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
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
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
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
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.