Savour the Gary Digby phenomenon before it's too late -- he's a living symbol of all that's happening at ITV. In these transitory days, we're seeing all sorts of firsts and lasts -- and Digby, as it happens, straddles this cusp.
True, he's the first sales director of a single ITV -- but there's also a strong sense of him being the last of the classic old ITV; and it's a fair assumption that the assembly line won't be turning out many of this model in the future. What's more, Digby has also served notice that he's about to reinvent himself.
So something is likely to be lost to posterity. It's not just the time-honoured tradition of doing very little outside of the few weeks of the negotiation season in the run-up to Christmas -- very little, that is, aside from playing golf and stabbing rival ITV sales teams in the back. It's also to do with an attitude. The old-school ITV approach to negotiation was not for delicate egos. It rarely raised its voice but still managed to do the straightest of straight talking. It was uncompromising, scathing and ruthless and had a finessed yet minatory East End politesse about it. Digby himself is especially renowned for his legendary dry humour -- all the more legendary for being so rarely spotted.
Many on the agency side often suspected that Digby's primary role at Carlton Sales was to make his boss, Steve Platt (another no-nonsense advocate of the keep 'em keen school of relationship management), seem like an avuncular Mr Happy.
"If you want to know the truth, he's a miserable shit," his friend (and best man), Chris Locke, Starcom MediaVest's group buying director, admits. Mick Perry, the chairman of Magna Global UK, puts it more diplomatically. "He can be amusing when he wants to be," he says. "But maybe some people find his upfront persona a bit grumpy. I've never had any problem with that. If you've got something you need to iron out, he'll get right down to it and cut the crap."
New ITV, though, will see the evolution of New Digby. The internecine ITV warfare is now over and the challenge for the network now is to find ways of making itself relevant to the increasingly sophisticated communications strategies being pursued by advertisers.
Or, as Digby himself puts it: "Recently, ITV has had two sales departments that have both been tough negotiators. It's been about driving revenue forward against what has not always been a great audience performance. Now we need to talk in a different language and offer communications packages against the whole spectrum of ITV businesses. We have to think differently. But that doesn't mean we won't be tough negotiators."
In other words, if you think he's about to go soft or something, have another think. But there's no disguising his enthusiasm for what, after all, is not just the biggest job in UK media sales but also the biggest challenge - and agencies say he's got what it takes to make a real success of this. He's bright enough, he has forged enduring relationships with the people that matter on the agency side and, having spent plenty of time on that side of the fence (he began his career at CDP and was a member of the renowned McCann-Erickson media department of the early to mid-80s), he's aware of their perspective. He's well-liked. There's even a genuine affection for him.
If there are any doubts, they're about how he will fare without a mentor. He's had plenty of protection in the past (most recently he and Platt formed a formidable team) but now he's the solitary Carlton boy at the top of what is effectively a Greater Granada ITV.
He likes to keep his private life pretty much private. He's not a massive party animal and, in fact, he's pretty much teetotal - how New ITV is that? His interests are mainly sporting - gym, golf, football - but he also collects art in the form of massive abstract canvasses that are, according to Locke, clearly penis substitutes. In the 70s and early 80s, he was a die-hard Spurs supporter. Now, with Spurs a lost cause, he's an ultra-loyal, life-long Manchester United fan.
And then there's golf. Like anyone in ITV sales with a modicum of ability, he has a ludicrously low handicap. He regularly breaks par. "Play him off five and he'll have your money away. Play him off scratch and you might just have a chance," Nick Theakstone, the director of investment at MindShare, says with undisguised bitterness.
Theakstone reckons none of us sees the real Digby because basically he's shy. Some agree with that analysis - and wonder whether he'll ever really feel comfortable getting up there and knocking them dead as the frontman of an all-singing-all-dancing new ITV sales shtick.
Others say that Digby is a determined perfectionist who'll do what it takes - and do it well. "Perfectionist?" Locke responds. "He's terrible. It stems from him being an only child. He went to play golf at Pebble Beach once and got very upset because there weren't enough pebbles."
The Digby file
1985 BBDO London, associate director
1987 Scottish TV, TV group manager
1988 TSMS, group account director
1993 Carlton TV Sales, agency negotiation director, rising to sales director
2003 ITV, sales director
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This article was first published on Campaign