Carl White is not unaccustomed to acting on decisions that may be painful to his clients.
Witness the recent decision by 24/7Media to resign around 25% of its clients to refocus on building stronger strategic client relationships. A definite case of no gain without pain. But maybe that’s second nature to a man who began his career as a trainee dentist.
“I spent nearly two years training before I realised what a terrible mistake I’d made!” he says, smiling at the mouthy memories. “There I was, 19-years-old, putting in a filling, staring into this mouth and I just thought, ‘why did I do this, why did I make such a terrible mistake?’”
Today, White is stoical about his brief dental detour. “I knew I had to get out, and to get it wrong early on does focus the mind on what it is you really want to achieve.”
Looking across White’s CV to date the line of achievement is not unimpressive. Ignoring the characteristic modesty of his reasons for entering media in the first place – “arrived in London, massive overdraft, I thought marketing, the recruiter said Money Marketing” – White landed up at Centaur. He gained a solid sales grounding, then moved to Media Week, at that stage part of the Maxwell empire.
“I was working on Journalist’s Week, and was thrown in at the deep end, going against Press Gazette,” he says. “It was tough, driving round the country but it gave me a good compass for British media.”
Pausing only to meet and woo his future wife, White was increasingly disturbed by the siren’s song of consumer publishing, beckoning him to action. By 1991 he could resist no more and found himself as ad manager on Best at Gruner + Jahr.
“I knew I wanted to work on consumer mags,” he says. “And when I got to Best I loved it. There was a much more sophisticated client approach and the desire to build long-term relationships.”
A move to Redwood to take on ad director duties for the BBC Good Food magazine seemed to underline White’s increasingly fine sense of timing. “Redwood was just getting its ad sales together, and it was a prefect opportunity for me to drive revenue forward.”
When the time came for the BBC to take its contracts in-house into Worldwide, White made the move with the rest of the team. Working as a publisher within BBC Worldwide for nearly five years, White had fingers in plenty of pies: from BBC Good Food to Walking With Dinosaurs. He also benefited from the BBC’s pioneering approach to multimedia publishing.
Food for thought
Suddenly taking in book publishing, and finding himself at lunch with the likes of David Attenborough and John Humphreys underlined the vitality of brands, which has stood White in good stead in the brave new world of interactive media.
“Multimedia publishing can work, as long as you don’t throw away the principles of the individual media, and as long as you don’t overcentralise,” says White. “If you’ve got BBC Good Food magazine and you’re also publishing Gary Rhodes’ new book, there’s an obvious fit. It works well if you have a substantial book or video portfolio, and you need the strength in the brands, which the BBC has.”
White was lured to head up 24/7 Media UK by the sweet words of Gordon Simpson, chief executive of 24/7 Europe. “What he said made the opportunity seem do-able and exciting,” says White, thinking back to this time last year. “And for me the best bits have been the speed of action: the ability to think, decide and act, which you can’t do if there’s a complicated business structure.”
A tough call
And in the galloping pace of new media, those who aren’t quick off the ground are dead in the water. Look at the decision of 24/7 Europe to rationalise its customer base. That, on the back of news that US parent company shed 200 staff after poor third-quarter results, led many to suspect that 24/7 may be ailing. Not so, says White; it was decisive action to refocus business in the evolving landscape of interactivity.
“We conducted research among agencies and overwhelmingly they said that we’re only as good as the clients we have. It’s not about a landgrab, but about a growing sophistication of the media audience.
“We’ve got a lot of good quality clients, from the BBC to FT.com to handbag, and we’ve just signed up Boots and BarclayCard. So we’re now a lot less aggressively acquisitive, and for us it’s now about building deeper relations, partnering to see what else we can do.”
White makes a point of underlining quality over quantity as the name of the game today. “The UK business will be in profit in the fourth quarter this year. But we want to be in profit all next year, and you can’t do it if you aren’t prepared to make tough decisions.”
White’s year-long tenure has seen him steer the company away from the online sales tag it once possessed, towards providing a portfolio of services across a number of interactive platforms.
He grits his teeth when asked to define the company offering “I hate saying, ‘integrated suite of solutions’, but....”
He takes another tack. “We’re more defined by what we don’t do – we don’t plan, we don’t buy and we don’t design,” he says. “We generate revenue, irrespective of platform; we’re interactive marketing experts.” This expertise has seen 24/7 increasingly diversify its offering, to include e-mail marketing, wireless campaign serving, and the online brand measurement tool Ad Index.
“e-mail is growing quickly, but wireless is certainly slower,” says White. “The danger is that media slams WAP without learning the lessons that can then be applied to the next, seriously interesting generation of wireless devices. I think we’ll see the same slowness in the iTV uptake.”
24/7 UK is set to launch several interactive TV products in January following the acquisition of I make by its US parent. The products will manage subscriber systems and provide targeting and ad serving capacity, and will be aimed at set-top box manufacturers.
Balancing the paring back of clients to the diversification of offering in the not knowingly stable world of interactivity is no small challenge. But White is clear about the line he’s taking.
“I’m an old media guy at heart, and this job has been a revelation. But some things stay the same – the importance of brands, of energy and focus. We will focus on building stronger partnerships with our key clients and offer the best possible interactive inventory to advertisers, irrespective of platform.”