Ian Burrell: The woman with £1 billion to spend – and a hotline to British mothers

Media Studies: Karen Blackett runs a company that will dictate the fortunes of the television, newspaper, radio, outdoor and online sectors

Karen Blackett is star-spotting over afternoon tea in London's Wolseley restaurant. She picks out Dennis Wise, the diminutive former England midfielder and David Dein, one-time Arsenal vice-chairman. But maybe the stars should be spotting Blackett, who has £1bn a year to spend.

Strictly speaking it's not her cash, but she runs a company that will pour that money into the British media economy and, in so doing, dictate the fortunes of the television, newspaper, radio, outdoor and online sectors. As the CEO of MediaCom, Britain's largest media agency for the past decade, Blackett, 40, is one of the sector's power players. Her client list of heavyweight advertisers includes Boots, Audi, NatWest, DFS and Direct Line.

Asked to identify key media trends, the first word off her tongue is Zeebox. She's referring to the social networking site for mobile devices that encourages "dual screening" by offering the latest Twitter or Facebook commentary on the television show you choose to watch. Launched by former BBC iPlayer chief technology officer Anthony Rose last October, Zeebox is already starting to live up to its boast that it is the "best thing to happen to TV since TV".

Blackett's love of Zeebox dual screening is good news for television advertising, but then MediaCom's client list also includes Thinkbox (the TV advertising body) and BSkyB, which bought a stake in Rose's company at the start of the year.

She plays down recent upheaval at Sky, saying "it's BAU [business as usual]", in spite of James Murdoch's resignation as chairman. Tom Mockridge, the News International boss, was a recent dining partner and she is impressed by the way he has done away with the executive floor at Wapping. "I think that signifies a change in culture". She is less enthusiastic about pay-walled content, denying that such readers are more valuable than those of free sites.

MediaCom is part of Sir Martin Sorrell's WPP empire, the biggest advertising group in the world. She endorses Sir Martin's view that the Olympics, the Diamond Jubilee, the football Euros and the US elections "should make this year buoyant for advertising revenue". But persuading businesses to spend their cash in this economic climate is not easy.

Blackett tells customers to reach out to mothers –"the CEO of the household" – because their brands are competing for a place on the shopping list and must "make sure they're not one of those areas that are cut". While most clients are employing "quite male-dominated workforces" to sell basic household services, MediaCom's top posts are nearly all filled by women, including chairman Jane Ratcliffe, managing director Claudine Collins and chief strategy officer Sue Unerman.

Blackett oversees a Business Science Division of 45 econometricians who provide "data technology" to help clients determine purchasing behaviour. Her real secret weapon is a "Real World Street" of media guinea-pigs that MediaCom has recruited and equipped with video-cameras in Blackett's home town of Reading, a place that is apparently typical of the consumer habits of the United Kingdom. The material the families provide is shared with MediaCom's clients.

Increasingly, MediaCom is helping clients to fund their own media content. Home of the Future, a Channel 4 show in February, was co-funded by MediaCom client E.ON, which did not feature directly in the programme but advertised around it

and built a related campaign in social media.

To explore similar projects, Blackett has established a 40-strong MediaCom Beyond Advertising division run by former BBC factual and arts commissioning editor Nick Cohen. It helped RBS fund a rugby documentary for Scottish Television. Other shows will be aimed at mothers, says Blackett. "Branded content is going to be a really important avenue for us to reach the CEO of the household."

Death on the Rock: scandal to be adapted for the stage

To the Hurlingham Polo Club to meet Alastair Brett, the in-house lawyer at The Times and The Sunday Times for 33 years.

Brett, who worked for 11 editors including Harold Evans, Andrew Neil, Simon Jenkins and James Harding (all men), was dispensed with by Rebekah Brooks when she became chief executive at Wapping.

He received a grilling from Lord Leveson over his role in the outing of the police blogger Richard "NightJack" Horton, who is suing the The Times for aggravated and exemplary damages. But Brett's obsession is with an even greater media controversy.

Next year marks the 25th anniversary of the Gibraltar shootings, when the SAS took out an IRA terror unit. Brett was embroiled in an almighty legal action after The Sunday Times challenged the veracity of a Bafta-winning Thames documentary, Death on the Rock.

The paper lost a libel action brought by the documentary's star witness, Carmen Proetta, but Brett hasn't given up. With his playwright friend Richard Vergette, he is hoping to bring forth new material in the form of a theatre production titled Gibraltar. "I've got so much information which is completely unpublished," says the lawyer.

Golden days of the regional evening paper draw to an end

The MEN (Manchester Evening News) is one of the most famous names in the British press. But the era of the local evening paper is drawing to a close. Publishers Northcliffe have announced that the Bristol Evening Post will be dropping the "Evening" from its title in recognition that the 80-year-old newspaper – which is to disappear altogether on Saturdays – will no longer print editions during the day.

Archant's Ipswich Evening Star and the Trinity Mirror's paper the Birmingham Evening Mail are among titles that have similarly shortened their names after becoming morning-only publications. The MN would be the last word for regional evenings.


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