Stephen Carter makes his move

Around the middle of this year, something rather unusual happened. Stephen Carter suddenly announced that he was stepping down as chairman of the Marketing Group of Great Britain, only half way through his biennial term. Clearly something major was afoot, and in Carter?s case it was unlikely to be an enveloping scandal. Pressure of work, the official excuse, didn’t seem very convincing either. In his usual meticulous way, Carter – after over two years as a respected and largely successful steward of the new super-regulator Ofcom – appeared to be arranging another of his startling career changes.

What could it be? The long-awaited move into politics? Wrong timing, and at over 40 he would probably be too old. So back into the business mainstream and, after being JWT’s youngest chief executive and NTL’s chief operating officer, a major chief executiveship seemed in view. Perhaps of an interesting but troubled blue-chip company. For the NTL stint showed, if nothing else, that Carter was comfortable with risk.

The right stuff for ITV

The rumour mill duly obliged. Within a couple of months, Carter was being connected with the ITV job, before its present chief executive had even vacated the seat. Spot on, as it turned out. Carter duly resigned from Ofcom. He was a strong candidate for sure: extremely able, reliable, tenacious. It was no small tribute that he had attracted so few brickbats in the invidious role of regulator, while managing to usher in some important boundary changes. What’s more, years in the advertising industry gave him the perfect background, a bonus if he was going to disentangle the contract rights renewal issue bedevilling ITV’s revival. The only thing lacking on the CV was programme experience.

The Grade factor

But problems soon emerged. For ethical reasons, a period of purdah between being an impartial media adjudicator and a highly partisan media baron was unavoidable. Yet time was the one thing that ITV did not have. Once Charles Allen was putsched by angry shareholders, the succession and its various candidates became part of a media circus. Not the best environment in which to pursue the job.

Carter himself never actually said he wanted to go to ITV, but nor did he deny it. The nearest he actually came to making a slip was when he admitted in an interview that he would like to head a major media company. By a process of attrition, from being one of about four candidates, he soon seemed to be the only sensible one left.

What went wrong was not the ITV Murdoch coup, still less NTL’s interest, but the Grade factor. Originally, the idea was to create a managerial dream ticket: Grade playing the elder statesman with copious programme experience and Carter as ceo. But Grade seems to have been unhappy with being a non-executive chairman. Once it became clear that Grade would not play with anything less than executive chairman status, the game was over for Carter.

A second choice?

So, Brunswick a second choice? Hugely successful though it is, Brunswick is not exactly an FT100 company, still less a media owner. The timing of Carter’s announcement that he would head the public relations company so soon after Grade?s bolt out of the blue would also reinforce this theory.

Then again, nothing is ever that simple with Stephen Carter. It gradually emerged during his long and painful extraction from JWT that he had at least three other jobs on the boil besides NTL, including Trinity Mirror and EMAP. He has been just as assiduous in searching for alternatives this time round. Certainly the Brunswick option emerged from a chance conversation as early as last June.

And is it that bad a second choice anyway? There is no good reason to disbelieve Carter when he says that money is not what principally motivates him. By his standards the £441,000 a year he earned at Ofcom was a big financial come-down. Not enough, certainly, to support long term the lavish lifestyle he had cultivated while in advertising (two houses etc, but no inherited wealth). At Brunswick, the UK partners are on at least £500,000, so it is safe to assume that £1m or above must be the price tag for the newly created post of chief executive. Plus a share in the equity.

The world his oyster

Moreover, Carter seems just the man, with his steely drive and energy, to put Brunswick more firmly on the international map. And, in the middle distance, perhaps to take it public – making himself and his partners exceedingly rich in the process.

Because the growth potential is certainly there. Carter is surely right when he talks about the public relations business being on the cusp of explosive growth. It?s not just about the current mergers and acquisitions boom, but the increasing vulnerability of corporate reputations in the internet age.

The sticking point, if there is one, is likely to be his relationship with Alan Parker, the founder of Brunswick who remains its majority shareholder. Founders, whatever they may say, don’t like being sidelined. Roddy Dewe stuck around Dewe Rogerson for many years after he ceased to be its driving force. Lord Bell shows no early sign of departing from Chime – a fact which earlier caused Rupert Howell to reconsider his career options.

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