MEDIA SPOTLIGHT: Sky role reunites five's smooth operator with Airey

Milligan's switch has come as no surprise to the media industry, Jeremy Lee writes.

Nick Milligan is, according to the Starcom group buying director, Chris Locke, the closest thing that the TV sales industry has to a celebrity.

With a reputation as a smooth operator (although some find him a little too suave for their tastes), the slick, charming, silver-haired deputy chief executive of five could easily use his powers of persuasion to launch an alternative career as a politician or a television evangelist.

Speculation over the next career move of "Slick Nick" has been a lunchtime pursuit among media circles ever since the departure of his friend and former boss, Dawn Airey, from five to Sky and the arrival of Jane Lighting as her replacement.

The BSkyB chief executive, James Murdoch, has now poached Milligan to join Airey, the managing director of Sky Networks, with the newly created role of managing director of Sky Media. Milligan is Murdoch's first senior appointment since he took the top job at the end of last year.

With this move, the speculation has moved on to question the full implications of his appointment, not just for five and Sky, but the rest of the TV industry. Given Milligan's track record and undisputed position as a player, these could be dramatic.

Milligan's celebrity status is probably something he secretly revels in. He is a founder member of Soho House and friends say that he likes rubbing shoulders with celebrities (he was best man at the wedding of Neil Fox).

Apparently, at the recent Super Bowl Duran Duran were on stage performing and a startled Simon Le Bon spotted his friend Milligan among the crowd and bellowed into the microphone during the televised performance: "What the fuck are you doing here?"

Acquaintances from the media industry line up to rib Milligan for his ego and vanity.

"He likes the limelight. He likes being Nick Milligan," Graham Duff, the managing director of ITV Sales, says. Paul Curtis, the managing director of Viacom Brand Solutions and a former colleague of Milligan at five, says: "I'm not here to sing Nick's praises, he speaks for himself." And Phil Georgiades, a founding partner of Walker Media, referring to last week's Campaign, claims: "I am not surprised Nick's looking for additional publicity because his visibility was obscured by a wrap-around for Royal Mail."

But the leg-pulling is light hearted and affectionate (although the vanity is real). Milligan has acquired a reputation for being a bloody good salesman, a loyal boss and a passionate advocate of whichever television station he is selling - and he's pretty much sold the lot.

Milligan's journey to Sky has been a long and interesting one. The son of a Somerset farmer, he won a riding scholarship to the Somerset public school Millfield (a public school education tends to instill confidence and this has held the Milligan clan in good stead - one of his siblings is a lieutenant colonel in the Royal Artillery; the other is a photographer and a sister works for Clifford Chance).

Milligan's mother Vhairi - despite being born in Dorset, he is of Scottish descent - is an actress and continues to act in TV dramas.

Although Milligan was due to follow his father on to the soil, the business failed and Milligan trundled to London (allegedly in his Land Rover) looking for work.

In 1983, Andy Barnes, now the sales director at Channel 4, gave Milligan his first job. It was at TVS and Barnes was the sales controller - Milligan joined on the same day as Curtis.

He then followed Dick Emery, now the chief executive of UKTV, to Central Television as a general sales manager, and worked his way up the greasy pole before joining David Mansfield, now the chief executive of Capital Radio Group, at Thames TV as the general sales manager in 1988.

By this time, Milligan was grey-haired. Some of his colleagues can't remember what colour his hair was originally and it seems nor can Milligan - on one infamous occasion he tried to darken it and to the amusement of his colleagues it turned red.

Milligan was involved in the franchise bid for Thames TV but when the government awarded the licence to Carlton, he found himself temporarily out of a job.

Salvation came in the form of UK Gold and UK Living and Milligan was invited to be part of the launch team. It was by establishing their primacy that his reputation really took off.

"If you step back in time ten years ago, Nick got UK Gold to have a brand-leader status among agencies," Duff remembers.

This was quite an achievement considering how low multichannel penetration was and how tiny the audiences were at the time. With enhanced reputation and experience, he was the chosen sales director on four of the five bids for the country's fifth and final terrestrial licence.

Milligan brought with him to five much of his former sales team, who are considered among the best in the industry. They repaid his faith in them - the team has produced impressive results.

The station turned its first profit for its RTL and United Business Media owners last year. However, it remains a single terrestrial channel in a multichannel world and without considerable investment in the product, few buyers think it can grow much further.

So some saw it as inevitable that the ambitious Milligan, who is the last of the remaining founding directors, would be looking for his next big job. With Airey in place at Sky and multichannel penetration topping the 50 per cent mark, it seemed inevitable that he would be tempted to follow.

Mick Desmond, the chief executive of ITV Broadcasting, thinks that five is going to find it difficult without him. "He's a constant professional and he's got great contact with people. He has done the multichannel and the terrestrial sell and he works very closely with the broadcasters. He's going to be a big loss for five, but he'll add a new dimension to Sky."

Sky Media receives mixed reviews from buyers. Although no longer the boys club it once was, there has been frustration with the way that it aggressively went to market last year but failed to deliver on audiences.

"Sky Media is a bit inward-looking and has a trading imbalance, which is an issue," Locke says.

Milligan is known to run a tight book and is into systems, controls, deal books and management structures to prevent trading problems. Also, with Airey investing heavily in new programmes such as Nip/Tuck on Sky One, the combination of the two personalities looks a compelling one.

With the two former five senior executives Airey and Milligan now at Sky, questions are being asked whether James Murdoch is setting his sights on a possible bid for the channel. It seems a logical move.

However, even if that does happen (depending on whether the shareholders are interested in selling, the process is still likely to be a lengthy one), it's likely that Milligan will try to force some sort of sales consolidation among the non-ITV world.

"Nick's always got deals on the go - he's very commercially astute," Desmond confirms.

The very fact that Sky has got Milligan is likely to force the other sales houses to reconsider their positions.

As well as having the status of a personality, he is an intensely competitive man with a proven track record. Sky Media is in for a shake-up.

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