MEDIA: Headliner - No signs of retiring as Gerster sets out for fresh challenges. Alec Gerster is set to move to Initiative after 30 years at Grey. Ian Darby reports

It seemed that Alec Gerster would be Grey forever. Most recently the chief executive of MediaCom in New York, he had worked at the network in one form or another for more than 30 years. But last week, it was announced that he would be moving over to Initiative Media Worldwide as its chief executive.

Gerster, 54, feels he needs a new challenge, and the Initiative job will clearly provide one. On the plus side, he joins a top-three global network with billings of more than $20 billion (compared with MediaCom's $11 billion).

But there is little doubt that Initiative needs to work on its offering, both globally and in the US, where in 2000 it lost its chunk of the £700 million Unilever planning and buying account to MindShare.

Gerster's task is twofold: take a hand in moving Initiative forward in the US, where it is derived from the Lintas-connected heritage of Western Media, while working in tandem with Marie-Jose Forissier, the network's chairman, on growing the network globally.

Gerster is seen as the "quiet man

of US media. Despite being MediaCom's worldwide chief executive, he has built less of a public profile in the US and overseas than the likes of Jon Mandel, who worked under Gerster as the joint managing director of MediaCom. Those who know Gerster point to his modesty. He prefers to talk about general developments in media, rather than his own ability.

He was keen to develop communication planning at MediaCom and holds robust views on the impact of digital ("I hope the industry isn't going to be blindsided by this digital revolution,

he has said in the past).

Gerster says he is taking the Initiative job because of the potential of the group: "Initiative is a leading name internationally, and its capabilities and focus at the local level are equally powerful."

Born in Connecticut, Gerster started his media career at a small agency in Chicago before moving to Grey in 1972. By 1981, he had risen to become the executive vice-president of media services.

Running Grey's media operations at the age of 33 was clearly no problem for Gerster. He oversaw the growth of Grey's media business throughout the 80s and 90s, first with the creation of the in-house media brand, Media Connection, and then with the unbundling of media from the creative offering and the launch of MediaCom as a standalone entity.

Gerster was also a serious operator in Grey Global Group, becoming the director of media ventures and making forays into new areas, such as the launch of MediaCom Digital in the US in 1999.

He will now hold considerable sway in Interpublic, reporting directly to the vice-chairman, David Bell. Bell says he hired Gerster because of his ability to explore new areas, such as digital, combined with strong US and international media experience. Bell adds: "He has an exceptional ability to work closely with an agency network partner, while running an independent media operation."

Vital to the development of Initiative, which has hit something of a wall, especially in terms of US growth, will be Gerster's relationship with Forissier. Like his predecessor, Lou Schultz, Gerster will focus on North America but there will be an increased emphasis on the global responsibility of working with Forissier on taking things forward.

Forissier says: "There is a challenge to unify the company. This mission is far from complete. Alec has a role in creating the vision and unification of the company while on a day-to-day operational level focusing on the States"

She says of Gerster: "He's a very mature listener, very professional. He is not a bully in his style but someone who thinks. He gives the impression that he is open minded about worldwide possibilities in a way that few US players are."

The task is to grow Initiative's network of 85 offices and build strong operations in the US and Europe. In the US, the Western culture has been supplemented by acquisitions, such as Botway, which previously handled Unilever's planning and buying, but Gerster and Forissier are keen to see more shared learning between the US and Europe. Forissier adds: "You can't have a huge media system unless there are strong US and European operations. The biggest advertising market is clearly the US but there is a danger in ignoring other markets."

Gerster will be challenged with exporting some of the European-based planning and research tools to the US and other parts of the network.

The hope is that a streamlined offering will appear more attractive as the network fights for new business.

By taking the Initiative job, Gerster has proved he's not ready to collect his pension just yet. But it will be interesting to see if his time at Grey has furnished him with the necessary energy and vision to take Initiative forward.


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