Media Headliner: Mark Howe touches down on planet Google

How will the solid citizen and former airtime salesman adapt to life at the world's biggest search engine, Alasdair Reid asks.

Mark Howe was unable to talk to Campaign for this profile piece.

Having just been appointed managing director of Google UK, he'd been spirited away to the US for what we can only assume was an induction and reorientation programme - similar, perhaps, to the one involved in joining a cult.

"We're sort of keeping him under wraps, currently," one helpful Google press officer said. His many friends in the UK hope he has survived the experience.

Let's be honest, before last week's announcement, the words "Mark Howe" and "Google" would have seemed unlikely cohabitants of the same sentence.

It's a cultural thing. True, he spent many years selling the digital interactive media future in his previous role as the boss of the ids sales house; but Howe is a solid citizen, a rugger chap and a man who has rowed internationally for England and picked up the odd medal at the Henley Regatta.

Whereas Google has come to occupy a prime location in down-town La-La Land. Even reporters from that cheerleader of the digital avant-garde, Wired, have been somewhat taken aback by the living cliche that is the Google headquarters in Mountain View, California.

It's just too Silicon Valley for its own sake.

The baby grand piano in the foyer, the scooters leaning against walls, the exercise balls littering the place, the roller-hockey equipment, the toys cluttering up the building. The outings where the whole company attends Harry Potter films. The fact that the cafeteria manager was until recently employed by The Grateful Dead.

Wild. But not exactly Howe, we think. That's not to say that he's dull, though again it's true that some in the business haven't always found him the most charismatic of sales bosses - in a TV trading arena inhabited by more than its fair share of louche lounge-lizards and unwitting clowns, he stands accused by some of being unremittingly sincere.

It's not true, those who know what he's really like say. Once upon a time, they point out, he had a bit of a bonkers reputation - he would cheerfully set fire to his chest hair or eat a wine glass as part of his contribution to the evening's entertainment. He was even known to indulge in David Brent-style displays of embarrassing dancing.

But, clearly, the high-energy social animal has mellowed significantly. After all, he has been in airtime sales since 1985, and started selling what are now Flextech/ids channels in 1993. As one TV buyer puts it: "He has evolved into the consummate corporate man and sometimes, these days, when he's socialising with clients, he makes the mistake of never switching off and selling to them the whole time. But even in sales mode, he can be passionate and feisty. At ids, as his focus became less customer-facing and more inward-looking, he was a superb motivator and leader."

Howe is married with three children and a wife described affectionately by many as "high maintenance", largely, it seems, on the basis of her penchant for shoes. He still has the competitive streak that made him an obsessive when it came to rowing - though that has left him with a legacy of serious back problems. These days, the never-say-die spirit is channelled into golf (he is unanimously described as rubbish) and skiing, where he has developed a dangerously idiosyncratic style - he hurtles down mountainsides in an unveering trajectory reminiscent of a guided missile. You can imagine the fixed expression on his face.

Chris Locke, Starcom's group trading director, not a man known to tolerate fools gladly, admits he's a fan. He states: "I don't think it's a surprise to see him turn up in the space Google occupies. In the TV world, he was always banging on about the importance of going beyond spot advertising and although ids was interesting in that respect, it was frustrating too."

He walked out of ids early last year. His role was due to change thanks to the merger of its parent company, Telewest, with ntl. But, in any case, he was said to be feeling disgruntled at an internal investigation, instigated by US management, into allegations of unorthodox incentive payments to media agencies. Howe was cleared of any impropriety, but he was less than amused by the whole episode.

In his new role, his task will be to supercharge Google's paid-for search revenues but, interestingly, he will walk straight into another trading controversy - last year Google announced that it was to stop giving agencies a standard 15 per cent commission rate and introduce a sliding scale.

Undercurrents of ill-will are likely to make his culturally challenging new world seem even more alien - though former colleagues argue that the cultural leap demanded by a move to planet Google isn't actually as far as you'd think. Apparently, ids at one stage had a PlayStation on every desk.

But will he genuinely find it easy to build a rapport with the sorts of people who tend to fetch up at new-media agencies? "The truth is that there's already a new game in town," Locke says. "The structure of agencies is changing. People like me are now responsible for digital and the nature of the relationship (with that media sector) is changing. It now makes a big difference for Google if it has bigger-world media contacts."

And, actually, the whole of the new-media world is ready to embrace the likes of Mark Chippendale - formerly Sky's sales boss, now at Yahoo! - and Howe at Google. "After the last consultation process we went through with Google, I can safely say I've never been so consulted in all my life," Charlie Dobres, the chairman of Generator Consulting and a founder of i-level, says, perhaps referring to Google's commission controversy. "So if there is a significant change down there in terms of how customers are treated, I would hugely welcome it. If Mark Howe genuinely engages with us, then we'll welcome him with open arms and a box of chocolates."

Topics