Media Headliner: Universal McCann's nice guy faces testing time

Graham Duff's job as the network's EMEA president is about the biggest challenge he could have landed.

Graham Duff likes a challenge. Everyone who knows him agrees it's so. And, indeed, it's the first thing he says when he's asked what convinced him to take up his new appointment, announced last week. (That and the fact he'll be able to walk to work, which, he says, not entirely flippantly, was the clinching factor.)

As of this week, he is Universal McCann's new president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. So, no, he's not kidding. There are challenges and there are challenges. This one is about the biggest he could have landed.

Let's start with the fact that Universal McCann is, of course, an Interpublic network. IPG is an organisation whose internal troubles have exposed its accounting procedures to extreme scrutiny; which, in turn, has forced it to become the most transparent advertising group there is. In short, it has ripped up old business models.

Consequently, the group has less room to manoeuvre than its more opaque rivals, Which, arguably, makes life more difficult for its media agencies.

That's before you take into consideration that IPG is currently restructuring its two media agency brands - Universal and Initiative - to make them work more efficiently together under the evolving IPG Media umbrella.

Duff will have to move extremely quickly to assess which of his new network of lieutenants are up to the task ahead. That won't be easy for him, given the fact that he has no experience of media cultures outside of the UK.

When he has completed that assessment, he will then, it is assumed, face a protracted period of wall-to-wall "difficult" conversations.

As one rival network boss puts it: "The view from where I sit is that Universal will need a hatchet man. Whatever Graham's strengths, he isn't that. In fact, you could take the view that he's too damned nice - and that was his problem at ITV."

Unsurprisingly, Duff doesn't see the challenge in quite those terms.

He agrees his priority will be to take stock - but he will caution against excessive "navel-gazing". He explains: "This business is about talent and the development of that talent. It's about clients. That's going to be an important part of what I do."

High-level client relationships, some say, are what he excels at.

Although (uniquely among his contemporaries) he has held senior positions on both the media owner (until last year, he was the managing director of ITV Sales) and the agency (he was formerly the UK chief executive of Zenith Media) sides, he has always seemed most impressive in an agency role.

All of which begs another rather important question - does Duff travel well? Granted, he does boast a well-stamped passport. For instance, he takes part in this interview while sunning himself on the last holiday he might enjoy for the foreseeable future.

It's midday in St Lucia and Duff is able to report that it's 85 degrees in the shade. As he talks on the phone, he says he's taking a stroll down from the hotel pool towards the sea, and you start to hear the waves breaking gently against what is clearly going to be the most goldenly perfect of beaches. With winter twilight gathering gloomily around Campaign Towers in darkest Hammersmith and the tem-perature dipping below freezing, thoughts inevitably turn to the tough nature of life at the top.

But Duff's feelings towards air travel are going to change drastically over the coming weeks and months. Hardened network veterans caution that, even if you are determined to keep the Air Miles to a minimum, you are bound to end up spending around 40 to 50 per cent of your working life away from home.

Some people find that they love it; others are taken aback by just how much of a grind it can be - and short-haul "there and back in a day" sorties are, in their own way, just as exhausting as stopovers.

Again, Duff says that he has weighed this one up carefully - and a dose of reality may have been provided by his two closest friends in the business.

The former Starcom EMEA chief executive Mark Cranmer and the PHD founder David Pattison both found taking on the role of network boss an unsettling experience.

Pattison points out that one of Duff's strengths is his astonishing stamina; Duff, in turn, says he does not intend to get sucked into the micro-managing exercises that can have you wading through treacle.

He states: "My role at the centre will be to facilitate, providing strategic direction and support, rather than spend my time just checking up on people. If you have the right people, you have to give them the freedom to do what they do best."

And if this seems heartfelt, then that might be down to his recent experience at ITV, where he failed in his mission singlehandedly to change 50 years of commercial culture at the network. Predictable, perhaps, but acquaintances say it was "sucking the life out of him".

Duff, who is softly spoken and has a nice line in self-deprecating wit, seems, to the untrained eye, rather laid-back; but that would be to miss the point. He is, fans such as Pattison say, among the best of a new breed of consensual managers and is one of the most adept team-builders in the business.

So it's going to be interesting to see how he squares that with some of the more urgent demands of the restructuring process. It will also be fascinating watching this West Ham-supporting Essex boy who now lives in Islington evolve into an accomplished cosmopolitan.

As usual, though, he's one step ahead of us here - and moves swiftly to close down the obvious joke. "I know, I know," he says, the Caribbean waves still lapping in the background, "this job's the only way a West Ham fan is going to get into Europe."