Angus Porter’s appointment as Abbey National customer propositions director, the top marketing post at the struggling bank, has raised some eyebrows. Even Porter refers to his new position as “a slightly strange title that I am not exactly wild about.”
While his job title may be unusual, so is his path to the Abbey hot seat. A PhD in metallurgy, a variety of roles in research and development, and sales and marketing at Mars Confectionery (now Masterfoods), and then a move to telecoms is not the most obvious preparation.
Porter is about to relinquish his role of managing director, consumer division, at BT Retail and he looks slightly forlorn walking around BT’s City headquarters, almost embarrassed to be leaving. He is temporarily ensconced in a barren office suite – nothing to do with his pending departure he is keen to point out, but simply owing to his permanent office being made open-plan, something he says he had long pushed for. “The irony is, it finally happens when you go,” he says.
With an enigmatic though studied bonhomie, Porter makes the coffee before sitting down to chat. “I hear you have been checking up on me,” he says with the confidence of someone who knows he is important enough for colleagues to relay enquiries back to him.
He need not have worried. Disconcertingly, it is difficult to find anyone with anything but good things to say about Porter. The praise rolls in from those who have worked with him – “smooth operator”, “all round good guy”, “friction free”. Agencies laud his understanding and professionalism, and those who have worked with him praise his lack of tantrums and the freedom he gives his staff. The closest you get to criticism is that Porter is “perhaps not the life and soul of the party”.
But a source from one of BT’s agencies adds a touch of realism, saying: “No one is going to slag him off – he is always going to be too important.”
Porter describes himself as “a pretty ordinary kinda guy”, who divides his weekends between ferrying his three children around Buckinghamshire where he lives with his wife Kate, and playing cricket – which he did at a competitive level until his knees began to play up – or watching rugby on TV. Born in Zambia in 1957 to parents in the colonial service, Porter came to England when he was eight years old, had a grammar school education in Sussex and studied at Cambridge University. After a degree in natural sciences he went on to do a PhD in metallurgy because, he says self-depreciatingly, he didn’t have a clue what else to do.
He is now being parachuted into one of the most challenging jobs – to spearhead a marketing-led revival of Abbey National. A household brand with 16 million customers, the Abbey is labouring under a tired, slightly tacky image, and desperately needs to stem the tide that led to record losses of just under &£1bn last year. Porter describes the Abbey as “interesting”, compounding the faint praise by saying it is “basically a good brand”.
His appointment has taken many by surprise and he looks slightly crestfallen at the suggestion that the move is a demotion. “It certainly doesn’t feel like a step down,” he says. Porter points out that when he arrived at BT in 1999, initially as marketing director for retail before promotion to his current role a year later, there were also serious problems. “The market share was in decline; it was a bit disrespected. Turning it around was possible but difficult,” he recalls.
It is almost as if Porter has a penchant for the ailing giants of UK business – he was appointed non-executive director of crisis-stricken MyTravel, just as its as yet unresolved troubles came to light in February last year.
The attraction of a boardroom seat at the Abbey is something that Porter makes no bones about. He emphasises, with barely concealed frustration, how rare it is for marketers to make it into the boardroom, saying he couldn’t stay at BT waiting on ifs and buts.
The central role assigned to marketing under Abbey National chief executive Luqman Arnold’s turnaround strategy clearly appeals to Porter. Colleagues say he relishes a challenge and the chance to show what he can do. “He has all the right tools in the box to move big brands forward,” says one.
However, Arnold’s emphasis on marketing as crucial to the Abbey’s turnaround is a double-edged sword. While it results in a place in the boardroom for Porter, it also means Arnold has firmly set the parameters of his job. He has already presided over two whirlwind reviews to appoint TBWA/London and MindShare, and instructed Wolff Olins to carry out a fundamental brand review.
As you would expect, Porter dismisses criticisms of his new boss as dictatorial. Porter says: “He is a very open, intuitive guy despite his financial background.”
Porter accepts that it is slightly unusual to start a new job with agencies and strategy so tightly defined, but claims he has been kept in the loop by Arnold. “I was consulted before, during and after the appointments, and I am very happy with the situation,” is the studied answer. Again, he points to the similar situation at BT where he took over just after the ET campaign had been signed off.
One of his first jobs will be to soothe the ruffled feathers of Abbey marketers, piqued at being shut out of the agency pitches. “I don’t want to go in and say that everything is crap,” he says. However, Porter makes it quite clear he doesn’t like the Abbey’s current advertising, featuring ex-EastEnders actor Martin Kemp.
Porter signed on the dotted line in March for the Abbey job, but in the meantime at BT he introduced a simpler pricing structure and a rebrand, dropping the “trumpet-blowing” logo.
When he finally starts at the Abbey on July 1, Porter will receive a basic salary of &£450,000, excluding the customary perks and bonuses. He quips that his own experience of financial services is limited to having a bank account – and the experience is not a good one. When his appointment was announced last week, he said “pretty much all the banks are disliked”. For the record, Porter banks with Lloyds TSB.
But he is unfazed by his lack of experience in financial services, confident in his track record. At Mars, Porter’s achievements included drawing up the sales strategy for Mars ice cream, the launch of Celebrations and the rebranding of Opal Fruits as Starburst. Porter started off as a research scientist, working on Maltesers and his first break in marketing came when being appointed marketing director in 1990.
“It was amazing how much you could bring from chocolate to telecoms,” he says, confident he can repeat the trick. But for the challenge ahead, rather than a PhD in metallurgy Porter may need to call on the art of alchemy to bring the Abbey back into the black.