Being the best in the business

Stephen Allan, chief executive, MediaCom - After scooping the agency of the year title at the Media Week Awards, you would expect MediaCom boss Steve Allan to be singing from the rooftops. But that’s not his style. Sheelagh Doyle finds out what makes the man, and the company, tick

We all know that media agencies like to have a swanky office.

And MediaCom is no exception – pass through the brightly lit reception and you will find an onsite bar and café, along with posters on the pillars advertising complimentary stress-busting massages.

Not that chief executive Stephen Allan should be suffering from too much stress right now. His agency was named best in the business at the recent Media Week Awards following a plethora of account wins.

Allan is chatting about the evening’s staff get-together – a regular event at MediaCom.

“It’s a chance for me to meet the new people who have joined the company and have a really good chat with them in the MediaCom bar,” he says.

Many readers will have played a game of pool or enjoyed a pint in Rich’s bar, which lies in the basement of the building.

But not many will be familiar with its history.

The bar came about from the “what would I do if I ran the company” scheme, where staff members are put into teams with people they haven’t worked with before and given two months to think about what they would do to change the company.

Allan promises to act upon every good idea received which, he admits, can mean opening the company coffers on a regular basis.

“We spend about £25,000 on fresh bloody fruit in the morning,” he sighs. “Still, though, it makes people feel good.”

Making people feel good is part of Allan’s remit for MediaCom, a trait that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the rest of the industry. One of the Media Week Awards judges described the company as having “enthusiasm and commitment to its staff from top to bottom of the organisation”.

Allan says MediaCom’s success stems from a strong team of people who have been working together for more than 10 years.

“We’ve sort of grown up together and haven’t forgotten where we’ve come from,” he says. “We know how hard it has been to grow to the larger, bigger company that we are today.”

So what does he feel swung it in the eyes of the judges? “Continuity, consistency of people, coupled with an ambition to truly provide clients with an integrated approach,” is his carefully considered reply.

Being shortlisted and not winning for two years had a hardening effect on Allan and his team. They were focused on making it third time lucky.

“When we previously didn’t win it, we were sat at the dinner, as you do, and we were kind of going ‘Oh shit, I can’t believe it, what do we have to do?’” he exclaims. Being a runner-up was even more difficult to take for Allan when he explains that, over the past five years, MediaCom has been in the top half of the new business table and been the fastest-growing media agency during some difficult economic times.

“We’ve had probably the best client retention record, so, on paper, it looks really good, and yet last year we didn’t win the award,” argues Allan, with perhaps a touch of bitterness.

“Maybe it’s because we don’t show off enough.”

While MediaCom may be reluctant to blow its own trumpet, there are others in the industry that are happy to sing its praises.

Allan explains that, while all the awards are important to them, one in particular that stands out is the Royal Bank of Scotland’s, Supplier of the Year award, which they have won for two years running.

“RBS is our biggest client and they’re one of the largest companies in the world. They have 15,000 suppliers and to get that sort of vote of confidence is extremely important.”

Also high on Allan’s favourite list of awards is the agency’s place in The Sunday Times top 100 companies to work for.

“That was a very big thumbs-up, because the people who work here voted it and, I promise you, I don’t stand over people when they fill in the form,” he says.

Allan believes that part of MediaCom’s charm is that it is a very relaxed environment in which to work. “We live in a very open space which works for us and helps us build on that team feeling.”

Being the only one who has an office in the company, is testament to Allan’s claims that hierarchy does not feature prominently within MediaCom’s culture, the emphasis lies instead with staff investment.

“Our motto is ‘people first, better results’ and that’s probably quite a good summary of our culture here. We put a huge amount of energy, time and money into our people,” explains Allan.

“Nick Lawson [deputy MD] talks about treating people like grown-ups, not children, but, in order to do that, they need the requisite tools, which is obviously technical training, self-confidence and the ability to communicate well with clients, media owners and colleagues.”

Allan explains that he and his management team continually try to create different ways by which staff can have a say in the running of the company.

Citing the ‘if I ran the company’ scheme and ‘real world pitching’ as examples, Allan explains that putting groups of people together who would not normally work with each other has produced some interesting talent discoveries.

“Real world pitching gives them [all staff ] the sense of being in a new business environment.

It’s amazing what we learn about our staff through the process,” he says.

In another example of getting everyone involved with the company, for The Sunday Times awards dinner, instead of taking senior people, Allan opted to invite staff from across the company, including reception, finance and the post room.

At this particular dinner, Allan learned that the postroom guy had an artistic flair, which subsequently has led to him splitting his time between MediaCom’s internal creative unit and the postroom.

It is cases like this that illustrates Allan’s firm belief in the crucial importance of staff morale and development.

“It’s a big thing for me to give people the opportunity to develop their careers and to never feel that they are stuck in dead men’s shoes. We’ve been fortunate – because of the growth of MediaCom there are new opportunities opening up.”

With the imminent integration of MediaCom with WPP on the horizon, Allan is unconcerned that the MediaCom brand or culture will be tampered with, arguing that holding companies like WPP need to offer varied brands that appeal to different types of customers.

He is also not anticipating any changes as a result of the merger.

“It wouldn’t make sense commercially and, let’s face it, WPP as a business is quite commercially focused,” he says.

