Media Headliner: The man who runs the £1 billion media agency

Despite his company's huge billings, MediaCom's Nick Lawson maintains being number one isn't everything.

Nick Lawson never looks entirely content. In lighter moments, he wears an expression that might be found on a chap who has just been handed the "best-dressed man in a Wetherspoon's pub" award. Underwhelmed and a little angry.

Which is odd really, given that the agency he runs, MediaCom, is more Claridge's than Wetherspoon's. It has just, according to unofficial updates of Nielsen Media Research 2007 figures, become the first UK media agency to bill £1 billion. On official measures, the agency retained its number-one slot for the sixth year running (after knocking Carat off top spot in 2002) and grew its billings by 7.9 per cent.

All good reasons to crack out the creme de menthe? Absolutely not, the determinedly focused Lawson concludes. Complacency is anathema to Lawson and the rest of his senior team. He says of hitting the £1 billion mark: "Does it matter to clients? No. Emotionally to people at the agency? Probably not. But it's a landmark, and size is important - media buying and negotiation is important and Group M supports us in this. But can you rely on this to keep clients happy? It's a small factor."

We meet in the reception area of MediaCom's Holborn HQ. Before MediaCom moved in, just over a year ago, the office housed the media parent company Group M and seemed the epitome of corporateness. Tim Burton might have used it in his Batman movies as the HQ of an evil banking empire.

But MediaCom has worked on softening this look. As you enter the building, you're welcomed by receptionists perched on designer stools, the informal cafe area is buzzing with meetings and, wait for it, there's a spiral staircase. Then, behind some double doors, is revealed the recently completed bar, Rich's (a tribute to the former MediaCom chairman Allan Rich), which has been lovingly designed to a brief from MediaCom's staff.

Lawson, 42, cites the effort put into the building as an example of the agency's obsession with its staff. This is encapsulated in its "people first, better results" mantra. He says that although MediaCom is large (it employs more than 500 staff), it attempts to maintain a small agency culture, and that there is a core of 15 people who have been with the agency and run it for the past ten years or so.

Observers say MediaCom's close senior team is key to its success. For instance, the managing director, Jane Ratcliffe, alongside the marketing director, Karen Blackett, is responsible for much of its internal communications and staff initiatives. Lawson says he hates the idea that individual "rainmakers" can make or build an agency: "I don't like the cult of personality, it's ridiculous to think that one person is responsible for an agency this size. It's all about teamwork - and as a result, we react faster."

Constantly using sporting analogies, Lawson talks of "strength in depth", and the MediaCom team as a "squad". It's not quite Ron Manager, but you get the picture. And laying out the jumpers for goalposts is Ratcliffe. She is pleased that the agency's churn rate is well below 20 per cent and says the agency always tries to make things interesting for staff. "If you have people outside their comfort zone, where they're learning and stretching, then you don't lose them," she explains.

Signs of a healthy agency culture include "If I Ran the Company", an annual event, where the agency splits into groups and puts forward ideas for the future. Previous ideas adopted include the company's carbon-neutral policy and a life coach programme. "We treat everybody here with respect and look to create an atmosphere where people can tell the truth. An atmosphere where everybody can help solve problems - not just people on the planning floor," Lawson argues.

As to future growth, one of Lawson's first acts as chief executive was to clean up the ownership of MediaCom Manchester, buying out the management to make it 100 per cent owned. He feels Media-Com's regional offering can now grow considerably. And despite a predictable slowdown in new business compared with the early years of the decade, there remain a few client gaps where the agency could increase its billings (notably travel - and the agency is pitching keenly for the TUI business). Then, inevitably, Lawson says digital represents a big opportunity for the agency, as it does for others.

Much of the speculation surrounding MediaCom in the past year or two has involved the possible impact on its culture following its absorption into WPP's Group M and the departure of four of Media-Com's UK executives, including the former chief executive Steve Allan, to run Group M's UK operations. This, of course, gave Lawson his opportunity for promotion (he was previously the joint managing director with Ratcliffe), but did the change have a serious impact on the business?

"We've not lost any senior people in those two years since," Lawson says. "People are naturally sceptical when there's a takeover situation, but as regards to the culture changing, we're in The Sunday Times' Best Companies to Work For and media owners still say that we have this really good culture."

Lawson says the target now is to keep the agency at number one, while becoming a "broader-based communications agency". However, almost with a smile, he concludes: "We're all more proud of the culture and working for each other than being number one."

MEDIACOM TIMELINE

January 1999: "Modern" MediaCom formed following merger of The Media Business with Grey's MediaCom.

January 2003: Overtakes Carat's billings to become UK's leading media agency group.

March 2005: Grey's acquisition by WPP is approved by Grey shareholders. Speculation begins as to MediaCom's role within WPP's media operations.

September 2005: WPP creates Group M UK management structure. Steve Allan, MediaCom's chief executive, takes the chief executive role, paving the way for Lawson's promotion to MediaCom chief executive.

February 2008: Maintains its number-one UK agency slot and claims billings greater than £1 billion.

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