John Owen celebrates five years of MGM this Sunday with a look at its
It is 1 February 1991, two-and-a-half months after the launch of Manning
Gottlieb Media. Colin Gottlieb and Nick Manning are moving into the
first-floor offices in Covent Garden, London, which will become home to
the new media independent. The postman arrives. ‘You a new company,
then?’ enquires the friendly fellow. ‘Yes,’ the young hopefuls reply.
‘Tch,’ mutters the postman. ‘You won’t be around for long.’
On the face of it, November 1990 was a bad time to launch a business.
The recession wasn’t just biting the UK economy, it was threatening to
swallow it up.
But the postman was wrong. Five years on, and Manning and Gottlieb
preside over a company that can boast billings of pounds 50 million and
blue-chip clients such as Sony, Nike and Virgin.
‘If you’d asked me when we started where I’d like to be in five years’
time, I couldn’t have asked for more,’ Gottlieb says.
The company has grown to fill all three floors of the building and, in
spring next year, it will uproot from the endearing, but shambolic,
charm of Tavistock Street to a quiet mews off Portman Square.
The move, coming so soon after its fifth birthday, will be a watershed
for MGM. It is a clear sign of both its success and the partners’
continued desire for growth. But it also poses the inevitable question
of whether this small independent, with a reputation for clever ideas,
can keep its usp as it gets bigger.
As Gottlieb acknowledges, this is the challenge. For all the hard work
and the need to make a profit, MGM is also a fun place to work, Gottlieb
says. It is crucial that the agency does not lose this.
‘Hopefully, it’s a virtuous circle,’ he says. ‘If you’ve got a
profitable company, are attracting the right sort of clients and have an
atmosphere that attracts the right type of people, those people add to
the atmosphere and attract more of the right type of clients, which
gives you growth.’
The emphasis on the ‘right type’ of client is key because, as Gottlieb
points out, it’s the clients that ultimately define the MGM brand.
Manning models MGM’s growth plans on one of its clients, Virgin:
‘Richard Branson tries to keep his businesses in tight, compact groups
because he believes you get better quality from small teams interacting
with each other,’ he declares. ‘It’s something we have here, and we want
to maintain that as we grow.’
But, unlike many small start-ups, MGM has never been truly small. Where
size really matters - in the volume-driven TV market - it is widely
understood that Carat, which took a small stake in MGM one month after
its launch, handles the big negotiations.
Manning refuses to be drawn on the exact nature of the relationship. ‘It
gives our clients a sense of security,’ he concedes. ‘They know MGM
isn’t floating on its own in the big ocean.’
The Carat link is one of the reasons why MGM’s detractors tend to view
it as less than independent. An even bigger shadow was cast by the fact
that Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow and Johnson had a majority stake in
the early years. As Manning and Gottlieb have hit their profit targets,
they have been able slowly to take control of Simons Palmer’s stake,
which currently stands at 43 per cent. If they continue to do so, the
agency will own little more than 30 per cent by the year 2000.
Gottlieb says it was Paul Simons who convinced them to accept the
agency’s backing while they were working together on some Simons Palmer
business at CIA Billett. ‘Had Simons not had the sheer chutzpah to ask
us, we may not have had the bottle,’ Gottlieb says.
Simons is less eager to take the credit. ‘We encouraged them,’ he says.
‘They needed a nudge.’
The venture was as much a financial investment as it was a strategic
move to gain a media partner. And very lucrative it has proved, too,
Eighty per cent of MGM’s clients are now outside of Simons Palmer. The
company works with a variety of other agencies, from BMP DDB Needham and
J. Walter Thompson to smaller creative hotshops such as Rainey Kelly
And just as the pair have learned business lessons from their clients,
they have copied the way agencies such as Rainey Kelly are run. ‘We want
to be more like some of the agencies we work with,’ Gottlieb says,
‘where the partners aren’t stiff, you don’t get dark looks if you’re a
bit late and people are allowed to get on with what they’re doing.’
Gottlieb personifies this attitude more obviously than Manning, who is
said to be as stern as they come when necessary.
‘They’re very different as individuals,’ says David Pattison, a partner
at MGM’s rival, Pattison Horswell Durden. ‘That’s one of their great
The MGM file
1980 Nick Manning joins Chris Ingram Associates
1986 Colin Gottlieb joins Chris Ingram Associates
1990 MGM formed as part of Simons Palmer group
1994 MGM attains independence from Simons Palmer group