Will Carter’s skills suit NTL’s needs?

A leading ad executive has been put in charge of NTL’s transformation from road-digging engineer to media content provider.

Stephen Carter, chief executive of J Walter Thompson Group UK (JWT), is a man used to winning – whether it’s promotion or new business pitches. But as the next chief operating officer for NTL in the UK, he may have a longer wait before he triumphs again.

As exclusively revealed in Marketing Week (last week), Carter leaves WPP-owned JWT next month. He will join NTL on November 14 as chief operating officer designate. The 36-year-old will work alongside the current post-holder, Leigh Wood, until she steps down in April next year to spend more time with her family.

Reporting to chief executive Barclay Knapp, Carter will take day-to-day responsibility for the company’s broadcast, telecoms, consumer and Internet divisions.

Knapp says: “His track record in building successful consumer brands fits into NTL’s development. Our strategy is to make NTL’s name synonymous with innovative communications products and services delivered throughout the UK.”

Neil Jones, client services director at Carat, which handles NTL, says: “He [Carter] has a lot of marketing nous and in this rapidly changing market you need people with strategic vision.

“Historically, NTL has been a technology-driven company but it has recognised it needs to introduce marketing. It brought in Mike Hounsell as group marketing director, then Bart Michels, who has worked at Coca-Cola and Kellogg, as brand director. With the people at Cable & Wireless [now part of NTL], they have a very strong marketing team compared with 18 months ago.”

Carter’s associates believe he will have little trouble fitting in at NTL, which describes itself as “the complete communications company” in its new &£20m advertising campaign.

A colleague at JWT says: “He could fit in anywhere – he’s a natural leader in that sense. He is so confident about his own talents. I know he will knock NTL into shape and won’t suffer fools gladly.”

Carter, who is said to be proud of his Scottish working-class roots, became managing director of JWT London in 1994 when he was just 30 years old, and was appointed chief executive in 1997.

Kevin May, a former colleague at JWT, who is now a board director at CDP, says Carter “was very much the golden son from the first few days he walked into JWT”, after joining from Aberdeen University where he studied law.

“He is the sort of person you would automatically listen to when he opens his mouth, even when he was talking bollocks. But socially, he is modest and sensitive. He is very discreet – you could confide in him and trust him about any number of matters.”

NTL was no doubt attracted by Carter’s renowned sharpness, commercial acumen and marketing expertise.

Channel 5 marketing director Jim Hytner says NTL is in a similar situation to Sky six or seven years ago. “At the time, Sky was a distribution-led company focused on engineering and technology. Then Kelvin McKenzie hired me and Philip Ley to create consumer marketing. It was a step change in the company.

“NTL has to express itself. It has achieved branding recognition. But consumer understanding of the brand is probably lower than any of its rivals.”

The company has already started to address this by buying up content, including a &£327m deal for pay-for-view Premier League football rights. Hytner believes more deals will follow.

Further evidence of this strategy emerged last week when NTL announced a deal with BSkyB to carry all of Sky’s main channels for five years. It also revealed a new pricing structure for the supply of Sky’s channels and an agreement that each will offer the other new services.

The company is investing &£10m to fund video-on-demand, enhanced text and local news and also has a &£25m digital content fund which is being used to stimulate interactive and digital production.

Western Media broadcast manager Richard Brook says: “NTL will continue to bid for content like football, which enables it to strengthen its links with companies like Sky. But I can’t see it making its own programming.”

He adds: “Its biggest problem will be overcoming its poor consumer image, resulting from dug-up roads and unsatisfactory service.”

The company has undoubtedly suffered a number of setbacks, including a six-month delay to its digital cable TV service, which eventually launched in March. It has also had to suspend advertising for ntlworld – its free unlimited Internet access service – to clear a backlog of customers, and was forced to withdraw from the third-generation mobile phone licence bidding for commercial reasons.

Then, too, there are a number of new challenges – it has to bed down the acquisition of Cable & Wireless; roll out open Web and interactive services across its digital cable network; implement plans to launch a virtual mobile phone network; establish itself as one of the leading Internet service providers; and recoup a sizeable part of the money it splashed out for Premiership football.

But arguably the toughest task will be boosting its subscriber base. Of the 22 million homes in the UK, only 12.8 million are passed by a cable broadband network, with NTL and C&W passing 8 million homes, according to figures from the Independent Television Commission for July.

Yet of these, only 3.3 million homes are connected to a cable TV service, with NTL and C&W accounting for 2.1 million. BSkyB, which also includes SkyDigital, claims to have 4.5 million direct subscribers – not including customers who access Sky channels on other platforms – and ONdigital has 774,000.

Knapp recently predicted that by 2004 the cable companies would have 12 million customers, BSkyB would have 7 million, ONdigital 3 million and that NTL would be in profit. And with these targets ringing in his ears, at least Carter can be under no illusions about the task ahead.

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