Media Headliner - John Perriss

Tough media survivor sees a global game plan fall his way - John Perriss is basking in his better-late-than-never predictions, writes Ian Darby.

Everybody in media keeps boasting about how big they are. The

current jostling for top slot in the global media rankings has come to

resemble a bunch of overly competitive men comparing the size of their


In which case John Perriss, the newly installed chief executive of the

Publicis Groupe's super-agency Zenith Optimedia, has arrived at the

table with the fourth-largest in town.

Perriss is not as boastful as some of his rivals, but says: "There is

this debate about research, and the thing about size is that it enables

you to hire good people in that area and create good resources. You're

handicapped when you're small."

The decision to link the Zenith and Optimedia brands will also bring

increased buying clout, with Perriss saying that the next task is to

examine ways of working together in each market.

Perriss says he has always had the ambition to run a global media


His proposition to Maurice Saatchi in 1986, when he was the media

director at Saatchi & Saatchi, was that within five years the media

industry would be dominated by five or six global players and the agency

needed to back a specialist media brand to capitalise on this. The birth

of Zenith followed in 1988, though Perriss admits he overestimated the

speed of change.

"I got the timing of how quickly all this would happen hopelessly wrong,

but we are one of those (networks) now," he says.

The impressive thing about Perriss is that he is a great survivor. After

more than 30 years in the media business he is still landing bigger,

better jobs. As he puts it: "At the point when a lot of people thought I

was going off into the sunset this happens, and I'm going to be around

for some time now."

Those who know Perriss say that this is because he is an extremely tough

operator. He is self-effacing, affable and charming, but this disguises

his ruthless ambition. Martin Bowley, the chief executive of Carlton

Sales, says: "He's the perfect man for this role. All those years ago he

had the idea of forming Zenith. The most obvious quality he has is


He's still there. He hasn't just hung on, he's driven things, perhaps

because he has some of that original Saatchi pioneering spirit."

Perriss' ambitions have long been of a global kind, he singles out the

creation of Zenith in the US as his proudest moment since launching the

agency, and he is relishing the task of attempting to drive Zenith

Optimedia even further up the league table.

But when he is not doing his big job in his big agency, what does

Perriss get up to? Well, his twin passions are horses and blues music.

He owns two thoroughbred steeplechasers and several other horses, and is

a keen rider.

Perriss' love of blues music, perhaps, stems from his brother-in-law,

the musician Nick Lowe, but is so detailed that Bowley says Perriss once

reeled off details of every good blues bar and club in Chicago ahead of

Bowley's trip there.

The media knowledge possessed by Perriss has been invaluable to many,

but none more so than to the founders of The Independent who, 15 years

ago, turned to him to help with the launch. Perriss recalls his words to

the founding editor, Andreas Whittam Smith.

"I said, 'You seem to be a person of some substance, with a good job and

a house and family, why would you want to blow it all on a madcap scheme

like this?'" But Perriss threw himself into it and helped The

Independent secure £18 million of City funding.

You also notice Perriss' generosity. He attributes Zenith's success not

to his own ability, but to having a good team around him and he goes out

of his way to praise current management, including Steve King and the UK

chief executive, Simon Marquis.

The only doubts surrounding Perriss' reputation are raised by those who

feel that Zenith as a UK operation has lost its way since its heyday,

and took its eye off the ball in allowing Carat to take its number-one

crown in the UK.

However, the creation of Zenith Optimedia is designed to strengthen the

two individual operations. It is also a reflection of Perriss' belief

that media is now a global game and that you've got to be bigger than

the next man.


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