ZenithOptimedia on the hunt for a new chief executive

Gerry Boyle is preparing to step aside from his role as chief executive of ZenithOptimedia, the agency he joined more than 13 years ago, according to internal and external sources.

It is believed the 41 year old is staying within the Publicis Groupe agency as chairman, a role left vacant since the departure of Derek Morris when he took on the new role as the chief operating officer of VivaKi UK in April 2010.

Zenith Media is already on the hunt for a new managing director following Stephen Farquhar’s decision to take the role of MD of Zenith China this summer. The new CEO role has become part of that recruitment process being led by global chief executive, Steve King.

Boyle became chief executive when Antony Young moved to New York in June 2006 and, for the past six years, his leadership has been the one constant in a network that, like the industry at large, has seen dramatic change.

From the rise and fall of its digital specialist Zed, and the coming together and then separating of Zenith and Optimedia, in addition to its relationship with the evolving group positioning of VivaKi, Boyle has provided a steady hand on the tiller.

He understands ZenithOptimedia’s DNA and its current challenges as well as anyone, and they’ll be relief all round if he is to stay on in a chairman role as expected.

It’s fair to say I haven’t always seen eye-to-eye with ZenithOptimedia’s irascible chief executive, mainly because as a media journalist I have, in the past, had the temerity to write stories about the agency that have not been officially sanctioned by him.

However, fellow agency leaders assure me his protectiveness should be seen as indicative of the passion and commitment he has for the business, rather than a desire to simply control and dictate per se.

I’ve yet to hear anyone describe him as cuddly, but the Glaswegian certainly commands admiration and respect throughout the industry. People who have worked with him recall a smart, strategic operator, and a natural, charismatic leader.

The chief executive’s pivotal role was underlined by the manner in which ZenithOptimedia bounced back from the gapping loss of Lloyds’s £80m media business to MEC in September 2009. At a time when others might have considered bowing out, Boyle is credited with truly galvanising and refocusing ZenithOptimedia in the immediate aftermath.

The agency lost no other accounts, big or small, for the next year, and embarked on a new business pitch frenzy that more than offset the loss of the high street bank to bring more than £175m worth of new billings during 2009/2010. One year later the agency also got its footing firmly back in the financial sector when it won RBS retail’s coveted business.

The chief executive’s presence is said to have been instrumental in winning the RBS account, with tales of a last minute, on the day intervention when he halted proceedings and, with near certainty, changed the outcome.

Industry figures paint a picture of Boyle as someone who, when at his best, possesses an innate ability to empathise with clients and tap into their hidden agendas.

He first made a name for himself as a planner at specialist agency Michaelides & Bednash in the late nineties, where his commitment to the discipline of comms planning is remembered fondly.

Someone who knew him back then recalls a driven young buck who stood out for bringing a new approach to age old problems. There are stories of a young Boyle taking to the streets and personally interviewing 200-odd people to glean more insight for a particular brief.

By the time he joined Zenith as head of planning back in 1999, in the pre-merger Paddington days of Zenith Media and Optimedia, he was already cultivating a fearsome reputation.

He went on to build an 85-strong team around him, which included Optimedia’s now MD Mark Howley, and went on to revitalise the planning capabilities of the renowned media powerhouse Zenith. Remembered by one former staffer as “one of the most intense people I’ve ever met,” he admits, “you always wondered what was going on behind those eyes”.

People talk of the exhilarating and daunting experience of running through a pitch preview with the Boyle taking notes, shredding slides and polishing your prose. “He certainly knows how to tell a story,” I’m told, but in his role “there’s not always time for the niceties”.

In more recent times, Boyle is known for being gracious in both pitch victories and defeats among his agency peers. The Glaswegian was also among the first to reach out to WPP’s rival MEC when the agency found itself in the cross-hairs over the engulfing scandal that soon became known as Shicklegate.

ZenithOptimedia is going into 2013 with its new group structure in place and on the back of significant investment in its digital and analytics capability, as well as Newcast, its engagement solutions division. Only this month, its relationship with RBS has been extended to include its digital business and new business has come in the guise of Totaljobs.

There’s never a perfect time for any business to replace a figurehead who’s clearly been such a potent key to its success for the last decade, but actually the end of 2012 with ZenithOptimedia’s course firmly set, is probably as good as you can get.