Bannister abandons mission impossible

Matthew Bannister’s resignation raises deeper questions than whether he was right for the job – like marketing’s future at the BBC.

Matthew Bannister’s announcement last week that he is to step down as marketing and communications director of the BBC caused as much surprise as the original news in April that he had got the job.

Friends of Sue Farr, then BBC director of public service marketing who lost out to Bannister for the top marketing post, seem to have been vindicated. They complained that it was unfair for Bannister – former head of BBC production – to get the role when he had no direct experience of marketing (MW April 6).

Caroline Marland, then managing director of Guardian Newspapers, said at the time: “I find it extraordinary the BBC is putting someone in charge who has never worked in marketing.” And former Advertising Standards Authority director-general Matti Alderson said she was “bewildered by this decision”.

Bannister’s resignation has been greeted with disbelief – how could anybody turn away from the nation’s plum marketing job on a salary of £180,000 just because he had decided he wanted a change of direction? Most executives would sort out the new career first, then resign. But not Bannister, who says it would be “improper” to work at the BBC while secretly seeking alternative employment.

His resignation led to a welter of speculation in the press. Was he the “wrong man for the wrong job?”, or had he fallen out with director-general Greg Dyke, jealous at losing out to him in the battle for the top job? Did he fear having to implement another round of job-cutting and decide to fall on his sword rather than wield the axe? Or was he just plain old “not very good”?

According to Bannister, these are all just “conspiracy theories”, and the truth is something more personal.

“I wanted a change of direction as I have been at the BBC for 22 years. It’s a purely personal decision, not that I disagree with anything – the BBC will go from strength to strength. I want to work in a more modern way, less for a large corporation, more for myself. I’ve been thinking about it for a few months,” he says.

It does sounds as though he is heading for dot-com heaven: “The world of media is wonderful,” he says. “With the convergence of technologies, there are lots of opportunities for someone with my experience of media, broadcasting and talent management.” And his own application for director-general, he admits, was a “long shot”.

Some believe he will fail to complete the cuts he was brought in to introduce by the time he leaves on December 15. But he insists he will leave a legacy at the BBC’s reshaped marketing department. “It will have an effect. There will be a new marketing strategy, a budget for the next 18 months and a structure to make the savings.”

His legacy will be the cuts in marketing budget – with some £10m lopped off the total of £73m. Nearly 60 redundancies are expected in the marketing and communications directorate, which combined 450 posts from the old marketing, corporate affairs, public relations, audience research and customer services divisions.

The new directorate will be organised into four main groups representing attitudes or moods of viewers – youth, mainstream, heartland and possibly another for nations. Permanent teams of marketers and researchers sit in each of the four attitudinal groups, with the remaining floating pool of marketers allocated to projects within each group.

Some are expecting an announcement this week on restructuring, though the BBC says the main reorganisation will be announced within two weeks.

The high-profile corporate ads, such as “Perfect Day” are to be replaced with more focused promotions. The review of advertising agencies is almost complete, and Bannister insists the new roster will be selected even though he is leaving.

The BBC says it will employ headhunters to find Bannister’s replacement. Names have been suggested as a possible replacement – Sue Farr, for example, and press and publicity controller Sally Osman, or former corporate marketing controller Jane Frost.

But Bannister’s unexpected departure raises the question of how enjoyable a job this will be. His own attempts to restructure the department are understood to have met resistance from service heads, such as head of TV Mark Thompson and head of radio Jenny Abramsky.

Or maybe his resignation is a damning indictment of the role of BBC marketing – perhaps a live wire like Bannister did not take to the discipline.

This he denies: “I was delighted to get the marketing job… I would do it again, the key thing is in what context – I don’t want to be in a massive corporation.”

But the tale of the BBC’s adoption of marketing will continue to intrigue. Will the public service broadcaster ever really accept the discipline as anything more than a branch of PR and promotion?

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