CWC power struggle claims its first victim

Ruth Blakemore has quit CWC only weeks before its 45m launch, after what many view as a battle for the public face of the company.

Even by modern standards, Ruth Blakemore’s four-month tenure as marketing director of Cable & Wireless Communications (CWC) was short.

The average life expectancy for a UK marketing director is said to be just under two years. Blakemore, one-time Virgin Atlantic and Bell Cablemedia marketing director, has considerably lowered that average.

But in her brief reign she made one of the most spectacular decisions in recent advertising history by appointing an agency with a background in direct marketing, Rapier Stead & Bowden, to handle CWC’s 45m consumer launch.

The decision was not just a snub to Saatchi & Saatchi, Bartle Bogle Hegarty and HHCL & Partners – the other shortlisted agencies – but also to the rest of the ad industry.

Two weeks after Rapier’s ap-pointment, Blakemore topped that story, by walking out of arguably the biggest marketing job in the UK at the moment – the launch of a 5bn telecoms company with an annual 100m marketing budget. The ad campaign for the new company, a merger of Mercury Communications, Nynex, Videotron and Bell Cablemedia, is scheduled to break in September – only eight weeks away.

Rapier would not comment on Blakemore’s exit but a source says it has been “reassured” about its position. Whether or not that turns out to be the equivalent of a football club chairman’s vote of confidence in his manager remains to be seen. But agencies began circling CWC in the hope of a repitch as soon as news of Blakemore’s resignation emerged.

The ill-informed view of the agencies was that she had paid the price for shunning the ad industry. But the official reason given for Blakemore’s departure, is that a restructure of management responsibilities meant that she no longer had a direct link to chief executive Graham Wallace. Instead the marketing department, along with the other individual retail business units – corporate, business markets and consumer – now reports to chief operating officer Greg Clarke, who joined in June from Cable & Wireless Mobile.

And for once the “official reason” appears to be true, or at least partially. It does not explain why the restructure was deemed necessary or why the perceived weakness in the structure was not spotted earlier. The official line talks of achieving greater “efficiencies” but most people see it as a straight struggle for control of the public face of the new company. It was a struggle that Blakemore lost, meaning that she was effectively demoted and her influence over the centralised marketing department diluted.

The result seems to justify concerns expressed before Blakemore’s appointment in March that centralised marketing could be compromised by giving individual business units responsibility for the development, and for some of the funding, of the brand marketing.

“The problem for Blakemore, or anybody else trying to co-ordinate CWC’s marketing, is that the business units will want to sell products rather than build the brand,” says one telecoms source. “They will be working towards different objectives.”

A CWC source says: “With the budget split between the individual business units and a centralised marketing department there was inevitably tension. But it would not be true to say Blakemore thought it was not the right structure – she has been busy preparing the brand launch but now that it is time to implement the strategy she agreed it could be done more efficiently.”

A CWC spokeswoman says: “Particularly during the launch period, September and beyond, they wanted to make sure that it all worked closely together. The brand launch is so important to all the business units and it was felt that it needed to be closer. This ties it more closely to the units.”

Two days before Blakemore quit, a BT source said to Marketing Week: “She has taken a huge gamble (with the appointment of Rapier) and if it fails she will be out the door.” But nobody expected her to leave quite so quickly. Perhaps the only people who did were Blakemore herself and Clarke, who was previously chief executive at Cable & Wireless Mobile. His arrival, and the resultant restructure, precipitated her departure.

While everybody connected with the company admits to surprise at her resignation, two earlier incidents suggested the writing was on the wall. The first was the decision of Mercury Communications marketing director Simon Esberger to pull out of the running for the top job in CWC because he believed too much marketing responsibility was being ceded to the individual business units (MW March 21).

The second was Clarke’s comments on joining CWC. Of his partnership with chief executive Graham Wallace he said: “I know telecoms backwards but nothing about content, while Graham – a former BSkyB board member – knows a lot about content. He knows about finance while I know about marketing.”

CWC says its centralised marketing department will stay. “There is no replacement (for Blakemore) in the short-term, but those who reported to her will now report to Clarke,” says a spokeswoman. Some sources believe Helen Burt, hired by Blakemore as director of brand communications, will now take the lead role in the marketing department and do not rule out an agency review, even if Clarke pulls the strings.

The loss of a marketing director so close to such a huge launch raises doubts about the wisdom of the company’s management. CWC is supposed to be a serious rival to BT, which noted last week’s departure with keen interest. BT sees the loss of Blakemore as another reason to be optimistic about its own future, believing that it is symptomatic of wider disquiet within the company. There are many observers who agree with BT.

Cover Story, page 32

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