You could hate David Brook. He’s young, but looks younger, he’s an accomplished jazz pianist and a county-class medium paced bowler. He’s regarded as a highly skilled marketer and he has just been given the marketing job of the year – filling in the blank sheet that is the Channel 5 brand.
But certainly no one appears to hate him. All you hear is praise. From bosses, employees and agencies, all you hear is how clever he is, what great ideas he has, how nice he is, how good-looking he is. He’s so nice, in fact, he won’t talk to the press about his new job for fear of upsetting The Guardian.
He probably need not worry. “David was very much part of building our marketing function,” says Peter Preston, editor-in-chief of The Guardian. “Before him it was intrinsically small, relying on outside agencies. Over a period of time, David has built a joint discourse so editors find a marketing discussion is part of our team approach.”
That approach has meant The Guardian is now one of the best regarded newspaper brands in the market. It has been transformed from having an image as a newspaper for sandal-wearing Northern teachers into a paper supposedly for young, progressive Europeans. Its image has gone from Michael Foot to Tony Blair with a lot less fuss than the Labour Party.
That transformation has been achieved by actually changing the product. The Guardian is renowned for its innovative new product developments (npd), from the Saturday Weekend section to The A5 Guide.
The product-based strategy has been driven by changes among customers. Brook believes the role of marketing is to bring the product and readers closer together. It is designed to take the guesswork out of editorial innovation.
Not all of The Guardian’s new sections were Brook’s babies, but he is praised for having created the environment that produced them.
“The A5 Guide was my idea,” says Tony Ageh, former head of The Guardian’s npd unit and now at Virgin Interactive. “But it was championed by David. His job was to recognise a differentiated product, tamper with it until it was ready and promote it.”
Brook’s marketing department’s success was based on getting advertising, marketing and editorial to talk to each other. “The relationship between editorial and marketing is close,” says The Guardian’s deputy editor, Georgina Henry. “Although it is not the tail wagging the dog.”
Aiding the relationship between editorial and marketing is Brook’s strong relationship with The Guardian’s present editor, Alan Rusbridger. Rusbridger worked with Brook to push new products when he was features editor, something that weighed in his favour when the newspaper wanted someone to fill Preston’s shoes as editor.
Brook’s team building skills are cited by more than just those at The Guardian. “He can come across as taking more time than he needs to explain something,” says David Pattison, partner at Pattison Horswell Durden, which took on Brook as its first client. “But that is because he’s very much about getting everybody to come along with him.”
For some, this style can be a little wearing. “I like David a lot,” says a colleague in one of his agencies, “but he is a bit up his own bum sometimes.”
What all of Brook’s agencies emphasise is his commitment to product-centred marketing. Ad campaigns have been based on getting the product right and then promoting it with a distinctive Guardian tone of voice that has consistently appealed to younger readers.
His commitment to the product is based on a vision of the changing place of newspapers in British society. “He was the first to discuss the implications of the disappearing left-right divide,” says Tony Ageh. He believes Brook saw that, just as class loyalties no longer guaranteed support for particular political parties, they would no longer automatically read a newspaper because of its political line.
Instead, the modern newspaper had to give readers a reason to buy and this is especially true for a paper aiming to attract young, new readers. Those products were to be the new sections.
“Brook did not turn The Guardian from a lefty paper to a liberal paper,” says Pattison. “But he did help editorial to spot that it was not as relevant as it could be. It was a gentle evolutionary thing.”
Brook has also been praised for sticking to a brand marketing strategy during the price war and not losing any readers.
However, it could be argued that, both in re-shaping the newspaper and staying out of the price war, Brook had the advantage of The Guardian’s ideological monopoly. Where else could its old time left-wing readers go?
Then again, it could be argued that not joining the price war was hardly a matter of choice for The Guardian. It probably could not afford to.
Brook was undoubtedly helped by arriving on the newspaper scene after the demise of “Fleet Street”.
“The blissful thing about the past ten years,” says Preston, “is the time we have had to think about the newspaper. Until the mid-Eighties attitudes were very rigid and concen- trated upon union nightmares and the physical production of the paper. Marketing was not on the agenda.”
Admittedly, not everything has gone right for Brook. The Guardian was acutely naive in thinking a 50:50 joint venture and shared evangelism about the digital revolution was enough to produce a UK Wired, the new media magazine.
The lack of majority control meant that at the first dispute between The Guardian and Wired’s US founders, the entire venture fell apart. The Guardian maintains no majority share was on offer and the magazine foundered on Wired US’s ignorance of the UK market. As managing director of Wired, Brook emerged from the debacle bruised.
Leaving The Guardian now also means he handily avoids any fallout from The Observer. The Sunday paper’s second relaunch under Guardian ownership has failed to stem its decline and it is probably best not to be around if there’s a reckoning to be had.
That said, it is understood that Brook and Andrew Jaspan, The Observer’s editor, have often differed, not on the direction of the paper but on the speed at which to change it. As editor, Jaspan, of course, had the final say, so Brook is probably immune from criticism even there.
Brook’s relationship with The Guardian’s editorial team is understood to have swung the Channel 5 job his way. The new channel wants a marketing director who can have an input with its programmers. They want him to create the same kind of atmosphere where advertising, marketing and creative talent can be harnessed.
His experience in advertising sections of The Guardian, while promoting the overall image of the newspaper, will also come in handy. Channel 5 will have 60 per cent of its own programming so he will again be creating a brand image while supporting the individual components of the brand.
Brook will also be starting from scratch, which is effectively what he had to do at The Guardian.
For those who know him, Brook’s experience is perfect for the job. Indeed, some even say he needed to have a failure – in his case Wired – before he was truly experienced.
Which makes you feel that it is probably legitimate to hate someone so good, because even his failures are an asset.