MEDIA: HEADLINER - Interactive innovator plans to bolster Flextech's digital nous. David Cuff regards Flextech as a pioneer of the digital age, Matthew Cowen writes

The decision by a media agency stalwart to make the high-profile jump to a media owner usually produces some lively conversation as to the wisdom of his or her thinking. The debate often centres on the idea that a creative product of the agency side finds it difficult to bloom amid the stricter bureaucracy of a magazine empire or broadcasting corporation.

The decision by a media agency stalwart to make the high-profile jump to a media owner usually produces some lively conversation as to the wisdom of his or her thinking. The debate often centres on the idea that a creative product of the agency side finds it difficult to bloom amid the stricter bureaucracy of a magazine empire or broadcasting corporation.

However, there are occasions when it is hard to argue with the logic of leaving the agency world behind. This is certainly the case with David Cuff, the newly appointed commercial director of Flextech/Telewest, charged with maximising the revenue of the cable programmer and service provider. As the head of broadcast for Initiative points out, he would have been increasingly out of place had he remained with the agency.

'I'm interested in how the UK broadcast arena is developing,' he says.

'At agencies, you need to be platform neutral in your outlook, but I saw an opportunity to get more involved in this area and I wanted to join the pioneers.'

Those who have worked alongside Cuff attest to a personal work ethic that seems likely to fit well with a more corporate environment. 'He didn't have a particularly social style,' one source says. 'He was more of a nine-to-five man who'd sit in his office with his head down and work away.'

Cuff's interest in the potential of digital and interactive television has been his trademark over the past few years. He helped develop the UK's first interactive ad, for Chicken Tonight, last year and, predictably enough, he sees new-media opportunities as playing a major role in the future fortunes of his new employers.

'At the moment, interactive TV is not a significant part of theirs or anyone else's business,' he says. 'But there are people at Flextech who know that it will be. Spot advertising is still healthy but video on demand and digital bring a whole new set of advertising technologies that can work really hard. They can combine the detail of print with the targeting of direct sell and that's so valuable.'

Like any good strategist, Cuff doesn't talk about this potential in purely abstract terms. 'Dominos Pizza revolutionised their business through interactive advertising,' he argues. 'The feedback from consumers showed great satisfaction that they could order without having to talk to anyone. The signs are that digital users really want to master their handsets.'

When rhapsodising about the possibilities of digital technology transforming TV advertising, it's easy to characterise Cuff as a wide-eyed fanatic, blind to the weaknesses of his chosen medium.

However, former Initiative boss Tony Manwaring is quick to rubbish such a suggestion. 'He's not an evangelist and that's very important,' he says.

'I'd talk about him as a pragmatist who recognises potential and approaches the right opportunities with enthusiasm.'

And there are weaknesses in Flextech's position that Cuff will have weighed up when deciding on his move. Adland has hardly been blown away by the combination of service provision and programming that the company promised at its merger last year. In August, the roll-out of digital boxes was delayed by three months after problems with supply chips. Then Flextech parted company with Wolff Olins, which it had hired to develop its brand, indicating possible problems in its own marketing strategy.

With this in mind, is Flextech an opportunity which Cuff should be approaching with the enthusiasm he clearly has?

'From where I sit, the brand is in good shape,' he counters. 'When two companies come together, they always tend to be a bit quiet, but I've seen them come out of that. Flextech has advanced quite a bit and my appointment should send a signal to the market.'

He's right. Cuff's move is regarded by most of the industry as a great move by Flextech and a potentially disastrous loss to Initiative. And despite Cuff's obvious enthusiasm about his future, he's aware that it's his agency background that makes him so valuable an asset.

'Hopefully, they'll get from me a dose of understanding about the difficult job agencies do in the current working environment,' he says of Flextech. 'People in agencies get fed up with the waffle surrounding digital and interactive. They would like broadcasters to make it simple for them. We've got to create business models where everyone makes money.'



Topics