MARKETING FOCUS: The power not the glory

Is this a decade of marketing nonentities? Are there celebrities in the making or do the 90s belong to star brands? Ben Abrahams goes in search of today’s marketing heroes

Is this a decade of marketing nonentities? Are there celebrities in the

making or do the 90s belong to star brands? Ben Abrahams goes in search

of today’s marketing heroes

There is less creativity in marketing these days. I hate the penny

pinching, holier-than-thou approach of the 90s,’ complained Rodney Fitch

recently. ‘It is remarkable that so many people of my generation are

still the movers and shakers in this industry. Where are all the

exciting 90s types? Who is making waves now?’ he asked.

And well he might. Fitch, lest you have forgotten, is one of those

legendary figures from the sparkling 80s for whom the 90s have been

decidedly flat.

In 1982, he was one of the first in marketing services to float his

business on the stock exchange. It swiftly became the largest design

group in the world and Fitch found himself among the richest 200 people

in Britain. Then he lost the lot.

You might, therefore, think that his attack on modern-day marketing

smacks of sour grapes. Whatever his motives, Fitch does raise an

interesting question, or three. Has marketing become mean and

unimaginative - more concerned with inputs than outcomes? Why are the

big names of the 80s still the big names as we approach the millennium?

And where is the cohort of equally impressive contemporary figures

coming through to join them?

It will come as no surprise that Fitch’s views receive hearty

endorsement from other luminaries of the 80s boom. ‘Marketing for the

most part is pedestrian and boring and so are marketers. They think they

are sophisticated but they are slow and driven by the most banal things.

They always seem to be fighting the last war,’ laments Wally Olins,

chief of corporate design consultancy Wolff Olins.

Peter Wallis, head of marketing consultancy SRU and better known as

Peter York, the high priest of the designer decade, puts a more

temperate spin on the Fitch/Olins argument that marketing ain’t what it

used to be in the good old days.

‘Marketing has changed,’ he agrees. ‘It has become more process driven.

And there are a lot of rather grim-seeming activities because new

developments are being driven by technology rather than personalities.’

Although there can be no objective yardstick, there is little evidence

to support the view that marketing really is less creative than it was

ten years ago. Quite the opposite if you consider the challenges of

congested markets, increased retailer power, media fragmentation and

increasing consumer sophistication. It is clear that marketing is

operating in a much more competitive environment and solutions to these

problems seem to become ever more ingenious.

It is true, however, that marketing budgets have become more

accountable, making the Flash Harry culture of the 80s seem crude and

inappropriate. ‘It is in part a permanent consequence of the recession,

which put pressure on clients to want more for less,’ says Kevin Parry,

head of the marketing and advertising sector at accountants KPMG. ‘But

it is also a sign of the discipline having matured,’ he adds.

Unlike the 80s, when marketing was only just beginning to be taken

seriously as a business tool, Parry argues that ‘it is now a key driver

of turnover growth’. Large amounts of money can no longer be spent by

young brand managers on a nod and a wink with no clear result in mind.

‘Marketing budgets are now nearly always approved in detail by main

boards according to a clearly defined plan,’ he says.

It seems that marketing has been a victim of its own success. Having

successfully established its claim to be a serious business discipline,

it seems almost ludicrous for providers of marketing services to now

complain that it has to submit to the disciplines of serious business.

That doesn’t explain why the big stars in the industry are the same old

suspects, whose names have been repeated seemingly ad nauseam over the

past decade: Charles and Maurice Saatchi, Martin Sorrell, John Sorrell,

Sir Tim Bell, Mike Greenlees, and so on.

Peter Wallis likens their power to the hegemony enjoyed by 60s groups

over popular music for the subsequent 20 to 30 years. ‘They arrived at a

time when the world was receptive to what they offered. They were the

first generation of marketers to become professionals and they have

formed into a very tough and resilient establishment.’

There was a very specific reason why they ever got into that position.

Just as Mick Jagger became famous on the back of the baby boom, so the

80s marketing stars became famous on the back of the stock-market boom.

‘It was a more na•ve world. But a lot of that star stuff was really to

do with the City,’ agrees Wallis.

Personalities such as the Saatchis and Fitch acquired their lustre

partly because they were so good at what they do but also because they

had to appeal to an audience far larger than the traditional marketing

community. They needed to become stars to launch their companies on the

stock market - and, once there, to maintain their share prices.

Then the door shut behind them. The crash of 1987 meant that the stock

market was no longer an attractive proposition. Meanwhile, the recession

that started soon after meant client spending on marketing was slashed

and remuneration much more tightly negotiated.

