A short, balding, slightly built man, it is difficult to believe that he would ever have been first choice for the school football team. In fact there is little evidence that he has ever kicked a football in anger.
But at 39, Richard Hytner, the Publicis chief executive has written himself a discreet place in the history of the game. In the years to come he could be as valuable to Manchester United fans as either Beckham or Giggs.
For it was Hytner who gave birth to one of the campaign groups which last week destroyed Rupert Murdoch’s attempt to take control of Manchester United. It brought a smile to every football fan in the land – even those who hate Man U.
While others have taken a more high profile part in the campaign – the journalist Michael Crick, for example, was the group’s day-to-day spokesman – it was Hytner who provided the guiding hand, the early fundraising skills and, on occasions, office space for Shareholders United Against Murdoch (SUAM) – he even gave it its name.
The day after the Sunday Telegraph broke the news of Murdoch’s 623m bid in September, Crick wrote a critical article in the Evening Standard and followed it up that night with an equally critical film on BBC’s Newsnight.
The following morning Hytner, who from a certain angle has the looks, if not the neurosis, of Woody Allen, rang Crick to suggest they start a campaign to prevent Murdoch’s takeover. It drew on the resources of lawyers, accountants, even an ex-member of the Monopolies & Mergers Commission (MMC) – all opposed to the Murdoch bid. And it ran alongside the grass-roots organisation, the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association.
Depending on your point of view, the two bodies either compete for, or share, the credit for derailing Murdoch’s attempted takeover. SUAM was born out of a belief that the opponents of the bid had to present a professional face to be “taken seriously”.
They identified two main audiences for their lobbying. The first, the competition authorities and the Government, the second, the 28,000 shareholders who owned 23 per cent of the club (Hytner is a shareholder in Man U with 5,988 shares worth about 10,000) and the 150 City institutions which controlled 61 per cent.
Hytner admitted privately last September that he didn’t believe the SUAM campaign would succeed. He was working towards a compromise situation where conditions would be wrung from BSkyB.
“We can make enough effort for this not to be an easy ride,” said Hytner in September. “Our intelligence is that the Government is unlikely to block [the BSkyB bid] because there are many other battles over the single currency for which it needs Murdoch.”
Although he says they never discussed defeat, Crick admits he also thought the campaign would fail. Publicly, however, they all talked of defeating Murdoch. And slowly events did start to turn against him.
The Office of Fair Trading referred the bid to the MMC in October. Trade Secretary Peter Mandelson resigned in December, and SUAM made its presentation – written by competition lawyers and delivered by a team including Crick and Hytner – to the MMC at the end of January this year.
Finally last week, Mandelson’s replacement, Stephen Byers, announced that the MMC had rejected the bid on the grounds that it was against the public interest and would damage football.
According to Crick, Hytner was the mover and shaker of the anti-Murdoch bid campaign, and for obvious reasons. “Richard [Hytner] has the knack of managing things, he can organise his life and people very effectively. He has an ability to jump from one thing to another, immediately establish the main point and then jump on to something else again.”
Crick admits he has learnt much from Hytner. Early in the campaign Crick and Hytner had a screaming match. Or at least Crick did. “We had a big argument and Hytner told me that shouting at people is not the way to get them to do things. He was right – he was always right. I’m like a bull in a china shop and he is the diplomat.”
Crick refuses to give any details about the argument but the story reinforces the wider view through the advertising industry that Hytner is unflappable. He is also one of the most ordered individuals in the business – bringing a measured, forensic skill to his pitches.
Unlike many Manchester United fans, Hytner was actually born in the North-western city. His father, a “left-leaning” QC, practised there, and Hytner and his brothers, including the theatre and film director Nicholas, went to Manchester Grammar School, which is better known for its acting and cricket talent than any football pedigree.
It was at school that the Hytner brothers first met Crick (three other members of the 20 activists in SUAM were also at Manchester Grammar School). The journalist had been closer to Nicholas Hytner but remembers touring in the US with Hytner in a school production of the restoration comedy, The Recruiting Officer.
But after that 1976 US tour, the paths of the journalist and the ad man did not cross again for another 21 years, until the death of Princess Diana in 1997. A mutual friend invited both men to a classical music concert to commemorate her death. That may be seen as the root of the shareholders’ group. But it was only with the news of the Murdoch moving in on Old Trafford that the friendship was reborn in earnest.
After school Hytner studied law at Cambridge but turned his back on his father’s profession in favour of advertising. Initially he was with Benton & Bowles, before joining Young & Rubicam, and then going to Still Price Twivy Court d’Souza – still one of the longest names and scene of the greatest ego clashes in ad history.
It was finally folded into Still Price Lintas, and Hytner became its chief executive. His final year at Lintas is perhaps the one blight on an otherwise stellar career. In 1995, the agency’s US bosses forced changes which Hytner disagreed with. Andrew Cracknell was brought in above him as executive creative director, and Hytner quit.
He resurfaced within weeks, this time at the WPP-owned Henley Centre, and talked about changing the dour and academic image of the research centre. After only 14 months, however, he was back in the day-to-day business of running an ad agency, as Publicis chief executive on a reputed 200,000 salary.
Although the Henley Centre was a stop-gap measure for Hytner, providing an honourable exit from an increasingly unhappy situation at Lintas, his arrival at Publicis was politically awkward. At least two insiders had been overlooked for the chief executive role and Hytner, having previously made comments in Marketing Week about “not being an ad man for the rest of my life” was suddenly having to explain his U-turn.
But there is now a question mark over whether his involvement in the anti-Murdoch campaign may damage his business or that of Publicis. Certainly, if the BSkyB ad account moves out of house again, Publicis is unlikely to be the first agency on the shortlist.
“The world is full of people who work for Murdoch. Being openly against him makes the relationships with these people awkward,” says Crick.
It is not difficult to find proof of this Murdoch influence. McCann-Erickson managing director Ben Langdon was an early member of SUAM, but dropped out after realising that Universal McCann’s grip on BSkyB’s media buying account might be loosened. Hytner’s own brother Jim was, until 12 months ago, marketing director at BSkyB. However, Hytner still occasionally watches games with his brother Jim and BSkyB commercial manager Jon Sykes – an advocate of the deal.
Murdoch has said that he will not launch a crusade against the Government after his humiliation at its hands, but that will be no more reassuring for Tony Blair than for anyone else who has ever crossed him.
To that lengthy list we can now add the name of Richard Hytner.v
George Pitcher, page 23