Media Headliner: MEC sets sights on big league after Orange win

Chief executive Tom George wants to make Mediaedge:cia not just a challenger brand but a big-hitter too, Ian Darby writes.

The celebrations finally wrapped up at 3.30am. Not bad going for a Monday night/Tuesday morning. The staff of Mediaedge:cia, led by its chief executive, Tom George, had been celebrating the capture of the £76 million Orange media account with their new client.

Not the typical start to a week at the agency, perhaps. Yet, as George explains, there was a real sense of achievement surrounding Orange. "It's the culmination of four years' work," he says. The thought of MEC landing such a prestigious and sizeable chunk of business those four years ago, when George arrived as the managing director from ZenithOptimedia, was unimaginable.

MEC's billings had dwindled to around £200 million, it had lived through a succession of underachieving management teams and, in the UK at least, seemed to have no future other than as the mediocre runt of the WPP media litter. Since then, though, three successive years of new-business growth, plus investment in the agency's diversified services such as sponsorship and digital, has improved its fortunes and catapulted billings to more than £500 million (if the Orange and other wins from this year are factored in).

George, 46, initially took some convincing to take on the managing director role (he was subsequently promoted to chief executive in November 2006). Rob Norman, the then chairman of the agency, initially approached him in October 2003. A succession of names, including David Wheldon, Fiona McAnena and Matt James, had failed to transform MEC's fortunes, and it took George until the following February to finally accept the job.

"My initial response was, 'why would anyone want to do a job at an agency that appears to be such a basket case'. But I thought, 'you know what, if I don't leave (Zenith) now, I never will'," George recalls. "If I got to MEC and didn't make a difference, why would I have been any different to the past five management teams that hadn't made a difference?"

The MEC move followed 15 years at Zenith, where George was latterly the deputy managing director. He came to media via management consultancy and then IT, having transferred from the IT department at Bates Dorland to media buying.

A Liverpool-born Catholic, George gained respect at Zenith for his work ethic and commercial ability; his work on retail business including Kingfisher, as well as broadcast buying for it, gave him a strong commercial grounding.

Greg Grimmer, the former commercial director at ZenithOptimedia, says: "He believes in people, and people enjoy working for him. He has loyal fans. He understands the business and is a bright bloke; and he knows it's about making money, whether talking to a client or a media owner."

Two factors seem to have driven MEC's growth: George's ambition, along with the clout that the creation of WPP's Group M media-holding group has provided. Observers say the Group M move was especially positive for MEC following WPP's acquisition of MediaCom and the appointment of Stephen Allan as Group M's UK chief executive.

Allan was, by all accounts, all over George and MEC, providing input on early pitches and ensuring the agency benefited from Group M opportunities. And George accepts that Group M has been vital in its success: "Early on, we had about 25 meetings with media owners, and all they could talk about was the CIA/ITV trading crisis of 1996. The consensus was that we were strong strategically, but couldn't buy our way out of a paper bag, so we really had to leverage Group M to counter the perception that buying-wise we were really weak. Since we've had the backing and clout of Group M it's not been mentioned once."

George set Campaign's current Media Agency of the Year what he describes as "ballsy targets". "We're still trying to be really ballsy and aspirational - we want to break into the top six," he says. "We need another £100 million billings, but I think we won't be far off next year. It's like there are two divisions - the top six and then the rest.

"We want to be MediaCom; we're used to be being branded a mid-sized agency, but I think it's often a mistake for those agencies to be seen as a challenger brand and get stuck. We want to be seen as a challenger brand but be large as well."

It hasn't all gone MEC's way, however. In January, just six months after winning BT's planning business, it failed to convert that into a big win when Publicis triumphed in a keenly contested pitch. Then in March, it lost the £16 million Nationwide business. MEC then lost its joint managing director Toby Jenner, a key player in transforming the business, who joined MediaCom in Sydney (he is soon to be replaced).

MEC has also failed to capture a truly integrated Orange account (despite MEC's gain of the online brand media, i-level will keep the digital direct response media). This, critics argue, is a sign of weakness in the agency's digital offering. "Rubbish," George counters. He maintains it has one of the stronger digital operations around, partly stemming from its heritage coming out of the Outrider brand.

Minor doubts aside, MEC seems well set and the George work ethic ("I'm not sure there's any other way of achieving success these days other than by working your bollocks off") is unlikely to subside any time soon. It seems the 3.30am parties are firmly reserved for special occasions.

Age: Old enough
Lives: Chiswick
Family: Separated; two daughters: Maggie and Emily, aged seven and three
Most treasured possession: My Archos MP3 player
Interests outside work: A sad old muso
Last book read: Fooled By Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Alternative career: Graphic design/illustrator (got to make some use of
my art A Level)