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Norman’s retirement is another sign of the coming sea change at WPP’s GroupM

There’s been much talk recently of the increasing pace of management change in media agencies – a number of high profile British bosses have left recently – but, arguably, more significant is the changing of the guard in the upper echelons of the biggest holding company, WPP.

The latest is the retirement of Rob Norman (below), latterly WPP GroupM’s chief digital officer, a title that would have seemed unrealistic as well as slightly absurd when Norman began his career at Chris Ingram’s CIA. At a time when ads appeared on TV screens or were stuck to walls.

This follows last year’s retirement of GroupM president Dominic Proctor, who also began his career in the pre-Google age, most notably as CEO of JWT London despite being a media man. Procter went on to found Mindshare, WPP’s first foray into standalone media.

Brian Lesser, former CEO of GroupM North America, has also left to set up a new media operation at At&T, one which might be stymied by US legislators objecting to its proposed takeover of Time Warner.

Timing is everything in most people’s careers and Procter and Norman can be said to have made the most of theirs: helping to build a massive media empire through the good times for adland’s holding companies and stepping down when the media agency model is facing its biggest threats: from clients suspicious of agency earnings (and keen to cut fees) on the one hand and the digital duopoly of Google and Facebook on the other.

Lesser may have detected the same threats too although it’s presumably also the case that he recognised an extremely well paid job when he saw it. A number of adland luminaries from creative agencies have also recently taken the digital shilling. Strangely we don’t hear very much from them.

Brits like Procter and Norman brought their own spice to media agency land even though the managements are now quartered in the US where the biggest accounts are. GroupM chairman and ultimate top dog is American Irwin Gottlieb, while Kelly Clark is CEO.

In the 1980s and 90s media executives were traders at heart. Beneath their affable exterior they delighted in extracting the best prices from their media owner supplicants, a process that only increased as they increased their scale under holding company umbrellas. Sometimes keeping rebates for their masters. This eventually morphed into programmatic media buying, where the machines did the work but the media execs made sure they received their (often very generous) cut. There’s a clear connection between the two.

Now it’s all about the appliance of science with media agency margins under threat from all directions. That’s one of the main reasons why holding company growth has dried up this year, with Pivotal analyst Brian Wieser reckoning that, as a bunch, they’re only growing at O.5 per cent. Share prices have tumbled.

So Norman and Proctor at WPP may well have seen the best of media agencies, in terms of clout and money anyway. The next generation of media agency execs will be very different animals.

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