Low-profile Litster thrust into spotlight at Sky Media

Litster: the former director of trading was promoted to managing director after nearly 20 years at Sky
Litster: the former director of trading was promoted to managing director after nearly 20 years at Sky

He may not be as widely revered as his predecessor, but the experienced John Litster has already shown his paymasters that he has what it takes to lead Sky Media. By Maisie McCabe.

John Litster, the new managing director of Sky Media, is not a regular in Campaign’s pages. In the past, the well-regarded former director of trading could quietly get on with his job, running one of the smoothest TV books in London, as his predecessor and long-time boss Nick Milligan was the natural statesman. But since Milligan’s tragic death in May last year, Litster and the wider Sky Media team have stepped up, both to support each other and to continue his work.

Litster’s promotion and that of Jeremy Tester, the director of brand strategy and communication, and Jamie West, the director of AdSmart and commercial development, to the shared new role of deputy managing director are testament to the achievements of the team over a difficult period. Yet if Litster has proved himself ready for the role to his bosses over the past ten months, he is not yet willing to speak to Campaign, which Sky’s press office attributes to his lack of time to prepare.

Commenting on Litster’s behalf, Andrew Griffith, the managing director of commercial businesses and chief financial officer at Sky, says he considered "both internal and external candidates to find the best person to lead Sky Media", but "John was the natural choice". Philippa Brown, the UK chief executive of Omnicom Media Group, and Nick Theakstone, the UK chief executive of Group M, were not involved, contrary to speculation, but James Wildman, the incoming chief revenue officer at Trinity Mirror and former Yahoo! boss, did have conversations about the post.  

At Sky since joining as a group sales manager in September 1995, Litster has grown with the business. After becoming the head of trading in 2005, Litster was promoted to director of trading in 2008. Sky Media has expanded during his tenure, adding new channels and third-party clients. "He brings immense experience and expertise to the role, built up over nearly two decades at Sky," Griffith says. "He was also part of the leadership team that did a great job during a uniquely difficult time following Nick’s sudden and tragic death."

Media buyers, who had hoped Litster would get the nod over a more headline-grabbing candidate, welcomed the decision. Azon Howie, the head of commercial at the Dentsu Aegis Network’s trading arm, Amplifi, says Litster’s promotion "makes sense". Howie says it is "recognition of his contribution" and the strength of the team at Sky Media. "John is one of the nicest people you are ever going to come across," Chris Locke, the not usually so sweet-talking UK trading director of VivaKi, gushes. Locke adds that Litster’s behaviour since July has been "Milligan-esque".

Sky Media has certainly been busy since May 2013. AdSmart, the long-awaited targeted TV advertising format, started a trial with around 40 advertisers in August. The service has now extended to a full launch with brands including Tesco, Audi and The Royal Bank of Scotland. Sky Media also grew its third-party business. It bought the sales house Multicultural & Ethnic Media Sales and then Dolphin TV (and the advertising contract for Sony Pictures Television) in October and December respectively.

"John takes over at a hugely exciting time for Sky Media as we roll out innovative new products such as Sky Ad­Smart, while maintaining our strength in our core TV airtime sales business," Griffith says. "I feel excited about the future for the business under John’s leadership."

However, some industry figures question whether he has the gravitas for the role. One sales executive, who asks not to be named, says Litster is not a "particularly inspiring choice", likens him to a "water carrier you wouldn’t trust with water if it was scarce" and questions whether he has the ability to drive conversations with senior clients. Even Litster’s supporters admit he needs to build his relationships with media agency chief executives and marketers.

Despite those concerns, the people who know Litster well speak warmly of his dry sense of humour and love of sport. In the 80s at Television South West, the Loughborough University graduate was known as Billy Whizz, for his upright haircut and habit of rushing around. Although hamstring injuries forced him to give up football, Johnny L (as he is widely known) is still a keen golfer with a handicap teetering on a healthy ten.

Litster now has the opportunity to prove he is deserving of the light that is now shining on him. It may be that he leaves the podiums to West and Tester and concentrates on bringing in the cash. Or he might find that he quite enjoys them himself. Either way, Litster has the chance to repay the trust his colleagues and contemporaries have in him, and prove his abilities extend to designing the aqueduct, rather than just carrying the water. Sky’s bets have always tended to pay off so far.

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