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PROFILE: The collector - MICHAEL BIRKIN, GLOBAL PRESIDENT, OMNICOM DAS

Michael Birkin looks back to the early 90s the way antiques collectors hark back to the 50s and 60s. The difference is, where others covet Hepplewhite chairs or Beatles memorabilia, he buys marketing services agencies. ’Below-the-line’s my bag,’ he says.

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Michael Birkin looks back to the early 90s the way antiques

collectors hark back to the 50s and 60s. The difference is, where others

covet Hepplewhite chairs or Beatles memorabilia, he buys marketing

services agencies. ’Below-the-line’s my bag,’ he says.



For Birkin is the global president of Omnicom’s Diversified Agencies

Services (DAS). Back in March, fast-growing DM and sales promotion

specialist Claydon Heeley was added to an already extensive list. This

month, Cheshire-based healthcare marketing consultancy Adelphi was the

target.



Why the early 90s? It’s simple. ’Five years ago, it was relatively

straightforward,’ he says, almost wistfully. ’The economic situation in

the UK was so appalling that anything with a decent track record had to

be fairly sound. Now there’s very little left, and any good players that

haven’t been sold have certainly been looked over several times.’



Five years ago, it has to be said, he wasn’t so much hunter as

hunted.



He was chief executive of brand consultancy Interbrand - originally

famed for its naming skills and for advocating putting brands on the

balance sheet.



DAS snapped it up at the end of 1993. Within 18 months, Birkin had been

made managing director of DAS Europe and, about a year later, president

of DAS for Europe and Asia. He was promoted to his global role in July

this year.



Rapid progress for a 40-year-old - the natural question is, how has he

done it? Talent and ability are inevitably part of the answer, but the

unusual element is what he calls his eclectic background. Put another

way, it took him time to find out what he wanted to do.



Birkin read law at university: ’I enjoyed it very much and thought about

becoming a barrister, but I was concerned about not earning any money

for years and years,’ he says. So he joined Price Waterhouse as a

trainee accountant, only to resign a week after qualifying. ’I never had

any desire to be an accountant, but I wanted some business

training.’



This could be considered Birkin’s guilty secret. Bean counters are never

popular with marketers, but long hair and a shot silk shirt are an

effective disguise.



’I don’t overplay the financial side; it’s useful, but limiting,’ Birkin

responds. Then he corrects himself: ’It’s seen by some people as

limiting.’ His early background in law and accountancy landed him a job

as PA to Sir Mark Weinberg, chairman of financial services giant Hambro

Life. During his stint there, the company relaunched as Allied Dunbar -

a change of identity that brought Birkin into contact with John Murphy,

founder of Interbrand. When British American Tobacco bought Allied

Dunbar, Birkin joined Interbrand as chief executive.



’My origins may be legal and financial,’ he insists. ’But the biggest

part of my career to date was spent building up Interbrand. My role now

may be more corporate, but I still feel entrepreneurial.’



So how does this equate with the popular press image of Omnicom,

circling like some great predator, snapping up the smaller fish? So far

as Birkin’s concerned, you’d have to say sharp, yes; shark, no.



Both Omnicom and its DAS division take a very hands-off approach, Birkin

insists - and they have to, because their head office units are so

small.



When he’s buying, he’s looking for well-run companies, but the most

important factor is that the chemistry should be right between his

operation and the people who are selling. He’s looking for people who

want to grow their businesses with Omnicom’s help, not to disappear with

the money once their earn-out is complete.



Jon Claydon, a founder director of Claydon Heeley, says that if there

was a single reason why the company chose to sell to Omnicom rather than

another suitor, it was Birkin. ’He’s got that intuitive, empathetic

understanding of the creative business, backed by a razor-sharp

financial focus. You wouldn’t know it, but he’s also fiercely ambitious,

for himself and for the network.’



For now, however, there are strong hints that the DAS chequebook will

spend more time locked away in the office drawer.



This is partly because there are fewer strong takeover candidates

around, partly because of the economic cycle, which will put a higher

priority on achieving organic growth.



’Management is real growth,’ says Birkin, ’not just takeover growth. One

of the key things I am measured by is my ability to grow the business

organically. And if I’m being judged on this by Omnicom, then obviously

I have to pass it down the line.’



BIOGRAPHY

1981-1984

Trainee accountant, Price Waterhouse

1984-1987

PA to chairman, Hambro Life (now Allied Dunbar)

1987-1995

Chief executive, Interbrand

1995-1996

Managing director, DAS Europe

1996-1998

President, DAS Europe and Asia

Present

President, DAS Worldwide



This article was first published on marketingmagazine.co.uk

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