Feature

Salama views Kantar role as main future challenge

Eric Salama denies he has a masterplan to return to the WPP board, writes Alasdair Reid.

Eric Salama has chosen an odd time to go on holiday this year. He claims he's a Gooner (and he's portrayed in Arsenal kit in the WPP report), yet he'll be out of the country for the first home game of the season.

He'd better have a good excuse. And, actually, he just about has -- he's just concluded the most important deal in his career as the chief executive of Kantar.

A division of WPP, Kantar owns a spectrum of research companies, including AGB Group, the outfit that runs TV audience measurements panels in a host of markets, including the UK.

Under the terms of last week's deal, AGB is to form a 50:50 joint venture with the world's other major audience measurement company, Nielsen Media Research. The new operation will be the main supplier of ratings data in 30 countries including Australia, China, Hong Kong, Italy and South Africa, as well as Britain.

Understandably the jewel in Nielsen's crown, the US market, where TV audience measurement was invented, is not covered by the deal. But still, the joint venture has the sort of combined resource to keep developing the new technologies you need to maintain a handle on viewer behaviour in an increasingly fragmented, multichannel, interactive world.

Perhaps more pertinently, it removes a significant amount of

competition from the research business, though Salama points out that he hasn’t cornered the market. Continental Europe, for instance, is still the fiefdom of the likes of Taylor Nelson Sofres and GfK.

Within hours of the deal being announced, he was on a plane to Portugal with the family -- but being a Blackberry addict, he's not hard to contact even when his mobile is off. When he calls, he’s happy to talk about life, the universe and Patrick Vieira, while making sure his two sons, aged seven and nine, don’t injure themselves while they kick a ball around.

Do either of them show promise? "We'll see," he laughs. You suspect he’s being kind. You can tell he’s one of those all-too-rare managers, whose first instinct is to reason with a problem rather than shout at it. He has a nice line in wry, dry humour. He’s understated but rarely, you sense, underestimated.

Salama has the classic CV of a high-flying business administrator. He has a degree in philosophy, politics and economics and an MSc in economics from Birkbeck College.

For a while, it looked as if he was pursuing a well-trodden route into party politics as he became a researcher on the Labour Party's foreign affairs team during the gloomiest days of its long period in opposition. He still retains links with the party and has become a sometime Government adviser.

But he made an important career move when he joined The Henley Centre as an economist. Within six years he was the managing director; and from there it was but a relatively short step to the main board of its parent company, WPP.

He was Sir Martin Sorrell's right-hand man, strategic thinker and all-round fixer for eight momentous years as the group continued its seemingly inexorable rise. He helped smooth the acquisition of Young & Rubicam, for instance, and was one of the leading architects behind the design of MindShare.

Less glorious was his time as digital guru during the dotcom bubble, when he was the chief executive of WPP.com. When he left the WPP board to head Kantar, some saw it as a step down. Others saw it as the last part of his apprenticeship. The story was that hard-bitten business managers within WPP operating companies resented him slightly, regarding him as an intellectual who hadn’t quite paid his dues.

Having won a few battle honours with Kantar, so the theory ran, he'd soon be back at the top table. Privately, Salama tells friends that this is only half right. It's true that you learn a lot more from running and building a business and sitting at the desk where the buck stops -- but he denies there's this grand masterplan to return to the main board. Kantar is exciting, rewarding and challenging and that's where he's setting his sights for the foreseeable future.

It is, after all, the largest subsidiary of WPP, with revenues of more than £1.5 billion. People do like to speculate about such things, though; just as those who follow the fortunes of star footballers will swap you ten wild rumours for one hard fact.

And, yes, you can tell that Salama's heart beats quicker when he talks football. In fact, he has a theory about the Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, plotting bogus transfer controversies just to keep his men on their toes. And perhaps it's true you can learn more from the Frenchman at Highbury than you can from all the weightiest business school tomes.

"It's quite tough, if you’ve had an exceptionally good year, to stop your team being complacent and keep them hungry," he reflects.

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