Cilla Black and Blind Date could well be responsible for giving O2 vice-president of marketing Will Harris his break in the world of advertising. An appearance on the show which resulted in a date in Gibraltar – but no romance – arguably helped to win him a place on a graduate trainee scheme at what was then Lowe Howard Spink. Applying to be a copywriter, Harris asked the creative team to check out his appearance on the ITV show the following Saturday. Desperate to make an impact – the closing dates for all the other advertising agency schemes had closed – Harris also submitted what he calls a “dreadful, Pinteresque” play featuring two advertising executives discussing whether they should hire him or not.
Harris is no stranger to making an impression. His first job, at Epsom Job Centre , was offered to him when he turned up barefoot looking for work, having developed a habit of driving without shoes in his days as an English student at Nottingham University.
After a time, Harris’ sartorial habits caused comment among his colleagues: “I got into trouble because I used to wear shorts to work, because I don’t like wearing trousers. I said it was sexist, as women were allowed to and men weren’t.”
But Harris lost the argument when the issue was raised at a regional meeting of what he calls “politically correct” civil servants.
Even at O2, Harris has managed to make his mark. An ex-colleague claims that the marketer actively courted attention and liked to cut a dash: “When he enters a room he wants people to know. He’ll say: ‘Hi, I’m Will Harris.’.”
He adds that HarrisÃÂ who has a low tolerance for “long meetings” or people “being pompous”, is always quick to cut to the chase, demanding to know what the gathering is meant to achieve; and that he often walks out before the end.
For the next six months Harris will not have to sit through meetings: he’s negotiated a sabbatical so he can write a book about the impact of the mobile phone on society, exploring the many ways in which people use the technology (MW last week). He has already begun his research in the US and his agent is pitching the book, which will not be a marketing tome, to publishers.
Ever since leaving university, Harris has wanted to be a writer. He initially toyed with the idea of being a poet until he realised that he was “not tortured enough”.
Up until that point, Harris admits he had had a privileged upbringing with a private-school education. But the recession of the early Nineties found him without employment until his aforementioned trip to the Job Centre. There, he says, he was “thrown into a complete cross-section of society”. “It was a bit of a wake-up call. Working there gave me an insight into what life is really like. It has been helpful for my career: I have to understand how people think.”
Harris wanted a career that combined creativity with business. Advertising offered just that. He went on to work at WCRS in the mid-Nineties, as director in charge of the Orange account following the brand’s launch. Partners BDDH managing director Simon Toaldo, client services director at WCRS at the time, says: “He was impressive, ambitious and in a hurry. He was confident without being cocky or arrogant.”
Charles Vallance, who worked with Harris at WCRS and is a founding partner of O2’s agency Vallance Carruthers Coleman Priest (VCCP), says Harris “has trodden on a few toes” and has been known “to upset people unintentionally”. He adds: “He’s a nice chap but he can be rather a bull in a china shop.”
There were certainly a few upset executives at Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO, who thought Harris, a former board director on the BT Cellnet and Genie accounts at the agency, had pulled the rug from under their feet when he handed the O2 launch task to VCCP, the agency that came up with the “bubbles in water” theme.
Harris himself admits that making the decision to remove the O2 account was “horrific”, but adds that he has no regrets. “If we hadn’t changed agencies, the brand wouldn’t have been anywhere near as successful as it is.”
Vallance says Harris is “not naturally consensual” and that his ability to make tough decisions has helped him to build strong brands. He adds: “His biggest skill is as an originator. He understands brands intuitively.” As well as developing Orange while at WCRS and rebranding BT Cellnet to O2, Harris launched the mobile internet Genie brand, now subsumed into O2, while at BT.
His former boss Michael Baulk, chairman of AMV, agrees: “Harris can be a very effective agent of change. In my view he is at his best when a situation needs a forceful personality, a lot of energy and corrective action. I think he now needs to take the time to show he can go on from that and build sustainable growth for a brand or business in the long term.”
Vallance suggests that Harris suffers from poor concentration levels. It is a criticism that is also brought up by the former O2 colleague, who says that Harris is “not a ‘completer-finisher'” and perhaps lacks patience when it comes to the long-term, day-to-day grind of turning round a business.
He adds: “Harris did a marvellous cosmetic job with the advertising and customer service has improved a bit, but there’s still a long way to go in what is a highly competitive market.”
But Harris retorts that it is “unfair” to say he gets “bored and moves on”. He denies having “left anything in the lurch”.
The past year at O2, a company with more than 12 million customers, has not been without its troubles. Rival T-Mobile has overtaken the brand to become the third-most popular network in the UK; and O2 holding company mmO2 announced a pre-tax loss of £10bn for the year to March 31, owing to exceptional charges of more than £9bn. O2 has also came under fire from Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, which says O2 is using similar symbols to the PlayStation icons in its advertising.
But Harris says that the market has changed – it is not the number of customers that counts, but whether those customers “are worth having”. He claims that the O2 brand was created with this in mind and that its customer profile is changing, with the network attracting younger subscribers, and heavier users of text and data services.
Whether Harris will return to O2 after his sabbatical is not absolutely clear. Those who know him doubt he will do so unless he is presented with new challenges. Harris himself says: “The deal is that I go back and pick up where I left off, but I’m focused on the next six months.”
Apart from the book, he plans to run the New York marathon in November and wants to get involved with national politics, reluctantly admitting that he is “more Tory than Labour”.
One thing is certain: when it comes to his curriculum vitae, there is plenty to make an instant impression. But some would argue that in order to make a lasting mark in marketing and business circles Harris needs to gain additional experience, developing a brand that is already established in a market other than mobile telephony.