Citing the additional resources that MediaCom will soon enjoy, Allan adds: “These are exciting times for us. I think there are no downsides for MediaCom in this, whatsoever, and all we have to do for the clients is to look for the upsides.

“I don’t feel threatened and there’s no reason why I should be.”

In the past two years, Allan has seen a significant change within the industry with regards to procurement – an issue he finds worrying.

“It’s great news for clients as they have a highly competitive market out there who are all trying to move aggressively ahead, and clients want to take advantage of it, and I don’t blame them for that. But we, as an industry and individually as agencies, need to decide where to go.”

The changing value on procurement has been a doubled edge sword for Allan.

On the one hand, he feels that having procurement people in place in client companies means that, to a degree, the commercial relationship can be divorced from the operational side, which, for Allan, equates to better communication.

“It allows my people here not to get wrapped up in those kinds of negotiations, where sometimes there can be difficulties in a relationship of that kind,” he says.

However, Allan does have some issues in the procurement debate over costing. “In terms of us as an industry, the biggest single concern I have at the moment is about our ability to prove our worth to clients and to persuade clients to pay that worth.”

If agencies are unable to get a good return, he is sure that repercussions will be felt throughout the industry. Allan feels the industry needs to pull together on this front.

“It would be fair to say there are many agencies who, in their keenness to win business, are doing the most ridiculous things and that really disappoints me.

“I’ve heard things, like offering to work for the first year for free, or terms of business that are so low that you can’t possibly break even, let alone make money, and I think if there’s one thing I’m qualified to talk about it’s probably that.”

Recognising that procurement people will inevitably look at percentage ratios, Allan says MediaCom is trying to prove to clients they can add value that is worth paying for.

“We prove that we add value and it and we want to be paid fairly for it.”

Looking to the next 12 months, Allan thinks there will be more launches, especially in print, and continued revenue growth.

“From my reading, we should be looking at growth of 5%,” says Allan adding: “If you look at our numbers, it has more than quadrupled the size of our business in five years, so, in a sense, the market dynamic hasn’t made that much difference to us – it’s really about market share which comes down to winning business off competitors.”

On a global scale, he thinks the industry needs to be more mindful of technology. “I actually think people are getting smarter and they don’t have the patience anymore and if they don’t move to something quickly, they will PVR you.”

Something of an advertising veteran, Allan has been in the business since leaving school and joining Yershon Media as a trainee in 1981.

Apart from an occasional wonderment about what it would have been like to go to university, Allan claims that there is nothing he would change about his career to date.

With a wife and child, as well as several interests, Allan has a busy life outside work and encourages his staff to do likewise.

“There are no high marks for staying at your desks until 9pm,” he says.

One of the interests closer to his heart is Rays of Sunshine, a charity he runs that creates wishes for terminally ill children.

Allan and some friends set up the charity from scratch a year ago. It now has a full-time office, has raised more than half-a-million pounds of income and has helped dozens of children.

“I don’t do it for glorification, I just do it because it makes me feel good.

“It’s just about leaving a legacy I suppose, making a difference. When you finish doing what you do and you look back, what would they say about you? He was a great media man? It’s not that great is it?” Wife. Kid. Charity work. Boss of the agency of the year.

Steve Allan won’t be in need of one of those stress-busting massages just yet.

The road to the MediaCom hot seat

Stephen Allan began his career at Yershon Media where he joined as a trainee in 1981.

In 1982 he joined The Media Business as a media executive and worked his way up to become – at the age of 24 in 1987 – the youngest director of any advertising agency or media specialist in the UK.

The following year he was appointed the group's director of new business, and led The Media Business Group to rapid growth over the following four years. In 1993 new business gains worth £40mmade TMBG the UK’s fastest growing media independent.

In October of that year he was appointed managing director of the Group.

Two years later TMBG sought a full listing on the London Stock Exchange and Allan became one of the youngest MD’s of a publicly quoted company.

Three years of continuous growth and a fourfold increase in billings culminated in a merger between TMBG and MediaCom. Initially, he was MD of the merged company and, from 1999, became CEO of the MediaCom group.

In 2004, Stephen became vice-chairman of MediaCom Worldwide.

Allan says

On his management style

I do try to make it that I and the rest of my management colleagues should always be available, approachable and people who they [the staff]could talk to. It’s something that I’m very conscious of.

On the senior management team

We work very hard for each other, no one wants to et the other down.

There’s huge respect and, dareI say it, we actually all like each other.

On not showing off

One of the things I say to new staff is “you joined a successful agency but you should never be too big for your boots, you should be confident, but not cocky”.

For me, from a cultural point of view, it’s quite important that we maintain that attitude because if you lose that, you lose clients.

On winning awards

It’s a bit like a football team that wins the Premiership, you may think: “So now what?” The answer is that every year’s anew season and we want to win it again, be top of the table, be the best in class, keep the most clients and win the most business.

On not going travelling when he was younger

I did used to wonder what it would ’ve been like going to university or to go travelling, but as someone said tome: “Steve, you’re not a rucksack kind of person”.

What the Media Week Awards judges said

“It can be summed up by one word, respect. Respect for their clients, their staff, media owners and all other business partners.

It is this respect that delivers a consistency of thinking and execution across all areas of the business.”

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