Raymond Snoddy on media: Doing an Airey: a beginner's guide

A while ago there was a splash of publicity about a survey suggesting that marketing directors' average tenure in a role was about 12 months - a life span similar to that of Premiership football managers.

If it weren't an urban myth propagated by head-hunters with an interest in deploying a piece of self-serving research, this would be a serious issue. It would mean that companies were reacting to an intense competitive environment by poaching 'marketing magic' from their rivals at any price, and at the expense of in-house talent. There may indeed be a few magicians with powerful spells, but the most likely outcome of this is a considerable waste of resources, internal disruption and disillusion.

Marketing is a model of stability and maturity compared with the executive merry-go-round in British broadcasting. In fact, the phrase 'doing an Airey' should be added to English dictionaries to describe recent events. As with all neologisms, we must be precise with our terms.

Mark Thompson was naughty when he allowed himself to be persuaded by Michael Grade, then chairman of the BBC, to leave Channel 4 to become BBC director-general, but as he had been at C4 for more than two years, we can accept this as being within the realms of normal business.

However, the movements of Jay Hunt, who was director of programmes at Five for only a few months before having her head turned by the offer of the BBC One controller's post, would certainly meet the criteria, were it not for the fact that you cannot apply such terms retrospectively. We must not forget that when Hunt did her embarrassing runner, Dawn Airey was still considered a loyal employee of ITV, and one who was fully engaged in the enormous task of trying to secure the survival of a beleaguered business.

The exact criteria by which the term 'doing an Airey' can be recognised begin to emerge.

Obviously, you have to accept a job offer from a direct rival within considerably less than 12 months of securing the first post, potentially carrying commercially sensitive information in your head.

Money, too, must play an important part in the decision. Prospective employers should have offered enough of a hike in salary to lure a candidate away from their contract. If well-paid executives suddenly throw in their jobs to become social workers or Church of England vicars, you may feel like rolling your eyes, but that is really all you can do. In either set of circumstances, observers could perceive an element of ingratitude.

In an ideal world, executives approached a few months after starting a big and challenging job should say that they do not feel free to consider a move at the moment. In the real world, that is not going to happen. Therefore, responsibility falls heaviest on those attempting to do the poaching.

Five and its owner RTL were the victims of BBC poaching over Jay Hunt. Now Five and RTL have performed a similar manoeuvre on ITV and Michael Grade, with unfortunate consequences for everyone concerned.

Grade has lost a valued executive and would be well within his rights to insist that Airey does not join Five until next May, so that the channel does not benefit from the appointment for up to a year. Meanwhile, dispossessed chief executive Jane Lighting is on six months' gardening leave, and colleague Lisa Opie, the channel's former managing director of content, has resigned after 18 months in-post, and will also serve six months in the garden.

So the upshot of this approach is disruption, expense and a few very well-tended gardens. It all adds up to a funny way to run a television channel.

- Raymond Snoddy is a media journalist and presenter of BBC Television's Newswatch


- Between 1985 and 1993, Airey progressed from management trainee at ITV Central to ITV's controller of children's and daytime programmes.

- In 1994, she became controller of arts and entertainment at Channel 4.

- Airey joined Five as director of programmes in 1996, and became chief executive in 2000.

- In 2003, she joined Sky as managing director, becoming managing director, channels and services, in 2006, but announced her departure, to start-up Iostar, later that year.

- Airey left Iostar after eight days in 2007, citing a breach of contract over funding. She returned to ITV as managing director of global content.

- After eight months, she left ITV, just as the broadcaster's £4m fine over TV phone-ins was announced. She returned to Five as chair and chief executive in 2008.


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