Is ZenithOptimedia set to deliver or is it all agency hype?

Listening to an agency describe its new positioning often reminds me of futile teenage nights spent waiting up for a bit of nudity in a worthy Ken Russell film, only to stagger off to bed disappointed when the money shot gets lost in a sea of self-indulgent nonsense, writes Ian Darby.

So it was with trepidation that I went to visit ZenithOptimedia's new chief executive, Antony Young, to discover what he had up his sleeve. As reported in last week's Campaign, Young wants ZenithOptimedia to become known as the "ROI agency", focusing on delivering ways of directly influencing sales or shifting consumer perception rather than being quite good at buying media space.

Now this news didn't leave me panting with excitement, but at least the plans for Zenith are clear, relatively jargon-free and, crucially, might work.

A bit of context is required here. Zenith's recent merger with its sister Publicis agency, Optimedia, followed a ropey old year for the larger of the two agencies. It might have hit its financial targets but losses such as BT press and the AA hardly smacked of an agency going in the right direction. Once leading the agency league tables, it had sunk to third behind the energetic and impressive MediaCom and Carat. It had become a Tottenham Hotspur or a Leeds United rather than an Arsenal or Man United.

The merger with Optimedia might be a positive thing, the smaller agency bringing with it some very good clients (BA, Allied Domecq, L'Oreal) and people. Add this to a larger agency boasting some good resources but needing direction and they might just make a go of it. The merged operation has already won some joint pitches (such as MBNA) but there is work to do.

Critics argue that the rot set in from the start at Zenith with a mixture of arrogance and indifference to change sealing an ever-declining fate. But those arguments are less relevant because Young is clear in his vision for taking Zenith forward. Although "vision" might be a bit generous given that the ROI positioning is neither imaginative (it draws on Zenith's heritage of "number crunching") nor brave (every client this side of Papua New Guinea has been calling for agencies to provide more accountability and impact on the wider business picture).

Having said this, it gives a newly merged operation, with all the confusions and internal rivalries that this can throw up, a clear sense of what it should be delivering for clients. Crucially, Young is bright and tough but has identified much that he already likes at the agency. Change is unlikely to be too frightening.

For what it's worth, I don't think ZenithOptimedia will become locked in a cycle of decline like pre-merger CIA UK. By 2004, it will be an improved agency but, after being so internally focused for the past year, it has a lot of ground to make up.

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