George stands proud as MEC takes pole position

Mediaedge:cia chief executive Tom George talks to Arif Durrani about the Agency of the Year's recession-defying formula for success

George stands proud as MEC takes pole position
George stands proud as MEC takes pole position

In the summer of 1982, an intrepid first-year student called Tom was among the first to shuffle into Manchester's Hacienda nightclub and experience what was to become a defining venue for British music.

Three decades later, with a love of the New Romantics now overshadowed by a passion for new business, Tom George continues to be a trailblazer, this time as chief executive of the fastest-growing media agency in the UK.

Mediaedge:cia's reception near London's South Bank is dominated by two things: a Nintendo Wii for idle visitors and a bulging trophy cabinet which, three years ago, before George became chief executive, would have been empty.

Taking pride of place centre-top of the display is Media Week's trophy for Agency of the Year 2009. For George, the win represents the culmination of "a massive team effort" and fulfils "one of the agency's core objectives for the year".

"Being named Media Agency of the Year is really prestigious; it's the only award where you stand on stage in front of the whole of your peer group," he explains. "It's the prize that affects most people in the organisation - it's a fantastic achievement."

For Media Week's judging panel, this year's decision was made easier by the agency's strong new business record, coupled with a 99% client retention rate. In the grip of the worst advertising recession in living memory, MEC has been the only top 10 agency to increase its billings, leapfrogging ZenithOptimedia along the way to become the sixth-largest agency in the UK.

And this momentum is set to continue, with the agency recently winning the UK's largest media pitch to date, the £80m Lloyds Banking Group business.

George stresses he is "not obsessed with rankings", but says MEC's rise of four places in three years is "the best way to articulate the physical manifestation of success". But it has not been an easy ride.

Born from the messy merger between The Media Edge and CIA in 2002, the success of WPP's third-string agency was far from guaranteed. By the time George joined as managing director in 2004, MEC was struggling to establish itself, with billings of £250m and a string of account losses that included Daewoo, Gap and Wrigley's.

Changing perception

But George, who brought 15 years' experience at former market leader Zenith, soon recognised the unmined potential of the agency he had inherited. Listing a roll-call that includes today's management Steve Hatch, Stuart Sullivan-Martin and David Fletcher, he says the team's quality was already in place, but that media owners were still feeding back the agency's involvement in the TV trading crisis of 1996.

"Perception takes a long time to change," he says. And so MEC launched what George calls "a classic PR job", not just on potential clients but on the pitch brokers and inter­mediaries who had started to play an increasingly important part in the new business process.

"In the first year, the goal was to turn reality into perception, and these conduits to new business were a critical factor in giving us the opportunity to start growing our business," he says. "It may be a cliché, but you have to be in it to win it."

George credits these initial steps for "laying the foundations" for the achievements since he became chief executive in 2006.

Someone who worked alongside George in those formative years was former joint managing director Toby Jenner, now chief executive of MediaCom Australia. He credits MEC's success to the "size and scale of GroupM's trading model", coupled with "a bloody good team" and George's "great ability to see the bigger picture while having a real grasp of the detail".

George himself remains far from complacent; his experience at Zenith tells him sustaining growth will be his next challenge. "We have to recalibrate what we mean by success going forward," he says. "We're not going to continue to win £150m-plus of net new business year in, year out."

Client retention will be "top of mind" for the £500m agency in 2010, as will exploring opportunities to diversify the business. MEC's leader is set for another busy year. But he's perhaps too eager to stress he's "not a workaholic", despite only taking one week's holiday this year.

Work/life balance

"Everybody at MEC works hard," he says defensively. "I would love to find a way to do our job nine to five, but I just don't see how it's possible."

The chief executive has initiated the phased introduction of accrued hours/flexitime at MEC this year in a bid to redress hours lost and holidays cancelled due to pitch demands. When he gets time, George still enjoys going to gigs, although even these are often shared with MEC's new-business maestro Cormac Loughran.

Someone unsurprised by George's commitment and ongoing success is Steve King, worldwide chief executive of ZenithOptimedia. He remembers George as a young recruit with Zenith Media and later as part of the UK management team when King was European chief executive from 1997.

King recalls: "George was definitely one of the smartest people in the UK management - someone who was very industrious and tenacious."

The only thing George lacked, according to Zenith's global leader, was a degree of self-belief. "He has clearly found more confidence in the past four to five years," King concedes - although you get the sense that he, along with the rest of MEC's rivals, is hoping George's new-found assurance is temporary.



Chief executive, Mediaedge:cia


Managing director, Mediaedge:cia


Deputy managing director, ZenithOptimedia


Group account director, Zenith Media


TV manager, Zenith Media


Account executive, Zenith Media


Joins full-service agency Dorland



Two daughters: Emily, four, and Maggie, eight


Degree in maths and management sciences at the University of Manchester



Claim to fame

Saw the first Smiths gig on 4 October 1982 at The Ritz Ballroom


George on...

Agencies' future: Media agencies have a real opportunity, because we know the medium as well as the message. Our core job is becoming increasingly complicated and we get asked to get involved in new things every day. It is a massively exciting time.

National press: If you look at the offering on the news-stands, the UK is blessed. The range, breadth and depth of titles is fantastic and, despite being widely pilloried, we have yet to see any major casualties. The press sector has proved very resilient.

Proposals to split the Lloyds account: It is unclear how splitting the account will manifest itself and at the moment there is a hell of a lot of speculation. If the split happens, we would remain really confident of our ability to service other units of the bank.

The BBC: It will take a brave government to change the current set-up. I love the BBC and what it does, but I have a great deal of sympathy with those in the commercial sector who have to compete against it. No other state broadcaster has the scale, the power and the heritage of the BBC.

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