Profile - Manning decides to bow out at the top

The media agency world was rocked last week by the announcement of Nick Manning's resignation as head of OMD UK. He talks to Olivia Solon about his reasons for leaving and his plans for the future.

Nick Manning is a man of his word. On being appointed CEO of OMD UK Group in April 2004, he said: "It's the last mountain. I think I've got one more left in me and this is the big one." He was referring to the task of overseeing a "velvet merger" of the group's two main operating units, OMD UK and Manning Gottlieb OMD.

His resignation last week, which shocked the industry, including many of his colleagues, suggests that he has reached the summit - or at least will have done by the time he leaves next April.

"Everything I have aimed to do, I have achieved. The structures are in place; the team is in place. I'd rather quit at the top. I am a builder, or perhaps I am more of an architect. I get in on the beginning of things and I help create them," he says.

Nevertheless, Manning will not be around to create the next stage in his agency's development, a closer amalgamation with sister media network PHD, under a new Omnicom Media Group UK supremo. Rumours abound that his failure to secure this role is the real trigger for his resignation.

Serial achiever

Yet even his detractors would admit his achievements at OMD are numerous. After starting as a TV buyer at CIA, he became board director within six years, leaving in 1990 to establish Manning Gottlieb Media (MGM) with Colin Gottlieb.

In 1997, MGM was acquired by Omnicom for £12m, and was renamed Manning Gottlieb OMD five years later when it became part of OMD UK Group.

Ironically, as a possible precursor to the expected larger unification of the Omnicom networks that may lie ahead after he has gone, Manning was one of the first to spot the opportunity for a network power buying unit creating, with PHD, OPera in 2004.

But his finest achievement was the combining of OMD with Manning Gottlieb, which saw the two units remain as stand-alone brands, while sharing key skills, with the aim of making OMD group perform more aggressively in the market.

"OMD UK didn't exist, it was just a collection of assets without much connectivity. It was operating on different silos and no one was growing or developing it," admits Manning.

It was "painful at the beginning", he says, but insists that the move has been a success. He gauges this success by the amount of new business won in recent years, including Aviva, Carlsberg, Kia and Sara Lee. Manning points to the feat of retaining the £76m PSA media account.

The pain of restructure was felt most fiercely by a number of senior members of management who were culled by Manning. "One of my key jobs was to shake out people who weren't performing. They had to go. While we were forming the team, there was a period when I had to tell a number of people that they were no longer required," he says.

This seemingly detached and calculated manner has made Manning a target for criticism, with some describing him as being cold and lacking in compassion.

A telling anecdote is the choice of The Simpsons' character Mr Burns as his looky-likey in an OMD joke exercise - a far cry from an earlier nickname of Tin-Tin from the days when he worked as a TV buyer. This transition from the friendly Francophile to megalomaniac mogul is an exaggerated, but perhaps revealing, analogy.

"He's an acquired taste. He is not the easiest person on first meeting and perhaps a lot of people don't get past that, but if you do, he is actually very witty," says Alison Wright, chief marketing officer at EGG and one-time managing director of Manning Gottlieb OMD.

Final goal

Manning is conscious of his weaknesses. "I'm not very warm and cuddly. I have been told that I can be a bit aloof and that I am not very approachable." He describes his strengths as being an "early stages" man as opposed to a "maintenance and management" person.

Before leaving OMD in April, his goal is to drive the group's digital capabilities, which many say have been lagging behind agencies such as Carat and MindShare.

Looking to the future, Manning hopes to branch out. "Any business interests that I pursue will not be inside the media agency arena. I wouldn't want to work for an inferior agency."

His future may lie in private equity groups, non-executive directorships and personal acquisitions. He also hopes to sponsor arts activities in theatre and film.

Business aside, he wishes to spend more time with his family, although with two of his three children entering the "Kevin" phase, he fears that he may swiftly become persona non grata. And as an avowed Francophile, he expects to spend more time visiting his two properties in the Loire and Perpignan, while "delving into French medieval history".

Manning leaves behind a healthy media legacy. Whether his name will live on in the agency he founded or be airbrushed into history with another OMD rebranding, remains to be seen CV

2006: Announces he will leave at the end of the financial year

2004: Appointed CEO of OMD in the UK. Co-founded OPera, joint venture media negotiation company, with PHD's Tess Alps

1997: MGM is acquired by the Omnicom group for £12m

1990: Left CIA and co-founded Manning Gottlieb Media with Colin Gottlieb

1980: Started media career at CIA as a trainee TV buyer. Becomes board director in six years.

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