Media: Headliner - Hytner is eager to defy critics when he joins UM

The Top Up TV commercial director admits a move to a media agency is a challenge, but says he can't wait.

Jim Hytner is in fine fettle and raring to go - and perhaps tellingly, he seems almost in combative mood. He's all too aware that there might be one or two people preparing to be slightly sniffy about his latest bombshell - the revelation that he's to join Universal McCann as the chief executive EMEA in October.

Hytner is, after all, no stranger to controversy. You even get the feeling he rather likes it. "When I was considering this move," he reflects, "I obviously talked to my friends in the business (not least one of his closest mates, Phil Georgiadis, the chief executive of Walker Media). They said you're bound to get people saying: 'You've spent most of your life on the media (owner) side. You can't cross over now.' And people who'd go: 'UM? That's a challenge.' Well, they're right. It is a challenge. Bloody right it is."

There's a refreshingly infectious militancy here. You can see why some people regard Hytner as one of the industry's genuinely charismatic performers. You're suddenly with him every step of the way as he asserts he has absolutely no time for what he perceives to be the blinkered thinking and closed-shop mentality at the top end of some agency groups. This is, he suggests, stuffy and stultifying - and unworthy of the great entrepreneurial traditions of the ad industry.

Of course, Hytner is disarmingly accurate in his assessment. Elements of the industry - rival network bosses, notably - are withering about this appointment. They characterise it as an attempt to make the best of a bad situation on both Hytner's and UM's part.

And indeed you could argue that, if you wanted to get a handle on this, you'd look no further than Hytner's entries in Campaign's A List. They're usually highly entertaining - and invariably revealing.

"I always think pigeons are going to fly into me," he confesses in 2005, resplendent in his relatively new role as the marketing director of Barclays. In 2006, he insists that if he wasn't Jim Hytner he'd be Ant and Dec; while in 2008, he replies, when asked: "Why are you good at what you do?": "I'm Jewish, thus I'm insecure and driven."

But his 2009 entry was arguably the most telling yet. Inasmuch as he didn't have one at all. Confirmation, if confirmation were needed, that Top Up TV's Hampton Wick fastness was surely a backwater if ever there was one. Having departed Barclays in 2007, he'd joined Top Up - a relatively obscure pay-TV operator - at the behest of its boss, his old mate from BSkyB days, David Chance.

Hytner is unashamedly loyal to his mates (and the move to UM sees him reunited with one from his ITV days - Graham Duff, the head of IPG's Mediabrands media operation in Europe). Still, you can take that sort of thing too far. After all, in the mid to late 90s there was a widespread feeling in the industry that he was surely marked out, one day, for the top job at a top media company, probably BSkyB or ITV.

And indeed his CV glitters with gems. Increasingly senior marketing roles at Sega and Coca-Cola and BSkyB; then two centre-stage appointments first, in 1997, as the marketing director at Five followed by, even more spectacularly, the move that saw him installed in 2001 as ITV's marketing chief.

Then that breathtaking leap into the real big league in June 2004, when he became Barclays' group brand and UK banking marketing director. It clearly didn't work out - his focus, insiders say, became too narrow and he eventually fell victim to some breathtakingly brutal internal politics.

At this point, Hampton Wick must have seemed like a safe haven. But there's only so much obscurity a Hytner can tolerate (his siblings include the film and theatre director Nicholas and the Saatchi & Saatchi worldwide deputy chairman, Richard). "It's been no secret that Jim badly needed a (new) job," one observer says.

Hytner doesn't quite put it that way. He says he relished the chance to be part of a private equity-backed company that had a clear sense of mission - but in the end he realised he was too much of a people-person to stay away from the advertising business for too long. And he claims that, once he'd decided it was time to move on, he always knew he wanted to join a media agency. "To me it has always seemed the most fascinating and intellectually stimulating part of the business. It's always changing," he points out.

Well, as he has already admitted, the UM job is certainly bound to be stimulating. True, the agency has an impressive list of multinational blue-chip clients; and it has been undergoing something of a renaissance in the US. But on this side of the Atlantic, good news has been elusive. As one rival network boss puts it: "UM will continue to struggle. If you don't have a certain scale you're just not in the game any more and UM doesn't have traction to speak of in any of the European markets that matter."

Nonsense, Matt Seiler, UM's global chief executive and soon to be Hytner's new boss, responds: "Of course, you must have the scale to matter. But we have that scale through Mediabrands (the umbrella structure that accommodates both UM and sister agency, Initiative) - enough scale to matter. So then it's about the ideas you can bring to make a real difference to your clients' businesses."

Seiler argues that UM has had its "coming out party" in the US. Now it's time for that to happen around the world. "We have great clients, great processes, but that doesn't always come across. We've been exploiting our 'Curiosity' proposition and taking the benefits of that culture and creative process to clients. We believe that it's a strong positioning - but what we haven't had is someone (in the EMEA region) to lead the charge," he admits.

There's already speculation that Hytner will be tasked not just with leading the charge but with finding a whole lot of new people to lead, especially in some of the weaker markets. Seiler rather dodges that one. "We have a depth of talent at UM - though it's true that the overall presence (of the agency) is not what it could be," he states. "There might be some shoring up to do but the job is about energising the talent that we already have."

And one of Hytner's strengths is getting the best, in team-building terms, from what he's already got. One thing's for sure, he concludes - the transition will be less of a stretch than people imagine.

"I'm not naive," he insists. "Of course there are differences but there are a hell of a lot of similarities with what I've done in the past on the client side too. Both roles involve developing teams and creating propositions internally that you can take out into the world. And UM is absolutely where I want to be.

"The senior people - Matt and Nick (Brien) and Graham (Duff) recognise that UM is a challenger brand and they need to do things differently. There seems to be a mentality out there among rival networks that says ad agencies should be run in exactly the same way they've been run for the past 50 years. Well ... hopefully those people are in for a surprise. Frankly, I can't wait."


Age: 45

Lives: Outside of London, just

Family: Jo, Molly, Lucy and Nipper

Favourite gadget: Sky HD box

Most-treasured possession: Barcelona 1999 and Moscow 2008 ticket stubs (Rome 2009 in the bin)

Interests: Most sports, theatre, wine, skiing, and time with Hytners and Worbys ("the in-laws from heaven")

Last book read: Chocolate And Cuckoo Clocks: The Essential Alan Coren

Motto: The world belongs to the discontented (a proposition originally advanced by the former Coca-Cola president, Don Keough).