Media Headliner: 'Quiet man' of media takes on Starcom challenge

The new CEO at the media agency is an insider with a vision. In these tough times, he definitely needs one, Anne Cassidy says.

It's all change at Starcom MediaVest Group. Out goes the "friendly but tough" leadership of the former chief executive Linda Smith, and in comes a lesser-known quantity. Stewart Easterbrook has been quietly waiting in the wings at Starcom for more than ten years, and is now thrust into the industry spotlight.

A tad nerve-wracking? Perhaps. But Easterbrook isn't one to shy from a tough job. Quite the opposite. If he wasn't in this game, he says he'd love to manage Watford FC - an uphill struggle if ever there was one. Sibling rivalry may also have played a part in stoking Easterbrook's aspirations - his brother Steve is the UK chief executive of McDonald's (an account Easterbrook used to run at Starcom).

Easterbrook stresses that he's been well prepped: "I've been preparing for years in terms of my individual development. It's been a carefully planned process." Termed by some as "the quiet man in media" for his low-key approach, Easterbrook is known for getting on with the job in hand and inspiring tremendous loyalty in those who work for him. He takes on the chief executive role at SMG at a pivotal time for the agency.

It is difficult in conversation with him to avoid the elephant, or, more accurately, giant gorilla in the room. The recent loss of Cadbury to PHD was, he admits, a blow.

"I'd be lying if I said losing any business wasn't disappointing, because it always is. We've got to be very confident about what we've got to offer. We've got extremely talented people in our business," Easterbrook says.

He is careful to underline that the loss of Cadbury was no factor in Smith's departure: "It had nothing to do with the loss of Cadbury at all. I can 100 per cent guarantee that. It had everything to do with Linda getting some time back in her life."

Smith goes into a board director role at Starcom MediaVest Group, where she will be working on initiatives such as the agency's people-development programme. Easterbrook says the timing was one which suited Smith best: "She wanted to get to the point where she had reorganised the company and she felt that was the right moment to hand over the reins. She wanted to find a way to adjust the balance in her life."

Easterbrook is a Starcom veteran. He joined Leo Burnett 11 years ago on the planning and buying side and has stayed through several incarnations of the SMG offering. He's had so many different roles within SMG over the years that even he struggles to remember them all. Most recently he was made the chief operating officer and before that he was the group managing director at SMG UK. He's also been the managing director at Starcom and the operations director at MediaVest, a constant in an ever-mutating company.

With Easterbrook's appointment, it appears SMG is getting firmly back to its roots. He takes his place alongside SMG patriarchs such as the EMEA chief executive, Iain Jacob, the group trading director, Chris Locke, and the chairman, Jim Marshall. Alastair Bannerman and Steve Parker, the managing directors at Starcom and Media-Vest UK respectively, are also long-serving members of the board.

Easterbrook says: "It's a really interesting combination in the senior management set-up. There are highly ambitious people at the top and the fellow members of the executive board have a vast amount of experience between them."

In the mix is relative newcomer, the group strategy director, Pru Parkinson. Easterbrook describes Parkinson as an "an extremely lateral thinker" and a "really interesting addition" to the team.

Easterbrook's replacement as chief operating officer is yet to be decided, he says. It's early days, but Easterbrook has a clear vision about the direction of the agency. "I see us as an ideas-driven company. It's got to be underpinned by a rigorous analysis of the value that we add to our clients' brands and businesses. I want us in terms of spirit to be obsessed about adding value to brands and business."

Jacob extols Easterbrook's leadership ability: "He's good at bringing teams together, making them work well and bringing out the best in them." Importantly, Easterbrook is good at engaging with clients, Jacob adds.

Mark Cranmer, the former chief executive of SMG EMEA and currently a consultant with Aegis, describes Easterbrook as calm, level-headed and "a man of magnificent integrity".

According to Jacob, Easterbrook's style is direct and clear and his leadership skills not unlike those of his predecessor: "They're similar in that they're both good leaders of teams and talent. We don't want that to change."

While Starcom has had a bad run of losing clients lately (such as United Biscuits and Alfa Romeo), Easterbrook argues that the agency's wins (including Honda planning, EMI and Premier Foods) and the retention of BT have outweighed the losses. He admits that BT was a squeeze on costs, but points out that Starcom also won the company's planning assignment: "It's been bandied about that it was just a cost exercise. It was not. BT is extremely careful about who it wants to have on its business. It comes down to talent."

Easterbrook sees the creation of Publicis Groupe's new digital operation VivaKi as a "step forward" in terms of leveraging group assets. All of which, he feels, makes it a very interesting time to enter the plum job. "I'm just looking forward to getting stuck in," he says.

Age: 37
Lives: Bucks
Family: Wife, two-year-old daughter and five-month-old son
Last book you read: Biography of Quincy Jones
Most treasured possession: Apart from family, two paintings of musicians
from New Orleans
Favourite gadget: iPod
Interests outside work: Sport, particularly cricket and Watford FC