once truly under way, was concluded smartly.

One can see why he is keen to forestall any confusion, especially as to the true nature of his role, which, surely, will be on the shortlist for ITV chief executive when that position becomes vacant. In contrast, McCulloch's previous role - mainly overseeing the generation of advertising revenues - offered no such opportunities for career advancement.

When Howell joins ITV in November, he will have equal standing with the director of global content, Dawn Airey. They will both report to the chief operating officer, John Cresswell, who in turn reports to the executive chairman, Michael Grade - who has stated he will step back to become the non-executive chairman by 2010.

So, we are happy to clarify that Howell's job will be "to determine where we take the ITV brand into the future - how its channels develop in the digital television environment and the media world".

He adds: "It's about how you redefine the brand, plus, of course, all aspects of monetising the brand."

Interestingly, among even the more liberal-minded senior figures within media agencies, there were some reservations about Howell's appointment (off the record, disappointingly). When pushed on this, their doubts boil down to the notion that Howell seems to be a typical charming-yet-brash ad man from a lost era - the 80s and 90s - and that he is not an "ITV-type" (too posh). These criticisms are, one has to assume, two sides of the same coin.

Yes, Howell is a bit public school and, as such, has the sort of uncompromising confidence that some find abrasive. He owns an impressive swathe of real estate in Surrey, complete with that most salubrious of accessories, a helipad - although he has not yet got the helicopter to go with it.

Chopper or not, Howell can, some say, adopt all sorts of lord-of-the-manor airs and graces. But others who know him better counter that that description is misleading. He is far warmer when you get to know him and, when you appreciate that warmer side, his charisma and can-do spirit of enthusiasm become thoroughly compelling.

Graham Duff, the Universal McCann president EMEA, is uniquely placed to comment - he is not only a former colleague, but also an ex-ITV commercial chief. "In many ways, Howell's the antithesis to me," Duff says. "I remember telling him how surprised I was that we got on so well together - especially as he is a Tottenham Hotspur supporter. He has undoubted chutzpah - unlike many in the industry, it is actually founded on something."

Duff is not alone in arguing that, contrary to the views of a coterie of sceptics, Howell will work well with media agencies and the media controllers of the big advertisers. And, of course, there is no-one with better contacts among the broader client community. He will make a charismatic frontman for the brand within the industry at large.

Another friend and former colleague, Chris Satterthwaite, the group chief executive at Chime Communications, says Howell is a natural leader. "He has a strong sense of where an organisation should be going; equally, he always has time to listen to the views of others," he explains. Satterthwaite argues that Howell has a greater feel for media issues than most people give him credit for. "Howell's instincts have always been about finding the best ways to move hearts and minds, and media strategy is always embraced right from the off," he says. "He has a tremendous understanding of audience behaviour."

This is, however, a major departure for Howell. After spells moving rapidly through the ranks at Grey and Young & Rubicam, he was a founder of the most celebrated third-wave agency, Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury, in 1987. When it was acquired for £24 million by the publicly quoted Chime ten years later, Howell became the joint chief executive of Chime, working under the chairman, Tim Bell. But, according to the industry rumour, Howell became frustrated when Bell decided to stay on and full control failed to fall into his lap. He moved on in 2002.

In his next senior role, as the EMEA president of McCann Erickson, Howell embarked on an ultimately futile attempt to reinvent McCann in Europe - the dream team of top talent he hired gelled ever so briefly and then began to fall apart. Sources say he clashed with the McCann global chief executive, John Dooner, over strategy; subsequently, in April, he decided to leave the company.

Some put the split down to a clash of personalities. "The sad truth is he never laughed at Dooner's jokes," is the assessment of one insider. Others say Howell became a none-too-subtle threat to Dooner's position, and that it will always be in Howell's nature to hanker for the top job, wherever he is.

Howell takes issue with our interpretation of events, but he does concede one point. "I have been my own boss for a large part (of my career) and I would probably concede that it's not that easy to be my boss," he admits.

And that is perhaps the most intriguing thing about the ITV appointment. It is well known that Howell has one of the best contact books, not just in advertising, but in the wider business world - it is one of the reasons why he is likely to succeed in this new role, some industry watchers say.

Of course, Grade is one of the most important names in that book. They share a world-view and a way of dealing with people. Perhaps most importantly, they have a mutual admiration, having first met in the late 80s, when Grade was the chief executive of Channel 4.

This brings us back to one of the charges broached earlier - that Howell is "not very ITV". Actually, he agrees, claiming that if he had been approached for the commercial role by the pre-Grade ITV, he would not have been interested in the slightest.

Grade, who started in the top job in January, is reinventing ITV's culture from top to bottom. "That's exciting," Howell says. "That's why I was interested in this job - because, like Michael, I feel that I am a change agent, too."

So, has Grade promised his job to Howell when he is ready to make way? No, of course not, Howell responds, the media world does not work that way. We will see.

The great thing in his favour, and in contrast with his experience at McCann, is that the ITV revolution is already under way.

That revamp, Howell says, will be enough to be getting on with. "I'm inspired by ITV," he explains. "It's an iconic brand and it matters hugely to people. It matters massively to the client world. I like doing things that matter."

Age: 50
Lives: Surrey
Family: Wife Claire, daughter Amy, 16, and son Dominic, 12
Most treasured possession: See above
Interests outside work: Rugby, football, shooting, golf, theatre,
messing about in boats
Favourite TV The X-Factor
Last book you read: Fatty Batter: How Cricket Saved My Life (Then Ruined
It) by Michael Simkins
Motto: Fortune favours the brave

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