Media Headliner: One of media's brightest thinkers takes step up

Stuart Bowden doesn't believe his strategic skills will be blunted by taking a management role at Vizeum, Ian Darby writes.

The Aegis-owned media agency BBJ was rebranded as Vizeum in 2003. This was the era of empty corporate names, such as Accenture and Consignia, that were painstakingly designed by branding agencies to help management teams in the new millennium maintain the illusion that they were reinventing the world.

At first, Vizeum seemed no different as it attracted more than a measure of derision for the name change. But then the agency achieved some degree of success as a strategy-led company in an era where buying scale seemed all-important.

Last year, though, as the downturn hit its full stride, Vizeum took a bit of a battering, losing two precious pieces of business in the shape of HBOS and the brewer Molson Coors. The critics were left to ponder if perhaps the Vizeum positioning was little more than smoke and mirrors, after all.

This hasn't prevented Stuart Bowden, the head of strategy at Mediaedge:cia, the media agency du jour, from jumping at the chance of joining Vizeum in the role of deputy managing director. He effectively replaces Matthew Hook, who is leaving to take an equivalent role leading Aegis' media strategy efforts in the US.

It's no surprise that Grant Millar, the managing director of Vizeum, has turned to Bowden to fill the role given that the two have history together. Millar was previously the head of media at BT and Bowden headed strategy on the business at its then agency PHD before moving in-house for 18 months to work as BT's head of communications strategy.

Millar is, unsurprisingly, enthusiastic about the appointment: "Our culture is very important to us and Stuart will fit in because he's a very modest guy and genuine. But he's also absolutely one of the best minds I've ever worked with, while remaining very grounded in terms of what media can do for business."

Bowden has worked at MEC for three years after being lured to the agency to play a part in its chief executive Tom George's plans to grow the business. Its success has been well documented and Bowden was the senior strategist on pitches including Orange and Lloyds Banking Group. He then headed day-to-day strategy on these accounts as well as parts of the agency's COI business.

It seems that Bowden wants to repeat MEC's success in a more senior role, steering Vizeum's strategic offering, while also playing a key part in its new-business drive.

Bowden admits to being very personally ambitious but says that this will gel with Vizeum's growth strategy. Those who know him only question whether his excellence as a strategist will be compromised by the demands of a broader management role. That's something Bowden dismisses: "There's a stable team here with a board of six people, some of whom have been here for ten years each. There's a collegiate sense and everybody has their responsibilities, so I'm not expecting to be involved in repitching our stationery contract. What I will focus on is the planning product measured by client success."

He argues that Vizeum's challenger mentality and the cutting-edge nature of some of its clients, such as Arqiva and Innocent, is a real attraction to him and that he will enjoy helping to build an agency of 120 people into a real force in UK media.

Daren Rubins, the managing director of PHD, worked with Bowden on the BT account and he says: "He's a very bright planner, one of the brightest stars in the industry. Stuart has a brilliant mind and it's almost as though he's not a media man, he's more like an account planner."

Bowden started his advertising career as a planner at Grey London on the Nokia and AOL business and has continued to enjoy working on clients at the vanguard of communications and technological change. He also has some strong views on the nature of strategists within media agencies, arguing that the big danger is that they become too dislocated from reality.

He says of joining Vizeum: "One of the challenges is how do we make strategy more of an everyday part of the client experience in the agency, not an ivory tower disconnected from clients' business?

"In recent history, we've been through the period of creative strategists being rock stars without impacting on the product in their own right. This wasn't successful in the long term and is not something that clients are willing to invest in."

Bowden believes that Vizeum offers something different because its team of six strategists all have their own specialisms and can contribute to Vizeum realising its aim of being "known for the quality of its strategy and to be paid on the basis of this".

This will be a significant challenge, especially if Vizeum, through new-business success, achieves greater scale. But Bowden says: "Vizeum should be a major player in the UK media market and, because of its people and positioning, it has a lot of potential that hasn't been fully realised yet. It's been a turbulent 18 months but Vizeum has some good momentum and it seems like the right time and the right place for my skills and ability to be put to use."

The concern for Vizeum, as Millar and Bowden are only too aware, surrounds whether it can move from the mid-sized market to land a significant chunk of business in the league of, say, Orange. At least in the current frenzied climate, it is likely to get the chance to do this.

Age: 38
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Family: Wife, Hester. Daughter, Liberty (two). Son pending (four weeks)
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Collection Of Lenore Doolan And Harold Morris by Leanne Shapton
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