Ley start-up must reach for the Sky

BSkyB’s Philip Ley believes he has spotted a niche for an agency able to respond in fast-moving markets. But can the man credited with the success of Sky and Sega succeed in the cut-throat agency world?

A bold move. Let’s hope not a foolhardy one.” Such is one response to the news of BSkyB marketing director Philip Ley’s decision to go it alone and set up his own advertising agency. Coming just one week after the demise of Bean MC (launched by fellow poacher-turned gamekeeper Robert Bean) sceptics are already asking: just how will Ley stand out in a crowded agency market?

The most high profile precedent was the creation of Kevin Morley Marketing in 1992 on the back of 100m Rover Cars business. Former Rover marketing director Kevin Morley sold the agency to Lintas last year for a healthy profit but was frustrated at the way the ad industry operates. In three years the agency remained dependent on that one account and never really expanded its client base.

Despite confirming his intention to leave Sky, Ley remains tightlipped about the exact details of his agency plans. “I’ve been thinking about setting up my own company for years,” he says. “The motivation is to do something to create an environment where I can get my creative juices to flow. Also, I would like to bring to bear the experiences I have had as a marketing director.”

It would be arrogant to assume as a client he knows best just how to run an agency, he concedes. “But I can see the gaps: the need for the type of agency a client like Sky, for example, requires.” Sky is a “fast-moving, cutting-edge business”, he explains. “And as such it needs an agency able to match the speed of this change.”

Although Ley revealed his plan last week (MW April 12), he does not intend to leave Sky for some months. It is understood he will now hold talks with potential clients, backers and partners as he finetunes the structure of his agency before a summer launch. Unlike other start-ups, it will enjoy a head start: the 20m-plus Sky advertising account – sufficient incentive for other clients to climb on board, he hopes.

From Sky’s point of view it appears to be a sensible step. Ley, a former Marketer of the Year (1994), is widely credited with turning around the satellite broadcaster’s image. By introducing the “No Turning Back” strategy, Sky finally shed its dowdy, downmarket tag and at last achieved a dynamic and more youthful brand identity.

“The clever thing about it is that one phrase has such deep connotations,” one cable programming executive observes. “Once you’ve got it (cable or satellite), your approach to TV irrevocably changes.”

That Sky even considered allowing Ley to go public before leaving is a clear indication of how much the company values him. “It’s certainly unusual – Sky’s hiring and firing policy is, to say the least, brusque,” one ex-Sky staffer explains. “That it is effectively allowing him to lay the groundwork for his future business while still there is quite something.”

Sky’s advertising business appears to be an integral part of Ley’s future plans. Sky media director Jim Hytner, a former colleague of Ley’s when both worked at Sega Europe, will take over as marketing director in the next few weeks. As a result, the client/agency relationship promises to be unusually intimate.

“Philip and I will continue to work together to improve Sky marketing,” Hytner says. Maintaining continuity in how Sky is marketed and branded is paramount, Ley adds.

But it is also clear Ley has other agenda. Despite his success at Sky, sources suggest he has had itchy feet for some time – that he is eager to find fresh challenges and an opportunity for greater creative freedom. For Ley is anything but a typical suit.

His background is conventional enough. After gaining an English degree at Oxford, he spent three years as a Unilever trainee before joining Marketing Solutions. Then things started getting interesting. He set up his own company – Trowbridge Ley – dealing in men’s fashion and selling antique prints to the US, before joining Virgin Mastertronic (which was subsequently bought out by Sega) as marketing manager for Sega products.

“I either wanted to be in a rock band or in marketing,” he once said. With a musical career ruled out, he introduced a unique brand of rock ‘n’ roll to Sega’s marketing.

When the company launched in the UK in 1987, its marketing budget was one-third of rival Nintendo’s and its marketing department was forced – by necessity – to be inventive. Innovative promotions and sponsorship – from Formula One racing to St Tiggywinkle’s hedgehog hospital – were eventually supplemented by hard-hitting advertising.

Then there were the stunts – including images of hedgehogs sprayed on to pavements; the above-the-line advertising typified by WCRS’ Pirate TV campaign which kicked off with a teaser promotion for A La Kat, a fictitious new catfood, and was followed by Pirate TV commercials which appeared to hi-jack other ads.

But by early 1994, Sega was issuing warnings of anticipated losses and as the market began to plateau, Japanese HQ took a closer interest in the UK division’s day-to-day running. Insiders reported growing friction: Ley was in part recruited for his lack of corporate mentality – the very reason the team became worn down by the Sega hierarchy. This, plus imminent cuts in the marketing budget, made the decision to leave for Sky an easy one.

“I’ve seldom worked with someone who is not only as able to make, take and stick by clear decisions, but also to adopt such a clear vision as to his brand, where it is going and how to get there,” one former colleague said at the time. “He is generally well-liked, but impossible to manage,” another said. Which made it all the more surprising to some that he stayed with Sky for so long.

Sky’s management is not known for its patience or tolerance. Yet Ley’s unconventional style produced results. “No Turning Back” was accompanied by a series of high profile advertisements – including the Stalin TV ad and infamous Body of Evidence erection poster – through then agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty. After this initial branding burst, Sky’s advertising strategy shifted – away from strategic and towards a tactical, event-based strategy.

Duckworth Finn Grubb Waters replaced BBH last year – although only for a fixed term, three-month period. The event-led strategy is now driven in-house. And it is this which perhaps gave a feeling for some time that Ley’s job was done and that he was looking for fresh challenges.

How well prepared Ley is to go it alone with his own advertising business remains to be seen. Some suggest he may not be prepared for the challenge of making an advertising agency successful: “Creative work is just part of it,” says one. Others insist: “His experience at Sky must make him able to cope with anything.”

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