Andy Duncan on life back in the fast lane and his Channel 4 legacy

Andy Duncan, chief executive of HR Owen
Andy Duncan, chief executive of HR Owen

Andy Duncan, chief executive of HR Owen, is now using his media and FMCG skills to sell Ferraris and Bugattis. Interview by Alex Brownsell.

It is clear that Andy Duncan, the former Channel 4 boss and now chief executive of luxury car retailer HR Owen, enjoys the perks of his job. Describing a recent drive across the South of France in a Bugatti Veyron, Duncan grins broadly as he confesses to reaching 160mph on the autoroute, leaving other drivers in his wake.

More cynical media-industry types may feel moved to sneer at Duncan's new career in the fast lane. His switch from chief executive at Channel 4, which he led during a tumultuous period in the broadcaster's history, to what many view as a mere car dealership certainly raised eyebrows. Yet his enthusiasm, bounding from one Ferrari to the next, is enough to convince even the greatest sceptic that he is happy with his lot.

When asked why he opted to join HR Owen last year over more mainstream ventures, the former Unilever marketer speedily dispatches a reply thorough enough to suggest he has been posed the question on more than one occasion.

'I'm interested in cars, so there was an attraction there, but there were other things,' he says. 'Here was a company that had been struggling. I had the opportunity to be entrepreneurial and develop a strategy; a blank sheet of paper, with the board demanding only something that was going to lead to growth. It was definitely a shift, but consciously so. The basic tools you are playing with are the same. It was that combination that appealed to me.'

Customised strategy

Earlier on the day of our interview, the 48-year-old had launched HR Owen's new flagship Ferrari brand centre in London's affluent Knightsbridge, complete with an appearance by the Italian manufacturer's Brazilian Formula One driver, Felipe Massa. The Ferrari 'Atelier' service allows consumers to create bespoke versions of the latest Ferrari models, selecting details such as colour, materials, stitching and entertainment systems.

Duncan believes this marks the beginning of a new paradigm for the marketing of luxury automotive brands, and is confident that HR Owen's other manufacturer partners - including Lamborghini, Bentley, and Rolls-Royce - will embrace the 'soft sell' approach and help the retailer develop a more long-standing relationship with potential buyers.

'From a marketing perspective, focusing more on the customer is a big area the car industry could do more on,' he explains. 'It's a heavy-spending industry, but it needs to be able to tailor and target much more effectively. At its worst, it's been a bit one-size-fits-all - "Here is our message, let's blast it out there." I'm trying to fuse the mass-market appeal of these brands with a greater understanding of the customers we are trying to sell those products to.'

Duncan believes the future of upmarket car retail will include partnerships with complementary luxury brands from other sectors. He wants to shift the business of selling cars toward a membership mentality. Digital innovation, too, will play a greater role in its marketing and customer communications. As Duncan observes: 'Most of our customers are more digitally literate than our team.'

These plans may not seem exactly revolutionary, but in a car industry that has resolutely resisted modernisation at almost every turn over the past decade, they are groundbreaking. They also prove that Duncan's keen marketing instincts have not abandoned him. Lest anyone forget, prior to a decade in media with the BBC and Channel 4, he carved out a reputation as a marketer during a 17-year stint working across Unilever's food and drink brands.

Has he found the consumer landscape noticeably different from the one he left in 2001? 'Good brand ideas still work, but people are more demanding than ever,' he says. 'You have to work harder to keep customers happy, but if you do, that relationship can be a very strong one.'

Nevertheless, Duncan would argue that during his five-and-a-half years running Channel 4, he was never far removed from public opinion. As a relatively low-key appointment, he had to work hard to win over his critics.

Notable success came in transforming the broadcaster to a multi-channel, multiplatform operation, including video-on-demand service 4oD and the development of E4, More4 and Film4.

Not all new ventures took off, however; Channel 4's experiment with radio was an episode to forget. More regrettably, Duncan was dragged into damaging rows over the claims of racial abuse by participants in Celebrity Big Brother in 2007, as well as the TV-industry-wide phone-in scandal.

Speaking about the recent troubles at News International, Duncan says he 'knows all the characters involved', so has followed developments closely. 'TV had its phone-in scandal, but dealt with it properly and came out the other side,' he says. 'That is possible if you're honest and face up to it; then, as an organisation, you come out stronger.'

Back to his time at Channel 4, he insists he has no regrets, and believes he left it 'well placed' as it entered a new decade. 'We achieved a huge amount. We grew our share of audience (and) advertising; it was a hugely creative time, and we stayed public. Most of what I went there to achieve was achieved - that transition from almost-analogue to a digital organisation.

'My only frustration was the funding debate, which never got resolved,' he adds. 'Nothing ever goes perfectly and the politics of the situation was a frustration.'

And what of Channel 4 now? 'I was pleased that David (Abraham, his replacement as chief executive) got the job,' says Duncan. 'I was the first marketer to run a broadcaster and David is agency background. Channel 4 is in very good shape.'

In his own future, meanwhile, aside from his work at HR Owen, Duncan has his hands full with a non-executive role at troubled retailer HMV, as well as charities including Oasis and the Media Trust. One gets the feeling that, much as he enjoys the thrill of the high-end cars, it may not be enough to keep him at HR Owen forever.

'I'm thoroughly enjoying what I do and I feel there has been great progress made. Longer term? I don't know. Maybe there will be another step-change down the line.

I like consumer-led innovation, where you feel a sense of achievement in competition. I relish a big new challenge, so who knows?'

Duncan's critics enjoyed the sight of him taking up what was perceived as little more than a hobby job last year. Yet it may prove a folly to assume we have seen the last of him as a mass-market business leader.

One senses he remains poised to shift up a gear or two at any moment. Those French motorists may not be the only ones left bemused in his wake.

INSIDE WORK

1984-2001: Various roles, rising to European board director and general manager, food and beverages division, Unilever

2001-2004: Director of marketing and communications, rising to director of marketing, communications and audiences, BBC

2004-2009: Chief executive, Channel 4

2010-present: Chief executive, HR Owen

OUTSIDE WORK

Lives: Village in Surrey

Hobbies: Playing any sport, especially hockey, football, tennis and golf; films; concerts; doing stuff with the children

Favourite brand: Rory McIlroy

Favourite holiday destination: Arizona

Favourite gadget: iPhone.

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