Media Headliner: Punter vows to make LinkedIn first for business

A little over a year after leaving CBS Outdoor, Clive Punter returns to transfer his skills to the online market.

Most corporate high-fliers, who, after leaving a company where they had spent the greater part of their adult life loyally and frantically clambering up the greasy career pole, would take the opportunity to take a break, take stock and - perfectly understandably - perhaps choose a change of pace and lifestyle.

But then Clive Punter, LinkedIn's new star hiring, isn't most people. Yes, after leaving CBS Outdoor in August 2009, Punter surprised many by treating himself and his family to an extended break, taking in 14 countries - he even took his children out of school before disappearing off to explore Africa.

But when he returned he hadn't come back barefoot and wearing beads and a kaftan, keen to eschew the corporate world that had appeared to swallow him up before spitting him out. Not for him some rebirth or newly discovered soul with a burning desire to make a difference rather than make money. There was no divine intervention, no scales fell from his eyes and no new commitment to dedicating his life to an elephant charity.

No. Punter returned and took some consultancy work at the professional network LinkedIn before landing the new job of managing director of marketing solutions EMEA last week. Clive Punter and LinkedIn: two entities that love and live off corporate life. It seems to be a match made in heaven.

Few people so epitomise contemporary business culture - both its vices and its virtues - as Punter. Slick, professional, customer- focused, efficient, dehumanised - all words that, some observers say, apply to both.

For LinkedIn, with more than 80 million worldwide business members, has hired someone who appears to be not only its perfect ambassador but also the epitome of the brand itself - the white-toothed, golf-loving, busy corporate executive always striving to extend his business connections.

Punter says that he is looking forward to getting these pearly gnashers into his new job: "I have an opportunity to transfer my skills in building successful global operations in a relatively mature area of the industry to an online advertising business with fantastic growth potential and where I can add some real value."

He adds that he wants LinkedIn to be the "number one destination for premium or business-to-business marketers".

The slick salesman is likely to do a good job of convincing advertisers and agencies that LinkedIn.com - with its 14.5 million unique monthly users in Europe (more than Economist.com, FT.com or Businessweek.com achieve globally) - is now the only medium that matters.

But then there's no avoiding the fact that he used to tell these same people that it was outdoor. His time at CBS Outdoor must provide him with both great pride and also some sadness - although he claims that he has no regrets about his time there. Nonetheless, it can't be avoided that after dedicating the best part of 15 years to getting the top job, Punter's tenure was remarkably brief.

As the chief executive of CBS Outdoor International, insiders say that he and the team he had built around him were quickly - and not entirely fairly - identified as the fall guys for an underperformance by the company.

With the global economy in turmoil and advertising revenues consequently in freefall, the London Underground contract, which CBS Outdoor had won in a bitter head-to-head battle with JCDecaux, now looked like a bad asset on its books and hence a bad business decision.

As it turned out, it also proved to be a bad career decision for Punter and his cohorts. Insiders say that CBS's finger of blame was pointed at them, and first its UK chief operating officer, Andrew Oldham, then Punter and, finally, the CBS Outdoor UK managing director, Tim Bleakley, left the company.

He took the appointment of his replacement (Antonio Alonso, who previously reported to him) very personally, according to friends. Given his loyal service to the company, this is not surprising and there remains some sympathy for the way he was treated.

"You can't blame Clive for the London Underground contract," one outdoor specialist says. "Yes, with the power of hindsight, the straight-line revenue growth that they expected looked naive but it was essential that they retained this piece of business."

The balance of the difference between what CBS Outdoor was paying Transport for London and how much it received in ad revenue only became public after Punter's departure. Tube ad revenues declined by 5.5 per cent over the past four years, while the amount paid by CBS Outdoor to TfL increased by 62 per cent.

But that is in the past and while the blame for this does not entirely land at Punter's feet, it does, perhaps, act as a warning to those who are tempted to allow ambition to get the better of them.

So what does LinkedIn get for its money? A slick operator who is credited by friends as being a "fantastic salesman" and a man equally expert at building teams as he is at relationships with customers.

"There's a lot more good to Clive than bad. He's slick and ultra-professional," Bleakley says.

And what of the man in the suit, with the ambition and the drive and the smooth sales patter - the corporate player down to his company label badge and tie-pin who perhaps flew too close to the sun? In truth, no-one really seems to know.

THE LOWDOWN
Age: 43
Family: Married to wife George, with two boys Thomas and Wils
Lives: Berkshire
Car: Land Rover Discovery
Interests: outside work Skiing, skiing, skiing

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