Media Headliner: 'There is some alchemy that is not repeatable'

MEC's global chief executive Charles Courtier says expansion of the network will rely on local strengths.

Charles Courtier does not quite have the same imposing "family boss" air of his Group M network counterparts, Mindshare's Dominic Proctor and MediaCom's Steve Allan. The Mediaedge:cia global chief executive, in contrast, is slight in appearance with a gentle, low-key manner. But Sir Martin Sorrell, the chief executive of MEC's holding company, WPP, says Courtier has "a wonderful temperament that belies a steely determination".

This steeliness must have come in handy of late, what with clients squeezing on price and the entire industry being forced into one global pitch after the next. "What we all went through last year was tough," he says. "But it is already getting better."

Courtier sits in a small meeting room in MEC's London HQ in Southwark, a place, he would have to concede, that has been critical to the overall success of his network. "If there was a UK formula I could replicate in other places, it would be brilliant," he affirms.

The network as a whole learns from the successes and failures in different markets, Courtier maintains. But the ability of the UK team, led by the chief executive, Tom George, to win major new clients, such as Lloyds Banking Group and Orange, as well as accolades for its work with retained clients, such as Morrisons, can't be captured on PowerPoint. "There is some alchemy in there that is not repeatable. It's about combinations of people," he explains.

Courtier sits atop a $20 billion network, ranked the fifth-largest in the world, with the bulk of its billings split between the US and EMEA, according to Recma 2008 figures (the latest available). Unlike Mindshare, with its apparent ambition to be the McDonald's of global networks, offering the same service and product wherever it operates, MEC has a more local, less homogeneous, more entrepreneurial spirit.

Aside from its UK successes, picking up AT&T's consolidated $2.4 billion account in the US three years ago was a game-changer for the agency. Multinational brands have occasionally been added to the mix, with longstanding global clients including Colgate-Palmolive, Chanel and Paramount. Despite the pressures of last year, the network picked up Activision Blizzard globally, won Bacardi's global communication planning, retained Danone in the UK and landed Daimler/Mercedes in Germany.

Allan, MediaCom's global chief executive, describes the MEC portfolio as a "nice blend" of local and multinational clients. Nonetheless, MEC does not have the likes of Unilever or Procter & Gamble on its books. Mammoth global clients like these, demanding the same standard of service in every market, are thin on the ground.

Courtier, however, is more than happy with his client mix. "If I was to make MEC more multinational, I would lose key strengths and people in some local markets. Strength on the ground, where media really happens, is important," he says.

MEC is relatively strong in the US and consistent across EMEA, remaining within the top four in the agency rankings in both regions in recent years. But it has plenty of room for growth in Asia. Courtier says: "We're number four in the US but I'd like to be number one. I definitely want more strength in Asia-Pacific, China and India. We could never be too big in China or India."

Courtier will be focusing on the fast-growing markets of China, India, Russia and Mexico. But the entire network is moving into a new phase of development. This involves major investment in digital and data capabilities, which will allow for a move into consultancy, which Courtier sees as the future for media agencies: "The commodity aspect is moving towards the holding companies because it is volume-driven. Digital and data are more to do with business effectiveness because they are measured by consumer response."

Integration is another major hobby horse for Courtier. He believes that the marketing services industry as a whole has not delivered well in this space. He wants MEC to offer a truly integrated product across all divisions, such as its digital unit MEC Interaction and sponsorship arm MEC Access. Beyond that, he is pushing for the agency to work with its clients' other marketing providers, within and outside of WPP. "It's what clients are crying out for," he argues.

The MEC proposition, based on encouraging "active engagement" of consumers, will remain but the focus will be increasingly global, with integration driven on a worldwide basis. Yet Courtier hopes to maintain that balance of strength in local markets.

One slightly more superficial change to the network acknowledges how far it has progressed since its merger in 2002. The name Mediaedge:cia, an inelegant fusion of The Media Edge and CIA, will officially make way for plain old MEC. Courtier explains: "Everyone knows us as MEC anyway."

At the time of the merger eight years ago, Courtier was the global chief executive of The Media Edge; he jointly led the network through its awkward formative years with his counterpart at CIA, Mainardo de Nardis. "We were definitely the ugly duckling," Courtier says. "I don't think anybody thought we were going to be successful."

Allan says that since De Nardis' departure in 2005, Courtier has established himself as a leader who inspires "tremendous trust and loyalty" in the people who work for him, adding: "He's a consummate client man."

Sorrell describes Courtier as a "consensual leader", while Mindshare's Proctor also observes that Courtier leads his company more by consensus than by dictat. "It might not be the quickest route, but you get where you want to go," Proctor explains.

Rob Norman, the Group M North America chief executive and a former managing director of MEC's digital division, describes Courtier as an "enabler", with a loyalty to MEC that is beyond question. Norman maintains that there is a unifying philosophy to the network, helped a great deal by the strength of its internal communications. He points out that internal updates on positioning and new work are always put in context for each market.

Courtier admits that global agencies have an unfortunate habit of "always saying the same things about themselves". He adds: "The truth is that from the outside it is very difficult for people to see differentiation between one agency and another."

He believes that what really distinguishes a network is its history, internal culture and clients. Agencies, according to Courtier, have simply not been good at marketing what they do and valuing the services they provide, and he warns: "When agencies fall into that trap, it's not surprising for procurement to take over."

However, Courtier is hopeful that the strategic side of the business will return. "It was very price-focused last year. The value of what media agencies do above and beyond pricing has to come back into play," he says. Being nimble and ready to adapt to clients' needs, however, will be paramount. As Courtier puts it: "By definition, you are a chameleon."

Age: 48
Lives: Hampshire
Family: Wife, Kathryn; three children: Holly, Amber and Joe
Most treasured possession: Seven-piece DW drumkit. Handmade in
California. Beautiful
Favourite gadget: Corkscrew
Interests outside work: Family, music, World Cup
Last book read: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
Motto: Rock the Casbah (do people really have mottos?)