He moved to New York from London to set up Zenith Media in 1994, when the U.S. market was still staunchly behind full-service agencies and vehemently against the unbundling of media that Mr. King was spearheading.
"Most people told us it was a European disease, not required here and inappropriate" for the U.S. market, he said. "There was a huge amount of resistance. We had the first mover advantage but the downside is you take all the early blows. It was a pretty lonely existence."
Zenith USA launched in February 1995 and eventually the tide of full-service agency opposition turned as global marketers, familiar with media specialists after working with them for years in Europe, accepted them in the U.S. After three years, Mr. King moved back to London as CEO of Zenith Media Europe, Middle East and Africa, and kept the CEO role when Zenith and Optimedia merged into ZenithOptimedia in 2001.
His management experience on both sides of the Atlantic made Mr. King the logical successor when John Perriss, the only person to ever run Zenith, retired as chairman in April 2004, 16 years after opening Zenith's first office in London. Zenith was initially an equal joint venture between Saatchi & Saatchi and Bates Worldwide. The merged ZenithOptimedia was owned 75% by Publicis Groupe and 25% by first Cordiant Communications Group then WPP Group as Bates changed hands.
`The ROI Agency'
For the past year Zenith has had a single owner in Publicis Groupe, and has reinvented itself as "the ROI Agency" focusing on return on investment and the end result for marketers.
"Steve is one of the authors of the ROI-operating blueprint, and is passionate about delivering on its promise," said Roger Haupt, Publicis' chief operating officer.
"What we are seeing at Zenith is encapsulated by Steve," said Jon Williams, director-Toyota marketing for Toyota Motor Marketing Europe. "He's been leading ROI developments from our point of view."
"The ROI Agency" principles are printed on the back of Mr. King's sky-blue business card. The five statements include "We are interested in outcomes, not outputs" and "We believe in creating powerful connections with consumers that deliver the best returns."
"It's all very well having this on the back of a business card," he admits. "It's still a work in progress."
But marketers seem pleased with that progress so far. "Steve understands what a client is looking for in media in terms of accountability-turning media from an intuitive art into a disciplined science," Mr. Williams said. "Steve works with us so we can justify investment in media internally."
Maurice Levy, Publicis Groupe's chairman-CEO, sees Mr. King as a younger generation of management that can rejuvenate a company he helped to shape. Mr. King started his career in 1982 as a media buyer at Bates Dorland in London, joining Zenith when it was formed from the U.K. media departments of Bates and Saatchi.
"We had to make sure Zenith's heritage is protected and at the same time gain new momentum," Mr. Levy said. "And he's ready to fight for each inch of market share."
ZenithOptimedia is the fifth-largest media specialist company, with worldwide billings of $15.5 billion last year. In the U.S., the company ranks 10th, with billings of $4.7 billion.
Mr. King will remain in London, splitting his time between the U.S., Europe and Asia. He said while stateside a decade ago, the King family enjoyed living in Connecticut, where the youngest of their five children, 8-year-old twin boys, were born. ("Forty percent of our kids are American, which reflects the way our business is split," he joked.)
"He really does know us," Toyota's Mr. Williams said. "He's not just wheeled out for annual reviews or dinners-he gets involved operationally."
contributing: emma hall, jack neff
Name: Steve King
Title: Chief executive officer, Publicis Groupe's ZenithOptimedia
Who: After opening Zenith in the U.S. and running ZenithOptimedia in Europe, Mr. King took over the global role in April when John Perriss retired.
Performance: Mr. King is turning ZenithOptimedia into "The ROI Agency" with the mission of getting clients a better return than any of their rivals. ZenithOptimedia needs to grow, especially in the U.S., where it ranks 10th among media-specialist networks.