ZenithOptimedia's frontman inherits keys to the kingdom

Steve King is ready to take over from the retiring John Perriss, writes Alasdair Reid.

Back in 1982, if you'd told the two likely lads playing 'Space Invaders' in the Beehive just off Baker Street what they'd both be doing in 22 years' time, they'd probably have laughed. They might just have bought the idea that one of them would make it to the top -- but not both. That would have been just too much of a coincidence.

The pair in question were Steve King and Mick Desmond. Fresh out of university and equipped with brand-new, seriously cheap Burton's suits, they'd just started selling airtime in HTV's London sales office. In fact, they started on the same day and soon became best mates. Lunchtime involved the Beehive, two pints of beer each, Space Invaders and a sausage roll.

These days, lunch is presumably somewhat different for both of them. Desmond is the chief executive of ITV Broadcasting. Last week, King, who had been the European chief executive of ZenithOptimedia, made it to the top of his own tree too, after being confirmed as the worldwide group chief executive of the network. For both, the quality of their sausage rolls has probably edged up a notch or two over the years.

Desmond is obviously delighted at King's promotion but he feels it important to clear up one important detail. "It wasn't 'Space Invaders' we played," he insists. "It was that one with the logs coming down the river and the man jumping over them. What was it called?"

King's appointment will be popular both within the network and in the broader advertising community. He's the home favourite -- he's been with Zenith since its launch in 1988 and, for most of that time, has been based in London, aside from two-and-a-half years from 1995 in New York helping to launch Zenith USA. As the European boss, he's well known on this side of the Atlantic.

According to Desmond, he's naturally popular: "Steve is a fantastic frontman. He's maybe a bit like me -- not always great on detail '- but he is a tremendous people person. He is a fantastic team player and always brings a sense of fun with him. He likes playing jokes and jokes being played on him. That's maybe one of the reasons he is able to get people working well together."

And his timing couldn't be better. His predecessor, John Perriss, spent the last year or so melding Zenith and Optimedia into a workable merged structure. All the hard bits in that area have been done. The next big merger project -- bringing together ZOG with the other main Publicis media family over at Starcom -- is being put on hold for the foreseeable future. So King has a clear run at this at a time when there's the prospect of real growth in the market. It's been handed to him on a plate, surely?

King argues that the network has put its merger difficulties behind it and is on the up. He states: "The key management teams are now better than at any time in the past three years. We also have our new ROI positioning, which is a very clear proposition. There isn't a market I go to where people don't recognise the saliency of that positioning. With the economic recovery now happening, there is a real opportunity to take the business on."

But under King we may see some change in emphasis. He says: "One of the things we want to work at is to ensure our relationship with our agency partners is more collaboratively structured -- both across the Publicis Groupe and the other agencies we work with. The aim is integrated communications and it is less easy to do that in isolation."

In his European role, King has clocked up some serious air miles (200 round trips last year on BA alone) and, with his enlarged geographical remit, he now expects to be travelling three or four days every week. Is that a prospect he relishes? "When you get there it's great. Meeting the people is great. But no-one enjoys that travelling. No-one regards it as anything other than a terrible grind," he admits.

King tries his utmost to be home for the weekend. He's a family man -- he's 44 with a wife and five children (oldest 16, youngest, the twins, eight) and he likes his sport (skiing, sailing, running, tennis). He even coaches Marlow's under-eight rugby team, which is doing rather well he can proudly reveal.

And if he gets bored with media, he can always go into the hotel trade. After all, he owns a boarding house in Marlow. Actually boarding house is rather misleading -- it's rather posh for a B&B.

It looks vaguely familiar -- but somehow you can't see him employing a waiter called Manuel or spending much time serving gins and tonics to retired colonels. For the time being, King is going to be spending a lot more time staying in hotels than managing them.

The King file

1985 Bates Dorland, media group manager

1988 Zenith Media, director of TV buying

1993 Zenith Media, managing director

1995 Zenith Media USA, general manager rising to chief operating officer

2001 ZenithOptimedia EMEA, chief executive

2004 ZenithOptimedia Group, chief executive

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