Media Headliner: Can the media mavericks adapt to Mindshare?

Will George Michaelides and Graham Bednash be up to the challenge of driving Mindshare's Invention, Alasdair Reid asks.

As you'd probably expect, the Michaelides & Bednash website is (or was) ever so slightly left-field. Not for M&B the fact-rich hierarchical directory of services, personnel biographies and client case histories. Instead, there's basically a video loop of Graham Bednash sitting at his desk, fidgeting and compulsively rearranging his accoutrements as he waits forlornly for the phone to ring.

Imagine his surprise when one day the phone does indeed ring and there is Nick Emery, the chief strategy officer of Mindshare, on the other end, proposing that M&B call it a day, ditch the agency name (and a heritage built up over more than a decade) and come and work for him as wage slaves. In turn, imagine Emery's surprise when Bednash says: "Oh, alright then."

There's a somewhat cruel interpretation to this turn of events, obviously. There will always be those who reckon it a failure if, after battling to launch, establish and lovingly grow their company for more than a decade, the founders of an agency don't manage to sell it for an embarrassingly large sum of money when the time is right.

No money is changing hands here. The M&B agency, including the two founders and their seven staff, will merely be absorbed into Invention - a Mindshare division housing "creative thinking" plus digital content, programming, sponsorship and planning.

Actually, "absorbed" sells this proposition slightly short. M&B will be expected to provide the leadership and know-how to make Invention a force to be reckoned with on a worldwide basis; they will also lead a dedicated unit working on Mindshare's Unilever account.

And this, actually, is probably the nub of the story - when M&B lost its Channel 4 account in August, Unilever became an even more dominant presence on M&B's remaining client list. Yet George Michaelides says that in recent times, he and Bednash have listened to several proposals, often from creative agencies who've clearly been in the market for a media boutique to bolt on. The implication is that there would have been a pay day on offer by going down that route - but it would have felt like a cop-out.

"We've never had numerical ambitions in that sense," he explains. "What we do find exciting is the opportunity to make a genuine difference on a bigger stage. Mindshare offers that."

And if there are sceptics out there, they're probably the very people who've spent the past decade being slightly sniffy about M&B's original vision when it launched in 1995 - and the new wave of communications planning agencies that it supposedly spawned.

Michaelides and Bednash first met at Gold Greenlees Trott in the 80s, where the former was a media man (rising to deputy media director) and the latter was an account man turned account planner. They really hit their stride when, having followed Steve Henry and Axel Chaldecott to their new start-up, Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury, they were paired up to lead a new type of in-house media operation.

They did radical things such as forming focus groups drawn from the target audience of a particular campaign and asking them which TV programmes they watched and what they felt about them.

They then bought into specific programmes - almost unheard of in those days, when TV was routinely planned on the basis of commodity ratings packages against specific demographic groups. And M&B had the audacity to invent their own demographic groups, such as "Marie Claire readers" - as against the impersonal conventions ("16- to 34-year-old women") of mainstream media research.

Which, predictably, mainstream media practitioners took as an affront to their inherited wisdom - and the market liked it even less when M&B, having set up their own agency, looked to create even bigger ideas. The agency, for instance, pioneered the notion of developing big picture media properties for clients, the most famous arguably being a Ladybird book, How It Works: Shopping on the Internet, a genuine proposition sold in bookstores, but essentially a marketing vehicle for Beeb.com; and the rebranding of Channel 4's cricket coverage to give us all, for instance, an Indian Summer.

It even positioned itself in the creative agency space as a "brand activator"; and more recently, it has been attempting to reinvent the creative process by pairing a traditional creative with a strategic media person to form a new discipline called co-creation. It is this sort of initiative that the tribe known formerly as M&B will be asked to take forward at Mindshare.

Bednash talks of the huge influence that Messrs Howell, Henry, Chaldecott and Lury had on him and the compulsion he feels about keeping their revolutionary creative spirit alive; Michaelides echoes that and adds that he draws continual inspiration from the works of the US creative genius George Lois. The notion that Mindshare wants some of that too is surely an indication of the extent to which it has already evolved - and its determination to stay the pace. We'll see, of course.

It will be interesting to see how Michaelides and Bednash will rub along with Emery and his no-nonsense, plain-speaking, often grouchy outlook on the world. Bednash has the seemingly effortless charm of a former account man; while Michaelides is usually pigeonholed towards the more maverick end of the media guru spectrum. The three are not exactly peas in a pod.

But, as Bednash points out, all three share a mischievously wry sense of humour - and if you're prepared to look beyond the cliched thinking about M&B, he asserts, you'd be forced to agree that one of its defining characteristics is that, Emery-like, it's not prepared to tolerate bullshit.

Meanwhile, Michaelides is comfortable with the notion that there may be sceptics out there - particularly as to their ability to work fruitfully with Mindshare. That, he says, is part of the challenge.

"I'm glad some people are surprised," he admits. "I'd have been disappointed if they weren't. That's part of the challenge. It's what makes it interesting for us. It's part of our pioneering spirit. We're always moving forward."

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