Media Headliner: Rumours cloud handover of power at OMD UK

With Steve Williams set to be the OMD UK Group chief executive, out came the conspiracy theorists, Alasdair Reid writes.

Many senior appointments are made against a backdrop of rumour, gossip and speculation. Most agency observers are, at heart, ardent Kremlinologists - willing to read power struggles into the flimsiest of evidence. The announcement last week that Nick Manning was stepping down from his role as the OMD UK Group chief executive, to be replaced by Steve Williams, currently the managing director of the group's biggest brand, OMD UK, is an excellent case in point.

Last week, it wasn't hard to find people prepared to share their belief - a certainty, almost bordering on conspiracy theory - that we've not heard the half of it yet.

The scenario runs like this. Colin Gottlieb, the chief executive of Omnicom Media Group EMEA, and the man who has transformed the OMD European network from underperforming embarrassment into a real force, is poised to take an even more high-powered job with Omnicom in New York. Manning, his close friend and fellow founder of the Manning Gottlieb agency, wanted Gottlieb's job when he headed west - but "the powers that be" in New York vetoed this suggestion, so he decided to pick up his ball and retire from the game.

Run this by Manning, Gottlieb or Williams and the response is laughter, then exasperated irritation that such nonsense is clouding what they saw to be a cleanly handled, grown-up transfer of power. And perhaps it is unfortunate for Williams, whose emergence as a real player deserves better recognition.

On the other hand, it's testament to the affection the industry has for Manning, who is not just a fixture and fitting of the media business, but has become a bit of an institution. There's no way he'd walk away without good reason, is there?

His good reason, he says, is that time-honoured one - an itch to seek pastures new. He'll buy into an appropriate non-media business, he adds, at the appropriate time. Sooner rather than later, we suspect, given the official handover to Williams comes on 1 January 2007. At which point Williams will be responsible not just for OMD UK, the agency he has served for 15 years in its various incarnations, but also Manning Gottlieb OMD, M2M and OMD International.

Williams is fairly typical of the current generation of senior media agency managers in that he has reached the top through promotions earned by managerial excellence rather than entrepreneurial fireworks. As such, his focus has always been inward looking - on the cultivation of the talent under him, on the excellence of the product and on client relationships. He's unapologetic about the fact that he isn't "showbiz" as he puts it.

"The truth is that even going back to the BMP (OMD UK evolved out of the former BMP media department) days, this has never been a showbiz media operation," Williams says. "There has always been this incredible team ethic, and that's something we've maintained, and, over the past three years or so, re-energised."

It's not difficult to find fans of Williams among media owners and former colleagues. He is, they say, affable and approachable, with a disarming honesty and directness. He is also (in an assessment that is unfortunately starting to become meaningless, so often is it used) "passionate about all aspects of the business".

Williams admits that when he takes over the group job he'll hope to oversee business as usual. It's true that the group's performance over the past couple of years hasn't been half bad - and when OMD UK has an indifferent year in new-business terms, Manning Gottlieb or M2M will more than likely take up the slack. The group is always near the top of the new-business league table.

He gets on well with the Manning Gottlieb boss, Robert Ffitch, he points out. And he can foresee no reason to look at rationalising the portfolio of OMD brands - the group will continue to celebrate diversity, held together by family ties.

But many observers think we'll see a change in emphasis. When Manning Gottlieb was acquired by OMD in 1997 it was, in cultural terms, a reverse takeover, with Manning Gottlieb values becoming prevalent within the group. This process carried on unchecked when, in subsequent years, the two main carriers of the BMP media department flame at OMD UK - Paul Taylor and Tim McCloskey - departed. A third senior figure, Mark Palmer, the last remaining maverick in a company once famed for its ability to channel the energies of mavericks, then left after clashes with Manning.

As managing director, Williams has been building OMD UK - a process that will no doubt continue as he takes control at group level. (His likely successor at the OMD UK agency is thought to be his current deputy, Jonathan Allan.)

If he's allowed free rein, that is. The only small cloud on the horizon (conspiracy theories aside) is that within the year, Omnicom, which also owns the PHD Group, is likely to restructure with the appointment of an Omnicom Media Group UK chief executive. Media Planning Group's managing partner, Mark Craze, has been linked with the role.

Not long after he starts, Williams will be reporting to a brand new boss. That has to be a worry, doesn't it? Not really, Williams responds. "Anyone who isn't confident in their abilities might be worried for all sorts of reasons," he says. "I happen to have confidence. I also have faith in this organisation - and in the people I've grown up with."

Age: 41 (old enough to be a wily veteran?)
Lives: Beckenham
Family: Sarah, Sam and Charlotte
Most treasured possession: Sanity
Last book you read: Freakonomics by Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner
Favourite journey: Home
Best place for a relaxing afternoon: Lord's or Langan's
Motto: Never give in


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