Media Headliner: No going back to the future for ZenithOptimedia

Alasdair Reid is told why the media agency's dramatic restructure does not amount to a divorce and a return to the old ways.

We encounter ZenithOptimedia's top brass in slightly jittery (them, not us) mood. Initially, that is - they soon regain their poise and equanimity, as you would expect. Grace under pressure is one of the very first boxes you have to tick if you want to get to the very top in a service industry. And Gerry Boyle, Stephen Farquhar and Mark Howley didn't get where they are today without recognising a mild crisis management scenario when they see one.

They were caught somewhat on the hop early last week when rumours of the proposed decoupling of the group's two component agencies (Zenith Media and Optimedia, as they were known before their shotgun wedding in 2001) began to leak out. They weren't planning to go public quite yet.

They'd hoped, for instance, to conclude more in-depth talks with all of ZenithOptimedia's clients - because, until all the clients are resettled in the proposed new structure, it won't be wise to talk definitively about the nature of that structure or, indeed, the personalities of the two new units. These things aren't defined by theory - they have to be edged towards in an iterative process.

Last week, Boyle and Howley had hectic back-to-back schedules in place and Farquhar was actually on holiday. The last thing they were expecting was a PR fandango. So there's a bit of frantic rescheduling to be done just to get some photos taken. We're asked in return not to ask too many difficult questions.

That doesn't stop us speculating, though. The confirmed facts are these: Farquhar, ZenithOptimedia's head of strategy, will become the managing director of Zenith Media; while ZenithOptimedia's managing partner, Mark Howley, will become the managing director of Optimedia. They will both report to Gerry Boyle, who continues as the group chief executive.

Boyle will also oversee a group management team including Barry Lee, who becomes the group head of digital, and Tim Neligan, who becomes the group chief operating officer. The smaller operating units Zed Media and Equinox will close and their current managing directors, Paul Constantine and Kevin Morton, will be assigned new roles.

Other appointments see Christian Lee becoming the group commercial director and Oliver Harwood-Matthews taking on marketing and new-business duties. Mark Waugh will retain client duties but also work on development of the group's Newcast unit, which is not only being retained but is being rolled out globally.

But the spotlight is very clearly on Farquhar and Howley - and the speculation across town has centred on the likely character of their two new operating units.

Or actually, in short, whether these are really "new" operating units at all. Before 2001, Zenith Media was the original engine-shed-style buying factory; whereas Optimedia was more of a boutique-style, planning-led agency.

The theory at the time was that the merger of these two Publicis-owned units was motivated by internal power politics. It made little sense then - and this move, the conspiracy theorists aver, is a belated admission that it didn't really work.

So this latest structure, some observers say, could add up to a "back to the future" scenario. But those same observers tend to undermine that theory by pointing out that Farquhar (who's positioned himself recently as a cutting-edge strategic planning talent) should be the Optimedia man, while Howley, more of a corporate safe pair of hands, those who know him say, should be the engine shed boy.

And it would probably be true to say that, though Farquhar is the brasher of the two and Howley is quieter and more measured, they probably share more similarities than differences. Both served apprenticeships at full-service agencies and both have done equal amounts of time as fiercely loyal lieutenants to Boyle.

And, they can reveal, there is no desire to recreate the old brands. Nor, in fact, is there any plan to create distinct brand positionings.

"That isn't the aim," Howley says. "We're not going to be playing on the differences. We would hope that any client would be happy with either agency. That might change. The culture of an agency is created by the client base, so we'll have to see in three years' time."

In fact, both operating units will continue to trade off the existing ZenithOptimedia "ROI agency" tagline; and they will remain in the same Percy Street building.

The move, Farquhar adds, aligns the UK with other major markets, which have always retained Optimedia and Zenith Media as two separate client-facing entities. And, after all, the trading side of the business continues to be conducted at group level - and at super-group level through VivaKi.

In short, it's all slightly reminiscent of the structure that has evolved over recent years at ZenithOptimedia's sister operation, also owned by Publicis, Starcom MediaVest Group.

What it does deliver, clearly, is room for growth - at a new-business level where client conflict is concerned; and, perhaps equally pertinently, for the individuals involved too. And there are few obvious downsides here. For instance, it seems unlikely - as has been the case at other agency groups when two contemporaries have been made joint heir apparents - that this will ever evolve into a debilitating Macbeth-style power struggle.

Howley and Farquhar clearly get on very well indeed, teasing each and acting up about former sporting rivalries, particularly on the squash court. If we were going to be cute, we might suggest that they represent two facets of Boyle's (a brainy Glaswegian who can be, when the mood takes him, rather Glaswegian indeed) psyche. His yin and yang. His alpha and omega. Thankfully, though, we just don't have it in us to be that pretentious.

All three freely admit there's a level of trust and understanding that binds them together. But Farquhar parries any suggestion that the restructure is merely a way of rewarding good behaviour and engineering promotions for both himself and Howley. Or, at least, he modifies this proposition, concluding: "Yes, it's growth for us but, equally importantly, it's growth for the teams below us. The bigger issue is about developing the next level of leaders."

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