Maude's on board and Incepta is on a new campaign trail in marketing

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The Independent Online

Richard Nichols, the 38-year-old chief executive of marketing and PR group Incepta, is not your average media darling. Hailing from Newcastle (and still a devoted fan of the football team), he trained as an accountant at Price Water- house before leaving for one of his clients, gas group BG. He then spent several years as Incepta's finance director before landing the top job in 2001.

Yet an accountancy background probably helped during the advertising downturn. As Nichols says: "We have gone through a recession, the worst for 40 or 50 years, and it's been bloody tough." What was needed was someone to keep hold of the financial reins, not a creative guru.

The group is now gearing up for recovery, and 2004 promises to be a better year for the sector as whole. Incepta also raised the profile of its board last week by naming Francis Maude, a minister in the Thatcher government, as chairman designate.

Yet the challenges aren't over. The industry is facing a period of transformation with the creation of ITV plc, while over in pay-TV, offerings such as BSkyB's Sky Plus allow viewers to skip advert breaks altogether.

As a result, says Nichols, the emphasis has shifted away from "above the line" marketing - ads, in other words - to a more subtle approach. "TV advertising isn't about to die, and the challenge is how you react to what's happening. But the marketing services side has been pretty robust during this downturn and that's because people are looking to spend more and more below the line."

Nichols cites campaigns such as Flora's association with the London Marathon and a recent competition by Heinz to win a house as examples of this approach. "Consumers are getting much more sophisticated. You have got to engage with them."

Incepta's operations serve two broad remits, financial and consumer, and revenues are split roughly 50:50. Tellingly, only around 10 per cent of the business is pure advertising.

Incepta companies include consumer PR firm the Red Consultancy, events specialist Park Avenue, promotional firm Dynamo and financial PR Citigate. Recent work includes Concorde's retirement, Roman Abramovich's takeover of Chelsea, the launch of the BMW 3 Series, and JP Morgan's $55bn (£29.5bn) purchase of US rival Bank One.

In this post-Enron era, fees also come from clients keen to convey an image of good corporate governance to the City. Yet Nichols does not believe in leaving everything to spin: "Maybe shareholders should have been more pro-active earlier. As far as I see it, they have a right to an open dialogue with the main board and a clear understanding of what's happening. At the end of the day, it's their money." As for his own investors, they can expect growth this year to come organically and via small, bolt-on acquisitions.

With respective market values of £243.3m and £7.1bn, Incepta is a minnow next to industry giant WPP. Yet with a bean counter and politician in charge, the group is clearly trying to swim with the big fish.

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