Profile - Why Lawson wants to surprise us all

The formation of Group M has affected MediaCom in more ways than one. Its new UK CEO Nick Lawson tells Kevin Johns about the importance of innovation and the element of surprise.

Clients love agencies that are prepared to go that extra mile during a pitch, but it can't be often that a receptionist, a cabbie and his radio operator all conspire to prove the point. And that "extra mile" isn't usually on the meter either.

But it's not every day you're pitching to someone who's just chased a taxi down the road as it disappears around the corner with their briefcase in the back.

"The client came into the office looking a bit preoccupied," explains MediaCom's new UK chief executive Nick Lawson. "'My whole life's just driven off in the back of that cab', he said. So I told reception I had the feeling if we could get his stuff back, it would really help our chances."

Twenty minutes later, the taxi was back outside and the receptionist walked in with the case. The rest, as they say, is history. It's this sort of on-the-spot thinking, and getting everyone from the bottom up involved, that can really make the difference, Lawson believes.

"A major part of my influence here has been to treat staff like adults. I think the answer is to give people the room to make decisions for themselves and think for themselves. This helps enormously when it comes to problem solving," he says.

New-business growth

It's a theory that certainly seems to hold water, if even the front desk is helping to win new business. But it's at the top level that key departures and an unprecedented period of new-business growth really present a challenge for Lawson in sustaining MediaCom's success.

He acknowledges that improving the top-billing agency in town is a tough task, but insists that improvement will take place. Lawson also stresses the promotion of his predecessor, Stephen Allan, and former head of direct, David Kyffin, into Group M in December happened at the best possible time.

"Most of our talent's still here," Lawson explains. "There're some people who've been here for five-plus years who are going to step up to the plate and take us to the next level. The board at MediaCom is still incredibly strong."

He adds, matter-of-factly: "Placing too much emphasis on Group M is misleading. It's the agency brands - MindShare, Mediaedge:cia and MediaCom - that are the heroes. They will always be the stars of the show."

Former UK CEO Allan, who worked with Lawson for some 14 years, agrees, and says his former joint managing director's straight-talking approach will be ideal for moving MediaCom forward.

"One of the things I spotted in Nick early on was his tenacity, and a competitive spirit," he explains. "He's thick-skinned, very creative and excelled in the world of new business. Many people would say he's feisty. He never tells me what he thinks I should hear. He tells me the truth and that's something I've always respected enormously."

Lawson himself admits he has a "highly, highly competitive" streak as he talks about the challenge of maintaining market share and growing revenues.

With airline and beer brands the only two obvious holes in the agency's portfolio, Lawson says that, while billings are expected to grow this year, more focus will be on retaining clients and taking share away from other marketing communications businesses.

"You have to look at MediaCom in a bit of a different way now. Yes, we're pretty full up in terms of media planning and buying, but that's only one area.

"I think we also need to look at new products and markets. I want us to surprise a few people this year - but if I told you how we're going to do that, it wouldn't be a surprise, would it?"

Under pressure

This view feeds Lawson's outlook on MediaCom's assimilation into WPP, which acquired it via the purchase of Grey in autumn 2004. "It hasn't changed us so far," he says. "I don't know any business that isn't under pressure to improve margin. Media is constantly changing and you need to move with the times - MediaCom is at its best when we innovate."

Motivating individuals the right way is clearly central to Lawson's - and the MediaCom board's - management mentality. A key part of the challenge when it comes to being successful is making things personal, he says.

"If I stand up there in front of everyone and say, 'I want us to bill an extra £100m this year', it doesn't really mean a great deal to them as individuals. You need to appeal on a personal level to get an extra 10% out of them.

"We've invested heavily in training to instil this ethos. People have turned up here from other agencies, a lot of them pissed off because they had been working with no light at the end of the tunnel. But there's a different feel here. There are people here who really love MediaCom and what it stands for. For me, and them, it's more than just a job, and that's rare these days."

And if you don't believe him, just ask at reception.

CV

2006: UK chief executive, MediaCom

1999: Joint managing director, MediaCom

1997: Marketing director, The Media Business

1994: Associate director, The Media Business

1991: Strategic planner, The Media Business.

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