A weakness that belies strength

It’s too early to say what plans Santander Central Hispano (SCH) may have for Abbey’s marketing department, but not too early to speculate that Abbey marketing chief Angus Porter will be dusting down his CV once again and contacting the headhunters. Just in case.

Though the £8bn SCH offer has been approved by Abbey chief executive Luqman Arnold and his board, it’s certainly not a done deal. The offer has been widely criticised by shareholders and the City in general. What is not in doubt is that Arnold, having cleansed the Augean Stables of Abbey’s wholesale banking and insurance operations, has thrown in the towel some way short of a much-anticipated turnaround of its retail banking. Which leaves Porter in an uncomfortable position. Admiration for Arnold was certainly a motivating factor in persuading him to take the position at Abbey in the first place. Change of ownership – whether to SCH or a US bank – now seems inevitable, and with it Arnold’s eventual departure. In any case, the executive team is already looking depleted following chief operating officer Stephen Hester’s defection to British Land. Who would wish to be last on board the Marie Celeste?

Porter’s predicament is typical of a breed of high-profile marketers who exult in risky challenges. Being the bees knees at an already successful big brand is all very well, but how much more exhilarating – if less comfortable – to make a definable difference by breathing life into a flagging or underexploited brand. No doubt substantial financial reward and the possibility of a board position play their part in making the challenge more appetising, but the messianic appeal of personally pulling some corporate chestnuts out of the fire should not be underestimated.

Sadly, it can easily end in tears. Over the past year, a litany of top marketers has graphically illustrated the pitfalls of taking up a radical challenge. Ann Francke, well aware of the culture shock of moving from Masterfoods to a troubled retailer like Boots, must all the same have been surprised by the speed with which events overtook her. Alice Avis, after a successful stint at Diageo, moved to the bear-pit of Marks & Spencer, and – through no fault of her own – paid the price when she became a casualty in the corporate bloodletting that followed Philip Green’s fictive takeover bid. Will Harris, former O2 marketing supremo, could be bracketed in a similar category after his precipitate decision to quit as marketing director of the Conservative Party (though what, if any, part Lord Saatchi’s new hands-on role played in this decision remains unclear).

More recently still we have the cases of Simon Waugh and Mike Moran, respectively of Centrica and Thames Water. Both had an ambitious brief to bring global coherence to the companies where they were head marketers, and both were eventually undone by changing corporate circumstances which made their roles redundant.

And the moral? Not necessarily as gloomy as it seems. Vulnerability to ‘events’, more habitually the malaise of senior politicians, is perhaps a sign that marketers and marketing strategy are being taken more seriously by boards and shareholders alike. And don’t forget something else top marketers share with politicians: an eternal gift for the comeback.

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