The margins that had made stars out of the likes of Fitch were swiftly

eroded. According to figures compiled by accountants Willott Kington

Smith, profit margins in the advertising sector declined from 10.3% to

43% between 1985 and 1995. In sales promotions, margins declined from

19.6% to 12.7%; in PR they fell from 11.1% to 8.7%. And in design -

Rodney Fitch’s sector - margins tumbled from 25% to 13.8%.

Only media independents and direct marketing companies improved their

performance over the period, from 15.7% to 18.4%, and 10% to 13%

respectively - both boosted by the fact that they were taking business

from the advertising sector.

So even those whose ambition would have taken them down that path didn’t

have the business to make it worth while. ‘I am sure that there are a

lot of potential stars around. But many are still wondering whether a

people business like marketing services really is a suitable area for

flotation,’ says Bob Willott, partner of Willott Kington Smith. ‘You

have to return a constantly improving stream of profits and if you lose

your creative director or want to fire a big a client, it can make life

very difficult,’ he explains.

So only a few brave souls in the 90s tried to obtain stock market

listings for their marketing services companies. Sir Tim Bell, who in

any case was already a major player, got a listing by taking over a

quoted lavatory manufacturer to form Chime in 1994.

Others have been less fortunate. Chris Woollams’s dreams of a publicly

quoted marketing services empire were rudely shattered when his WMGO

Group went belly up just 15 months after obtaining a stock exchange


So where will the inspiration and the confidence for marketers come

from? Who will be the new heroes? You could argue that they are the

media barons. People like Greg Dyke and Michael Green, who have made

fortunes in a fast expanding industry. Maybe.

Peter Wallis reckons that the new possessors of the Zeitgeist are not

people at all. ‘Stardom has transferred to business cultures and by that

I mean the brands. Nike’s Just Do It, The Body Shop and Virgin are the

new stars,’ he says.

But even for the most dedicated marketing groupie, brands are a little,

well, inanimate. One of the things you want most from your heroes is

that they should at least be humanoid. Preferably, they should be doing

great things, and they should symbolise the spirit of the times.

By that definition, there can be no doubt about who are the real stars

of marketing at the moment. They are unquestionably client marketers

themselves. Fitch agrees: ‘Because we have lost confidence, others have

had to pick up the baton. Clients are now the ones setting the pace.’

Not all clients mind you. As Willott points out ‘most by definition are

very ordinary doing ordinary things’. But there is a handful of

marketers who are extraordinary - making significant innovations in

their discipline, grappling with new ways of communicating with

consumers, managing massive portfolios of brands and carving out

businesses where by rights there should be no space for new entrants.

In the ‘innovation’ category you might look at someone like Pat Farrell

of Daewoo, the Marketing Society’s marketing director of the year.

Although he is not particularly charismatic and avoids publicity, he has

transformed car marketing with the perception that distributors own the

customer and that car purchase is as much about service as cars


Among those looking for new ways of communicating, one of the most

determined is Roy Edmondson, marketing director of Levi-Strauss. Levi’s

is probably the ‘sexiest’ brand in the world anyway, but Edmondson is

constantly trying to push back the boundaries of brand communication.

Described as ‘electric’ by those who work with him, he is an excellent

strategic thinker who has successfully maintained Levi’s brand

leadership in a notoriously fickle market.

There aren’t many people who can claim to have succeeded twice. Chris

Moss, currently head of campaign management at TSB, is one of them.

First, as marketing director he led Virgin Atlantic’s successful attack

on heavily guarded British Airways territory. Then he successfully

helped create the Orange brand for Hutchison in a fiercely competitive

and over-crowded telecoms market.

Few marketing directors control brand portfolios as sizable and complex

as that of John Nicholson of recently merged Scottish Courage. His

admirers point to many achievements - taking regional bitter John

Smith’s to market leader is but one. They point to the outstanding

advertising on many of his brands. John Smith’s again, Miller and

Holsten Pils are the most obvious examples. His recent management of the

Courage/Scottish & Newcastle merger has been widely viewed as exemplary.

So does it matter that there is no flood of new famous names coming

through from the marketing services industry? While you could say that

it’s all a lot of froth and nonsense, the importance of stars lies in

their symbolic, not functional, roles.

They tend to be people who innovate, give new direction and do what they

do very well. An industry, or country come to that, with no heroes, is

an industry or country with no common vision of itself and no


‘It does matter that the industry is less interesting,’ says Fitch. ‘The

most important aspect of the 80s was the marvellous confidence.

Nowadays, people are more hesitant; we have no clear idea of where we

are going.’

Wally Olins echoes the point: ‘ It is as if we are in the trenches

recovering from an attack and waiting for the next big offensive. It is

as if we are redefining our way of life and waiting for a new


The new stars are the people who will provide that direction.

Who do you think are the stars of the 90s? If you don’t agree with our

nominations, please suggest your own top three from the client or

services side. Send your suggestions to James Curtis, features editor,

fax 0171 413 4481; e-mail


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