NEWSMAKER/DOMINIC OWENS: High-profile client stays quiet about switch to agency side - Has Dominic Owens really found a gap in the agency market, Claire Beale asks?

Dominic Owens’ back has made the headlines several times over the past few years. He’s a master of the dramatic exit. Prudential, Mercury, BT - this guy’s walked out of them all. Now, however, it’s a dramatic entrance that has propelled Owens on to the front page. The client who railed at the media industry is going to give it a go himself.

Dominic Owens’ back has made the headlines several times over the

past few years. He’s a master of the dramatic exit. Prudential, Mercury,

BT - this guy’s walked out of them all. Now, however, it’s a dramatic

entrance that has propelled Owens on to the front page. The client who

railed at the media industry is going to give it a go himself.

Not that Owens is the first client ever to turn up his collar and jump

into the media mire, it’s just that our man has chosen to do it in a

rather provocative way. Owens claims to have found a niche in the market

and, since breaking the story last week, Campaign’s phones have been

humming with people keen to find out more.

As bland and amorphous increasingly become watchwords for the media

market, any new brand is bound to grab attention. But the widespread

industry interest in the new venture is partly down to Owens


Never one to hide his light under a corporate bushel, Owens has been one

of the more high-profile clients of his time, associated with some very

powerful and successful advertising. Rent-a-quote, rent-a-rant - few

advertisers have been as vocal in their views of advertising and media

as Owens.

So it’s frustrating that this particular mouth has been

uncharacteristically sealed at what is probably one of the most exciting

times in his career.

Blame Carat. For Owens is not going into this media lark on his own

He’s poached Simon King and Simon Calvert from Carat to join him and his

lawyers have advised him to stay shtoom while his new colleagues are

still under contract to the media giant.

Pity. But for the record, the new Owens/King/Calvert agency appears to

claim as its niche a solutions-neutral approach. Putting aside the PR

bollocks for a moment, this is supposed to mean independent

communications advice, free from the need to justify overheads such as a

TV buying department, a new-media team or a direct response operation.

As gamekeeper turned poacher, Owens and his team will sit at the

client’s right hand, guiding them through an increasingly confusing

myriad of communications solutions - and that doesn’t just mean

above-the-line media.

A Michaelides & Bednash or a Unity might have something to say about the

uniqueness of Owens’ proposition, while you can bet traditional media

shops would publicly lay claim to similarly unfettered ’strategic’

advice. And you’ve got to question the expertise of Owens, King or

Calvert when it comes to fields beyond traditional above-the-line

advertising. But there they have an answer - or at least they would if

they could speak. Owens appears to have spent some time identifying a

network of suitable partners in associated areas, such as direct

marketing and sponsorship, who will bring the in-depth experience to the

party. Owens and his team will simply be the hub.

In many ways, the new company is the logical conclusion of themes from

Owens’ own history. His last major task at BT, for example, was to hand

over the largest ever strategic planning account - for BT’s pounds 150

million advertising budget - to New PHD. He also led the Incorporated

Society Of British Advertisers’ charge against the quality of industry

media research and the need for consumer data which actually helps a

client understand more about how its message is consumed.

He’s also earned himself a reputation for being exacting about his

advertising and tough on the agencies he’s worked with. He walked out of

Prudential in 1996 claiming that the insurance company’s marketing had

lost direction.

It was deja-vu time in 1996 when he left his post as marketing services

manager at Mercury Communications after only nine months in the job,

apparently, in part, because of his dissatisfaction with the ’Oliver and

Claire’ campaign.

He left BT earlier this year after another battle fought and lost.

It’s this fighting spirit - or what one former advertising colleague

calls ’the sort of pigheadedness that makes you want to punch him’ -

that divides opinion on Owens. Some admire his clarity, integrity and

drive for perfection. Others dislike what they identify as vain

self-righteousness and destructive indecision.

One old colleague complains that Owens is a terminal worrier who gets

enormously enthusiastic at first and then agonises about whether he’s

made the right decision. ’It makes him bloody difficult to work with and

it’s made it difficult for him to be a client, where he’s had to buy a

recommendation and then really get behind it. Part of the problem is

he’s actually not opinionated enough, he doesn’t stick with things as

ruthlessly as he should.’

Bob Wootton, the director of media and advertising affairs for ISBA,

knows Owens from his work for the society and also as a personal friend.

Arrogance, Wootton insists, is not part of the Owens lexicon. ’Sure,

Dominic has his vanities but he’s damn smart with it,’ Wootton says.

’He’s a very warm bloke and very principled. He’s really got into the

whole idea of media, how it’s consumed and what that means for


Owens the client also has his fans. Peter Souter, the creative director

of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, agrees that Owens is bloody smart, as

evinced - naturally - by the great campaign he brought from AMV while he

was at BT. ’He’s very pernickety,’ Souter admits, ’but his skill is he

worries about everything until it’s absolutely right. And that results

in well thought-through, highly efficient and effective


It’s a sort of paranoid drive for perfection that could go either way

with Owens’ potential clients. Some will love it and pay highly for it,

just as the very idea of strategic communications will always find its

fans in the client community.

One thing’s for sure, however: as Wootton points out, ’Dominic’s cock is

on the block now.’ And this is one company he’s not likely to be

storming out of for quite some time.

Media Forum, p20.


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