Arif Durrani, head of media at Campaign, editor of Media Week
Arif Durrani, head of media at Campaign, editor of Media Week
A view from Arif Durrani

ZenithOptimedia's party is tainted by deep-rooted problems at UK operation

Last week's 25-year celebrations of the pioneering agency ZenithOptimedia should have been an industry high-water mark, so why did it feel more like a washout?

On 30 October 1988, Zenith Media became the first worldwide media agency when it merged the buying departments of Saatchi & Saatchi, BSB Dorland and KHBB in a converted warehouse in Paddington, West London. Around 450 staff marked the occasion at Proud in Camden last Wednesday, including the UK chief executive, Tim Hipperson, and the worldwide CEO, Steve King, who gave a rabble-rousing speech. He noted how the media network has grown from 300 people back then to more than 7,000, with 250 offices in 74 markets.

The party, held in a 200-year-old former horse hospital, went on well into the night. But behind the smiles, King knew the next day’s hangover would be particularly painful. Hours later, Campaign’s front page revealed the double-whammy that not only had ZenithOptimedia lost its biggest UK client after seven years to WPP’s Maxus (see opposite), but it was also about to lose its UK CEO after just six months.

King, who has been with the agency since its inception, notes wryly that the idea of a media agency commanding the front cover of Campaign would have been unheard of in the 80s. Media specialists have since firmly established themselves in the mix, and ZenithOptimedia deserves credit for the lead role it has played in shaping this. But Hipperson, parachuted in from the digital and direct agency G2 Joshua in April, clearly felt uncomfortable in his role and had handed in his resignation weeks earlier.

'The agency's global reputation is too robust and its local talent too strong for its future to seriously be in doubt'

It had certainly been a baptism of fire. Taking the reins after a year in which the agency had lost more than £70 million worth of billings, Hipperson went on to lose the prestigious British Airways account, a founding client, to Carat. And now L’Oréal and its £135 million worth of media spend. ZenithOptimedia plans to operate without a UK CEO, with the global managing partner Belinda Rowe assuming more responsibility – which feels apt given that it has been her global team on the second floor of the London office driving much of the new-business success: Kayak, Barcardi, Omega Pharma and SCA.

All agencies ebb and flow and ZenithOptimedia’s global reputation is too robust and its local talent too strong for its future to be in doubt. The UK agency may only represent 5 per cent of group revenues, but King has pledged to make it a stronger outfit within a year.

Watch this space.

Full details of the ZenithOptimedia restructure here.