Former Ofcom chief Stephen Carter is ready to talk business in his first full interview since his surprise appointment as group chief executive of public relations company Brunswick last week. But not before he lets slip his love of ITV talent show The X-Factor.
“I’ve really got into it this year,” says Carter, who believes the favourite, Leona, should take the title on “talent alone”. But if there is one man who should know that favourites do not always win at ITV, it is Carter, who was the frontrunner for the chief executive’s job following the resignation of Charles Allen in the summer.
ITV’s poaching of BBC chairman Michael Grade as executive chairman ended any ambitions Carter may have had to take over at the UK’s top commercial broadcaster. Just a week later, it was announced that Carter was joining privately owned financial PR outfit Brunswick, leading some to speculate that the job was his “second choice”.
However, while a source close to Carter reveals he was “absolutely” in the running for the ITV job, it seems he had been in talks with Brunswick founder and chairman Alan Parker since June. This is not surprising for a man one media executive describes as “hugely ambitious” and “an incredibly astute operator”. Indeed, when he left advertising agency JWT in 2000 to run cable operator NTL, he had at least three other potential jobs lined up, including senior roles at EMAP and ITV.
Carter will not comment on ITV, or “any of the other things” he was thinking of doing, except to say/ “The possibilities were broad and varied”.
However, he is more forthcoming about his Brunswick role, where he will be responsible for developing the business internationally – a challenge he says lured him to PR and astounded the industry.
Carter claims it was the chance to play on the international stage that most attracted him to the job, and downplays any shock about his move.
He adds: “When I left the cable business to become a regulator, everyone said ‘Gee, that’s a pretty left-hand move’, and before I left advertising for cable they said the same. [But] this is not even a small step away from many of the things I have been involved in.”
pastures new He talks fervently about the task ahead and the chance to build a fast-growing company in a burgeoning sector, particularly in new markets such as China and the Middle East. He says there should be no regulatory issues with him becoming chief executive at Brunswick, as he does not join until March, after his gardening leave finishes. He also points out that he will not be handling day-to-day client work. Brunswick’s media and telecoms clients include NTL, EMI, EMAP, SMG and 3.
“Here is a leading private firm which has achieved an enormous amount,” continues Carter. “They were looking to bring in – in their words, not mine – a ‘professional chief executive’ to take the firm to its next stage of growth.”
And as MindShare worldwide chief executive Dominic Proctor adds: “Stephen has always zigged when the world has expected him to zag.”
It was Proctor who, as UK chief executive at JWT (then J Walter Thompson), promoted the then 30-year-old Carter to managing director. Carter later replaced Proctor, becoming JWT’s youngest chief executive, leading another industry figure to label him “the golden child”.
Another source adds: “He was always a young man in a hurry at JWT.”
And while his time at Ofcom has been roundly praised – he was the regulator’s first chief executive – others believe a “troubled” stint at cable operator NTL blotted his copybook. Even Carter himself steers clear of calling it a success.
“We had to do a hell of a lot in a short period of time with very limited resources,” he says of his two years at the cable company. “One of the great clichés of life is you learn more in the bad times than in the good – and I certainly did.”
a love-hate thing Yet for every detractor there are several more in Carter’s camp who think he can turn his hand to anything. Christine Walker, co-founder of media agency Walker Media, says: “Stephen as a brand is a bit like Marmite.”
People are either great supporters, she says, or believe that he received a “great, big pay-off” from NTL for a bad job. She, though, remains a fan and thinks Carter’s skills will be a boon at Brunswick. “In PR you need huge people skills and to be politically astute, which he is extremely so, and you need to be driven to work with Alan Parker, which he is,” adds Walker.
Other strengths he is said to possess include having a wry sense of humour – “he has to wear those cardigans,” says another source – as well as being a natural leader, loyal, patient, driven and an “absolute lover” of media and communications.
smooth operator Indeed, he is said to be such a consummate media operator that friends list “networking” among his interests. He also runs, but his training during gardening leave has been hampered by a back injury. “Hopefully, I’ll be reasonably match fit by the time I start at Brunswick,” says Carter.
Last week’s announcement has finally put an end to speculation about Carter’s post-Ofcom career. But there are those, surprised that he would take a role at a non-FTSE 100 company, who are already looking ahead to his next move.
“I suspect that Brunswick is a means to an end – a holding job that he will keep for two or three years before moving on,” says one observer, who thinks Carter will not be able to resist eschewing the spotlight in this lower-profile role.
Several others believe Brunswick to be a rung up the political ladder with a career in politics ahead – a claim that Carter strenuously denies. “I have a great interest in politics as an area for study and always have done, and I have a number of politicians as friends,” he says. “But is it a career path for me? No, and it never has been.”
Perhaps, but there’s little doubt that Carter, still just 42, has several tricks left up his sleeve, and few believe Brunswick will be the final step in what has so far proved a rapid career trajectory.
CV of ‘the golden child’
1986 – Carter joins J Walker Thompson (now JWT) as a graduate trainee after studying law at the University of Aberdeen.
1994 – He becomes the agency’s youngest UK managing director at the age of 30, and three years later is made UK chief executive.
2000 – Carter leaves the agency for debt-laden cable operator NTL, joining as chief operating officer, after also being linked with roles at ITV and EMAP.
2003 – In March, Carter becomes Ofcom’s first chief executive.
2006 – He steps down at Ofcom and is thought to be one of the frontrunners for the ITV chief executive role but eventually joins Brunswick as group chief executive – a role he takes on from March next year.
• Carter famously earned $2.6m (£1.65m) in his last year in charge of NTL, despite its near-collapse. At Ofcom he was one of the country’s highest-earning public servants with a package worth over £400,000. Brunswick has not disclosed Carter’s pay package, or what stake in the company he will receive. Sources suggest the package could be double the £500,000 that country partners are thought to receive.