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
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
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 email@example.com