The news that Jim Hytner, guardian of one of the UK’s biggest marketing budgets at £350m, was quitting his job as Barclays group brand and UK marketing director (MW last week) sent shockwaves through the industry.
The surprise was not that he is leaving the high street bank – strong rumours have circulated for much of his three-year tenure – but that he is joining the tiny, privately-owned media company Top Up TV as board-level commercial director.
Despite determined assurances from friends and acquaintances that this is Hytner’s “dream job”, there are many who believe it a considerable step down, and others who speculate that Hytner has effectively been ousted from Barclays. Not so, says one source, who can “quite imagine” why such rumours would start. Although many leaving the high street bank have been forced out, he insists that is not the case with Hytner.
Following news of his impending departure, Barclays was forced to deny any rift with Barclays president Bob Diamond, whose power base at the bank continues to grow. Hytner’s move to Barclays from ITV in October 2004 after a decade in television surprised the industry, particularly as he was going to a sector in which he had no experience.
He was brought in by the ebullient Roger Davis, then Barclays’ chief executive of UK banking, to replace Simon Gulliford and transform its marketing and positioning. Davis is reported to have told Hytner on his first day that the aim was to build the UK’s “best bank” and that marketing had a key role to play.
Hytner set about his task with aplomb, first scrapping the glossy “Fluent in Finance” campaign, which he believed alienated staff and customers. He then introduced gimmicks, such as free pens, and renamed the ATM “Hole in the wall”, which he said matched everyday language and brought the business of banking down to an everyman level.
Such “dumbing down” has been a central feature of his advertising. A year after joining, Hytner unveiled, with great fanfare, the positioning and strapline to replace Fluent in Finance. But the strapline chosen – “Now there’s a thought” – was already being used by East Midlands accountancy company Cooper Parry. A flurry of legal activity followed, before the high street bank struck an out-of-court settlement.
That was not the first time that work ordered by Hytner had courted controversy. A first attempt to inject “wit and warmth” into Barclays’ marketing backfired when an ad for its current account was banned by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).
Barclays apologised for any offence the execution – featuring a man being stung by a wasp, developing an allergic reaction and being shot by police with a tranquilliser dart – may have caused.
Some industry observers suggest that far from being witty and warm, Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s advertising under Hytner has been poor and even offensive to the bank’s staff, showing them as bumbling and incompetent.
But others say he has been constant in his vision and brought stability, warmth and staff opt-in during his tenure. One industry source says: “It is always difficult for marketing people in such a huge organisation to preach and deliver consistency, but that is what Hytner has done. He has kept the ‘Now there’s a thought’ strategy, his single-minded focus and striven to exact change from the inside out, focusing first on staff, then existing and potential customers.”
Although the campaign may not be to everyone’s taste, it is said to have tracked well, with clear messages. A year after launching Barclays insurance, the company has added 350,000 home policies to its books, and became the single biggest recruiter last year.
Outgoing BBH group account director Steve Kershaw says: “What Jim has done, particularly on the retail bank side, is give it a much more human feel. He has done a really good job of internally galvanising the staff. He has made them feel part of the process. He has been on a mission to make Barclays customer-centric. There has been a lot of work in store and around the branches, making them much more accessible.”
A potential turning point came in December 2005 when Hytner’s mentor Davis was effectively forced out, leading to speculation that his lieutenant was next power shift
Meanwhile, power seemed to be shifting to former Washington Mutual executive Deanna Oppenheimer, promoted from UK banking chief operating officer to Davis’ old role, with sources suggesting she wanted to be far more involved in marketing. Perhaps tellingly, she will take over Hytner’s marketing responsibilities when he leaves, albeit on an interim basis.
With Diamond’s importance growing and further senior management changes, Hytner hung on, even extending his remit to include other parts of the Barclays empire, such as overseeing Barclaycard’s strategy.
Yet even those close to him believe that making strategic business decisions is his weakness. One source calls him the marketing equivalent of Ant & Dec: optimistic, popular, certainly populist, but short on depth and somewhat naive.
That is precisely why, believes another, Hytner took on the Barclays challenge in the first place: to become both more strategic and “hard-nosed”. The aim was supposedly to gain experience in a heavyweight sector in a bid to head a FTSE company at a later stage.
Many believe Top Up TV is a strange choice as a result, despite Hytner’s insistence that he craved a return to the media sector. Having been linked to the larger ITV commercial role, Hytner ruled himself out of the running to join Top Up, where he is a known quantity.
He joins a raft of familiar faces among the 20-odd members of staff at Top Up TV. Co-founders David Chance and Ian West and chief operating officer Matt Seaman are all Sky alumni, while chief executive Nick Markham knows Hytner from ITV.
It is a tough challenge to grow the pay-TV operator in a field dominated by players such as Sky, Virgin Media and newcomer BT Vision.
Top Up says it has “ambitious plans”, to be spearheaded and implemented in part by Hytner, and a wealth of opportunities such as a digital switchover. Freeview customers will be able to upgrade to services from the likes of sports broadcaster Setanta on the platform.
It has also launched commercial services for Camelot and Audi, as well as download service Top Up Anytime and what it says is the most aggressively-priced digital TV recorder on the market, Top Up Plus.
Hytner is understood to be looking forward to escaping the closeted towers of Canary Wharf to the more extrovert media sector. Yet with his move will come an inevitable loss of the high media profile he is said to enjoy. In a Factiva study for Marketing Week, Hytner was the second most mentioned marketer in the 12 months to May last year across 600 media sources (MW May 18, 2006). In first place was then BA commercial chief Martin George, who later fell on his sword following the fuel surcharge price-fixing scandal.
The industry will be watching closely to see if Hytner can once more defy and surprise his critics. Now, there’s a thought.