Can Parkinson make a big impact at Starcom?

The appointment of Pru Parkinson as the head of strategic planning at Starcom took many by surprise, Alasdair Reid writes.

Perhaps now that Pru Parkinson has been persuaded to return to the media business, guardians of the architectural heritage (such as it is) of Chelmsford and the surrounding area will be breathing a sigh of relief.

Recently, she's been lending her other half a hand in a new property development sideline and, in typical Pru Parkinson style, hasn't been afraid of getting her hands dirty.

Some of her acquaintances had assumed this was a particularly savage form of therapy, a transference activity designed to take the frustration of her recent experiences in the ad industry out on the built environment. You can well imagine her brandishing a sledgehammer, to the detriment of some modest dwelling unfortunate enough to stray across her path.

As one former colleague puts it: "She always had a manic energy. Just looking at her made you feel exhausted. She'd come in covered in cuts and bruises, having fallen down a mountain, swum across a shark-infested lake and run a half-marathon, all before breakfast. We were hiding in the corner, thinking, 'We're dads. We're tired.'"

But sometimes raw energy alone, however irrepressible, isn't enough - and many believed that, after a run of bad experiences, not least at Universal McCann and at WPP's planning operation, Nylon, Parkinson quit the ad industry, vowing never to return. They were wrong. Last week, Parkinson was appointed the head of strategic planning for the Starcom agencies.

It's an appointment that took many by surprise - they'd expected the role would be handed to the former OMD planning guru, Mark Palmer. And indeed it is thought that Palmer was offered the job. The sticking point, though, was said to be Palmer's insistence he be able to run other business interests in parallel with the Starcom role. As talks dragged on, it is thought Starcom's ardour began to cool.

Enter Parkinson. Her appointment is arguably the final act in a transition phase that has seen Starcom reinvent itself over the past 12 months. The upheaval started in November 2005, with the departure of agency stalwarts Jez Groom and Pete Edwards to launch a communication planning agency, Edwards Groom Saunders; then, in March 2006, Mark Cranmer, the network's European boss, left to become the chief executive of Research International and Iain Jacob, the boss of the London agency, stepped up to fill his shoes.

All of which meant that, in a few short months, a generation of talent had left the London operation. It fell to Linda Smith, appointed to succeed Jacob in January 2006, to begin the rebuilding process.

The undoubted low point, though, was the loss of the Barclays account back in March, but Smith says a corner has been turned - and that the appointment of Parkinson completes the picture.

Industry observers say they'll reserve judgment on that one - and they'll be particularly curious to see just what sort of an impact Parkinson can make. They note she is not in the more reflective cerebral Starcom tradition, as exemplified by Jacob, Groom and Edwards.

They are also reflecting on the fact Parkinson has had a varied career. Having joined Ammirati Puris Lintas in 1995 from Zenith Media, via Kevin Morley Marketing, she became the deputy managing director of Western Media, when it was spun out of the Lintas (Lowe Lintas at this stage) media department. But when Western was absorbed into its sister agency, Initiative, in 2000, she was told she was effectively being demoted in the new structure.

When she turned round and said that she didn't mind, her colleagues were more than a little surprised. But not half as surprised as they were when she added she was off to Universal McCann. As its chief executive. Jaws dropped. People thought she was joking. But no. Ben Langdon, at this point the chairman of Universal, as well as the chief executive of its sister shop, McCann Erickson, had offered her the job.

Amazement swiftly turned to anger at senior levels. There's a convention that Interpublic Group agencies don't poach from one another, and Langdon had done just that. So, as her news sank in, there were those prepared to tell her she'd get no sympathy if it all ended in tears. Which, in fact, it did.

Her relationship with Langdon deteriorated and, as the recession began to bite, she left in July 2001 after barely six months in the job.

Parkinson walked into Nylon, where she was a founding partner, along with Tony Regan and Martin Thomas. Nylon was a strategic planning agency set up in a partnership arrangement with two WPP-owned agencies, Mediaedge:cia and Young & Rubicam - but within months of its launch, the senior figures in the group, who'd sanctioned its creation, began to depart. Nylon was left to wither on the vine and Parkinson left a year ago.

Some assumed she'd had enough. Smith is pleased she hasn't - she argues Parkinson's depth and range will be a huge benefit. "She's a strategic thinker with a different sort of background and perspective (to many in that role). We want her to challenge our thinking," she says.

Parkinson takes up her new role in January - if she can be persuaded to put down the sledgehammer. And Thomas, her former Nylon colleague, is convinced she will make an impact. He says: "She brings the focus of a sportsperson to her job, you can bet she'll make the most of this opportunity."