It should be easy to write a profile of Simon Esberger. Everybody has an opinion – including many who do not even know him – and most of them are unflattering.
But he is also a marketing director one week into a new job which carries an ad budget of over 10m. This has an amazing effect on usually talkative agency sources scenting new business opportunities.
Despite the reticence of agencies, there were several phrases which cropped up time and again to describe the new Cellnet marketing director by people who have either worked with, or for, him. “Arrogant”, “strong minded”, “conceited”, “flashy”, “he has a very high opinion of himself”, and a “complete pain in the arse” were among the more regularly used.
Esberger admits to recognising some of these traits in his character. He may have more difficulty reconciling the view of one of his friends: “He gets by on the force of his personality as much as any great marketing skills.”
But others have a different view. “Not many will talk about it or associate this word with him, but he has integrity,” says Rupert Howell at HHCL & Partners, the agency Esberger used when marketing director at Mercury Communications. Esberger bought the Oliver & Claire advertising which became one of 1996’s most vilified campaigns.
“Oliver & Claire was commissioned by his predecessor,” says Howell. “But not once when it was being criticised did he disown it or blame the agency. Few would have been as robust in our defence, few in marketing would have done that. When a campaign is criticised, the client will initially defend it and then blame the agency.”
Some will see this as Howell auditioning for the Cellnet ad account, currently held by Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO. But his point is a valid one.
“AMV might be concerned about his appointment but he will be honourable,” says Howell. “He will go into AMV and if it delivers, he will stick with it. He was once asked by Cable & Wireless to find an international agency but before he made any enquiries he spoke to me and said this will not affect HHCL. He plays the game properly.”
Esberger has arrived at Cellnet along a bumpy road, not always of his own making. This is his third job since leaving HÃ¤agen-Dazs in 1993 – the job he is still most closely associated with and the one where he had most recent success – where he was UK marketing director. He quit for the same role at Spillers Petfoods but on a promise of eventually becoming md.
He left two years later with the promise only partially fulfilled, having spent four months as acting md before Spillers’ parent Dalgety bought Quaker European Petfoods in 1995. With the merger his “acting” days came to an end.
The merged company appointed commercial director Peter Farrand as marketing boss, leaving Esberger to search for a new job.
He took up the 120,000 marketing director role at Mercury Communications seven months later after the then chief executive Duncan Lewis persuaded him to turn his back on the food business. But before he could even get his feet under the table Lewis, his ally, had quit.
The Oliver & Claire advertising and direct marketing campaign will be seen as his main contribution to Mercury. Within 12 months of his arrival, Mercury was being merged with three cable companies to create Cable & Wireless Communications. Esberger began telling friends he was again on the move.
“When I met Graham Wallace (CWC chief executive) I could see the launch campaign would be very exciting, but thereafter I could not believe it would work with all the business units having control over some of the marketing budget,” says Esberger. “In the light of Ruth Blakemore’s exit (CWC’s marketing director who quit in July) I think I was right not to apply for the CWC job. It has a 50m ad budget but it doesn’t even have a marketing director.”
He finally left Mercury in May, telling people he wanted a managing director role – nothing else would do.
Which poses the question as to why he has moved to Cellnet, currently the worst performing mobile phone operator, as marketing director. It has not had a marketing director for 16 months, the role being seen as obsolete by former managing director Howard Ford.
Some see his move as part of a long-play to secure a senior management role within BT, possibly even to replace his present Cellnet md Ray Smith. He was, after all, interviewed by BT managing director, consumer communications, Stafford Taylor for the Cellnet job. When news first broke of his interview, it was believed he was discussing the marketing director post at BT consumer communications, vacated by Mike Wagner.
BT, of course, has a 60 per cent stake in Cellnet (Securicor owns the remainder), and it wants to protect its interest. The interview could also be interpreted in terms of Taylor’s interest in Cellnet and BT’s ambitions for the mobile operator.
Taylor was instrumental in the departure of Ford in March. BT will increase its stake in Cellnet to 100 per cent when the Government removes the barriers to a complete takeover, as it is expected to in the next 18 months.
“At this level you can’t get away with lying,” says Esberger, “I can’t afford for there to be a third time, however good the reason. I wanted to understand a lot of things about the company before joining Cellnet and meeting Stafford Taylor was part of that. I was the only one to meet him and I wanted the meeting.”
He wanted the reassurance. “I have come here to do a job and it is a good time to arrive because it is neither on its knees nor doing really well. I will be happy if in two years I am still marketing director at Cellnet.”
But others have less sympathetic interpretations. “The fact is he has been bouncing his head off a glass ceiling and he has finally found somebody stupid enough to hire him,” says a former colleague, “I think he is bloody mad to go to BT. He will get murdered. The politics are far more vicious than anywhere else he will have worked, and his abrasive nature will not be tolerated as readily.”
Esberger is one of the best known marketing directors in the UK today. Everybody has a view of him, except it seems for those who called from Cellnet’s marketing department last week asking what they could expect. Most can probably expect a reasonable time. There will be inevitable speculation about an agency review but there is little in his track record to suggest that this will be high on Esberger’s agenda. There will be question marks over how brand director Tim Evans fits into the new regime.
But others, like Esberger’s former colleague at Mercury Dominic Owens, now at BT, will be less pleased about the appointment – even if the two will be working in separate buildings. “I will be calling Dominic,” says Esberger with relish. “Just to say hello.” It is not too strong to say the two grew to hate each other during their stint at Mercury.
More interesting still will be how Esberger turns round Cellnet’s poor performance over the past 12 months. It has been lethargic in a market where nobody can afford to stand still. He has a larger role than the one he held at Mercury – it carries an estimated 150,000 salary – and he badly needs to use it to add consistency to the branding.
He is also moving into territory where failure is not tolerated. And that is thin ice for someone who has to prove himself after four years spent immersed in corporate battles instead of marketing campaigns.