Media Headliner: 'Probably the most important person at ITV'

Gary Digby has led the broadcaster through the CRR minefield, but his battle is far from over. Alasdair Reid reports.

Strange days at ITV. When we put a call in to the network's corporate press office to explain what we're up to, we don't exactly get the response we'd been expecting.

Admittedly, we get off on the wrong foot when we open with a smart aleck sort of a gambit. We're planning a piece advancing the theory (we explain) that ITV's situation following the latest Contract Rights Renewal ruling is, in the words of an obscure 60s film comedy, "hopeless but not serious".

There's a silence at the other end of the line. It feels like it's a slight- ly uncomfortable silence. So we plough on. Actually, what we want to do is a piece outlining how Gary Digby, the customer relations director, has saved ITV. How, though he may not be fashionable in some circles, Digby, or "Diggers", as he is known in the airtime market, has been doing a brilliant job in extremely difficult circumstances. And this will stand ITV in good stead as it gets over its CRR disappointment and moves forward.

Another pause. "Would we be implying that ITV has been in any way bending the rules?" Yes, we reply. That's to say, no, of course not. Absolutely not. In other words, in actual fact... er, um...

Oh heavens. We thought this was going to be rather plain sailing. Instead, we find that our piece may be deemed to have "serious implications for ITV plc" and that it is therefore unlikely that the aforesaid ITV plc will be able to collude in such an exercise.

And, on reflection, you can sort of see why the network might currently feel compelled to succumb to a bad case of the jitters. All that hoo-hah about whether Tony Ball would actually be joining as chief executive. Then the shock it received when it discovered last week that it was not (as it had been led to believe earlier this year) going to be granted any immediate loosening of CRR. This at a time when everyone's gearing up for the annual television airtime negotiation season - and the ITV share price took a slight tumble last week.

CRR, a market remedy put in place back in 2003 to allow Carlton and Granada to merge, creating a single ITV company (and thus a dominant sales proposition), puts a cap on what ITV is allowed to charge for airtime on its flagship ITV1 channel. So, as ITV1's audience share declines, so does its share of the total television advertising pot.

Digby, however, has done a stunningly good job in ensuring (without, we are happy to emphasise, resorting to an insidious practice known as "conditional selling") that any money leaving by the ITV1 front door is escorted round the back and is invited into the digital domain occupied by ITVs 2, 3 and 4.

It is highly likely that the ITV family's share of television revenue will actually be higher in 2009, compared with 2008. "He's just an outstandingly good negotiator," Andy Jones, the chief executive of Universal McCann, says. "Some people think that means some-thing to do with bullying. It doesn't. He's a very funny, witty, decent bloke. He's never lost for words and he knows his case. There's just hardly anyone else of his calibre in the market."

And yet it's also true that in all the speculation about the future of ITV, his name is hardly ever mentioned. He was passed over with (in hindsight) astonishing ease when the job of commercial director became available with the departure of Ian McCulloch in the summer of 2007. Tess Alps, Jim Hytner, Nick Milligan and Andy Barnes were all linked with the job before it was handed to the slightly left-field option Rupert Howell, who was installed as Digby's boss in September 2007.

Howell has since been linked with the very top job itself as Michael Grade prepares to depart - but, through it all, it has been Digby (ably backed by a senior team including Simon Lent, Gary Knight and Ben Allen) who's kept the ITV engine running.

There are those who even argue that he's actually becoming a bit more user-friendly these days. And, after all, he's not entirely ignorant of the broader advertising agency perspective - he was part of a strong McCann Erickson media department in the mid-80s (other old boys include Chris Locke, Chris Hayward, Jones, Stuart Cox and Mick Perry) and also did time at Collett Dickenson Pearce and BBDO before opting for a career on the sales side.

He's something of a gym obsessive (though there are those who maintain they've never seen the results) and has a touch of notoriety for being a bit of a bandit at golf. He plays off seven officially but, in reality, he plays more like a three handicapper, which means he almost always takes the money.

And, some say, he'd be playing in an entirely different business league if he spent more time on the old Dale Carnegie arts of winning friends and influencing people.

As one source puts it: "Digby's problem, in a corporate sense, is that he's a bit too brutally honest for his own good. He won't stand there in the pub and command an audience. Touchy-feely he is not, but he is demanding and rigorous - and the attitude seems to be that (the corporate hierarchy) just has to respect that. So perhaps it's true he needs to work on that side of things."

Martin Bowley, now the managing director of DCM, but previously an ITV colleague of Digby's, will, if pushed, concede there's a tiny element of truth in that. But he has all the time in the world for him. He says: "You should never underestimate how complex the ITV sales job is. The first thing the new chief executive should do is give Digby a big hug. The second thing he needs to do is put in place a structure that has Digby reporting straight into him. It might be true that he's more Jack Dee than Michael McIntyre, but, the truth is, Digby is probably the most important person in the building right now."