There is something very familiar about Helen Burt’s office. It is not the wall-sized wipe-clean board covered with different coloured post-it notes. Or even the desk piled with equally colourful folders arranged in a very methodical order. (Both key elements of the military-style planning which went into Monday’s 50m launch of Cable & Wireless Communications).
It is the fact that the last time I was in this office I was interviewing the then CWC marketing director Ruth Blakemore, on the eve of the launch of the company’s corporate ad campaign. Five weeks later, in July, Blakemore quit amid stories of internal rows, rumours surrounding the conduct of the ad pitch and a management restructure which reduced her authority. She had been in the job only four months.
In that earlier interview, Blakemore had spoken with excitement about the person she had just hired as brand communications director – Helen Burt. The two had worked together at the pre-merger Bell CableMedia – one of the four parties pulled together to create CWC with Mercury Communications and two other cable companies Nynex Communications and Videotron.
Blakemore’s surprise resignation not only gave Burt a new office, it also thrust her, if not into the spotlight, certainly into a position where she had to add to her day-to-day preparations for the launch, ultimate responsibility for the public birth of CWC. So the largest marketing launch campaign this year is being executed by a company without a marketing director.
“The position will be relooked at,” says Burt. “It may be appropriate for someone else to come in as marketing director or Greg Clarke (chief operating officer) could continue – there has been no decision.”
Blakemore was widely seen as a victim of a mini-power struggle to win control of the brand positioning of the company. In a management restructure, Blakemore lost her direct line to chief executive Graham Wallace and instead had to report through Clarke. It was seen as the end result of a decision to divide the marketing budget between the operating units.
“There were obviously discussions about the best way to launch the brand,” says Burt, “I knew things were not as easy as they might have been but I was surprised when she (Blakemore) resigned. I was hired to be responsible for the launch of the brand and so in that sense my job has not changed.
“Ruth going was a huge shock. I miss her, but there were many other things that she was doing that are not part of my job. Clarke does some of them and some are not being done.
“As a start-up, we are learning. It is a huge task to pull so many people together so quickly. But there is a commitment from the senior management that we will operate as one company – we can’t afford to have a fragmented approach.
“The window of opportunity (for CWC) is not that big. We will have a honeymoon period when people will listen. The brand launch is to provide a simple message – and to provide an environment in which other business units can sell.”
But if Burt misses Blakemore, several sources talk of how much the former marketing director depended upon Burt. “Ruth always looked to Helen to make it all happen,” says one source involved with the launch. “She relied on her judgment on a lot of things. The fact that it happened on Monday (the launch) is down to Helen. But she has been thrown into a bigger role than she expected.”
Burt spent ten years at BT in a variety of marketing roles. She was part of the Customer Communications Unit created to co-ordinate and bring cohesion to BT marketing. It was broken up in 1995, in one of the many restructures BT has pursued in its search for that cohesion.
“I remember her as neat and tidy,” says Robert Bean, the former head of the CCU. “She was unfussy and did everything with unflustered efficiency. That makes her sound dull but that is not what I mean – she is a doer not prone to navel gazing.”
Her last position at BT was as head of financial services marketing, which she quit for pastures new in August 1996 taking a role as head of campaigns at Bell Cablemedia – her role to make more “acquisitions”, cablespeak for pulling in the punters. That is also the job at CWC.
Ironically, one of her reasons for leaving BT was to work for a smaller company because she wanted experience of the “integrated environ- ment”, and the feeling is, she was frustrated with BT’s bureaucracy. Within three months, the merger and creation of CWC had been an-nounced and Burt was again working for a big player. And one that was going up directly against her old friends at BT.
“You are always interested to see how other people are communicating the same things as you are working on,” says Burt of her time at BT. “If only to see what you could nick. Mercury did some neat things but tried to compete in all the areas that BT was active in and couldn’t.”
There is a danger that the new open-ended tone of the ads could leave CWC open to the same accusation. When Marketing Week exclusively revealed details of the CWC launch campaign two weeks ago and its endline, “What can we do for you?”, one BT source said he was surprised, and relieved, that it was not going to be more aggressive.
There is also an enormous response exercise built into the campaign – a survey of 1 million customers. If CWC is not ready to the last detail it will become very obvious, very quickly. “To talk about aggression is a spurious comment. We are talking primarily to existing customers. Why would we want to be aggressive with them? We know what we are capable of – it would be wrong to suggest we could do everything that everybody wants.
“The advertising is to set the parameters for the discussion – the product areas telephony, TV and integrated communications. We can’t be that rude that we walk away from customers’ answers, having asked them questions.”
But one of Burt’s former BT bosses wonders if she is the right person for the job and whether the politics at CWC will be too overpowering. “If the strategy is set, and Blakemore probably did that, you hand that to Helen and it will be done on time and to budget. That is not to say that she is not capable of anything more.
“But I would not give her the role of taking my brand into the next century. That is not a criticism – it might be that what is happening with Burt is that as her confidence grows, so does her ability.
“But what is being asked of her is more than has been asked before. She has to be something of a visionary. She is more exposed and will need a sponsor within the organisation. But in terms of getting from flash to bang (start to finish of the launch) in less than three months, there are few people you would want on your team more than her.”
Burt spent the weekend organising her seven-year-old son’s birthday party and trying to see more of the family she has seen little of since she started at CWC on June 1.
But many observers see this as the second coming of Cable & Wireless which failed to sustain the position it was given by Mercury in the Eighties. Burt is candid: “We have had to ask: why are we in this position? Why are we back in a different guise and what have we learnt? We need to sustain it. We can’t afford to reinvent ourselves again. It has to work this time.”