Beaming some new light on the mote in Ernest Saunder’s eye

George Pitcher is chief executive of issue management consultancy Luther Pendragon. Ten years after the Guinness trial, the DTI is publishing its report. George Pitcher details the lessons all marketers can learn from the affair.

This week’s publication by Department of Trade & Industry inspectors of their Guinness report has all the excitement of the Football Association publishing its own report on whether the ball really crossed the line for England against West Germany in the 1966 World Cup Final.

Time is not only a great healer, it’s also an enormous bore – whose passage brings a stultifying ennui. Just as only academic historians could possibly care who murdered the princes in the tower, our demand for justice and recognisable culpability wanes over the years.

There are exceptions, wherein demand for justice does not dilute significantly for a generation or more – war crimes and Myra Hindley come to mind – but a bit of hanky panky in the City from Guinness has ceased to matter in terms of public demand for justice, if indeed it ever did.

It really is the equivalent of an ancient injustice in a football match.

But that is not to say that we should close the book on the Guinness saga without reading its lessons. Among them is one that certainly wouldn’t be written in the DTI inspectors’ report for highly self-interested reasons. It is in all the authorities’ best interests – those not only of the DTI, but also of the fledgling self-regulatory system in the City and other institutions’ internal procedures – that the report is published to a widespread yawn.

This won’t do. City, white-collar crimes are not victimless – share-support operations are scams that rip off other shareholders. But Guinness has not noticeably suffered from the affair over the past decade or so. No one can claim that Guinness has limped along, crippled by scandal, eventually to be bailed out by Grand Metropolitan to form the company whose name I forget and, doubtless, will continue to forget for years to come.

Special demands have been made by global brand and distribution issues and this sort of rationalisation was likely to happen anyway. In any event, Guinness has, mainly, performed well under its subsequent managements.

The same happy tale cannot be told of Argyll, whose shareholders were the hardest hit by the share-support spivs. Never let it be forgotten that Guinness won the takeover battle for Distillers through such guile, at the expense of Argyll. The latter’s late chairman, Jimmy Gulliver, never recovered his zest for business life and was, perhaps, the unhappiest victim of the affair.

Yes, there were interminable court cases and the prosecution had its faults in making them so cumbersome. But we really must resolve to have a neater, swifter way of tackling City crime (and I haven’t even mentioned the Maxwell case), to avoid again having to suffer a decade of tortuous litigation, concluding in a report that no one cares about anymore.

Another lesson is delivered by the tragic figure of Ernest Saunders. I call him tragic not because we should necessarily feel sorry for him, but in the ancient Greek sense that he was eventually caught up in huge events of his own making but beyond his control.

I have no view on his various attempted commercial rehabilitations. I bumped into him at the original launch of Sunday Business, where he displayed a remarkable memory – given his prison dementia – for what I wrote in the early Eighties, and claimed to be busy representing disgruntled Guinness shareholders. He was evidently busy with interests in carphone companies and the like. Good luck to him.

But I do recall two telling remarks of his from which we should consider the potential beams in our own eyes before pointing to the motes in his. The first was made at his arrival at a London art gallery for a party in 1986. The DTI had just raided Guinness and there was speculation, Watergate-style, that the muck might have been emanating from the very top. Saunders swept through the press pack saying only: “I don’t see why this should spoil my party.”

It should stand not only as an epitaph to his professional life – and had I ever written his biography, that would have been the title – but also to the commercial attitude of the Eighties. Margaret Thatcher didn’t see why Europe, the poll tax or, indeed, the Conservative Party should spoil her own particular party. But they did and we know better now, not believing that free market ideologies will win out whatever happens, which is perhaps why the UK equity markets are now behaving in a more orderly fashion to world corrections than they did a decade ago.

His other comment came a few weeks before this, at some marketing institute’s gala dinner at which Saunders was guest speaker. He bemoaned the fact that he was regarded as a simple marketer and pointed out that you don’t take a company from a market capitalisation of 300m to 3bn by being just a marketer. Of course, when the scandal broke he was arguing precisely the opposite – that he was indeed just a simple marketer who had been duped by City sophisticates.

The lesson that rings down the decade is that, whatever your prowess at it, marketing is no island. Top marketing management has to know and understand the City’s methods – I might add that the reverse also applies. If that lesson has been learned from the fate of Saunders, then something worthwhile has emerged from the Guinness affair, whose last chapter must close with the report this week.

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