Marketing through the ages: The 1990s and the calm before the digital storm

As part of our 40th birthday celebration, we asked previous editors to sum up marketing and Marketing Week during their time at the helm. Stuart Smith was editor throughout the 1990s (and into the 2000s), a time when marketing teams went global, Sir Martin Sorrell and WPP blazed a trail and digital was of little concern.

MW timeline 1990s

The abrupt departure of WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell earlier this year had, in truth, little to do with a grubby scandal. The reality was a tanking share price – down 35% on the previous year – and, behind it, the perception of shareholders and board directors alike that the sands had run out. The business model that had once made WPP great was irredeemably broken.

That model was in its prime during the 1990s, when Sorrell blazed a marketing services acquisition trail that brought him to global dominance.

It was a time of mega brands growing ever more mega. A time when Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Reckitt Benckiser, Diageo and their like were attempting to impose an elite portfolio on a universal consumer. ‘Think global, act local’ was the fashionable catchphrase. But, increasingly, the ‘local’ became buried in ‘global’ megalomania. National marketing teams found their authority eroded by regional and eventually global units. The marketing director as board director and, increasingly, as CMO in the ‘C-suite’, was the great talk of the day.

These ambitions were greatly assisted by an explosion in mass media. National TV channels were under pressure from cable and satellite competitors catering for a wide variety of interests. At the mass-market end, they were being outspent and outclassed by the likes of Sky, which could bring top-class sport and film to all their aficionados, irrespective of national frontiers.

READ MORE: Marketing through the ages – The 1980s saw FMCG and retail battle for dominance

The advertising industry was slow to pick up on this trend; slow, until WPP came on the scene and began buying everything in sight. A typical response to globalisation was the pan-European or worldwide campaign, in which a bland creative idea was subtly modified to suit local markets. Most egregious, perhaps, was an ad from 2000 in which Anthony Hopkins, directed by Tony Scott, boasted for one minute and 40 seconds about how ‘big’ Barclays had become. As if that were a desirable objective in itself.

The birth of digital brands

The one marketing services sector on top of the trend was media planning and buying. The entrepreneurial UK-specific media independent was nothing new in the 1990s. However, the international media buying ‘shed’ phenomenon (actually pioneered by Saatchi offshoot Zenith in late 1988) certainly was. By the end of the decade, all the main agencies had channelled their media into so-called ‘dependants’ and one, Aegis, was independently quoted on the stock exchange.

The decade was little troubled by matters digital, with the notable exception of the ‘millennium bug’ that some feared would take us back to 1900. True, most of today’s FANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google) were already in evidence, but they had yet to bare their teeth, still less to emerge as formidable disruptors and mega-brands in their own right.

The marketing director as board director and, increasingly, as CMO in the ‘C-suite’, was the great talk of the day.

Netflix was born in 1997 as a DVD postal-service competitor to the market-leading video retailer Blockbuster; Google the following year. Apple was still unaware of its second-coming under Steve Jobs. It was a minority manufacturer of elegant desktop computers, some of which graced the editorial desk of Marketing Week as we gingerly embarked on our very own desktop publishing revolution in 1992. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s future founder, was just a teenager.

MW timeline 1990s

The digital innocence extended to Marketing Week. Dotcom boom? So what? Dot-mania was of passionate concern to the world’s stock markets and provided useful content marginalia; but it was hardly a threat to the world of brands. Marketing Week the print product – for that’s all we were at the time – went from strength to strength. Spring and autumn editions regularly boasted over 130 pages, thanks to a particularly strong performance in classified advertising. Our editorial staff exceeded 20 journalists. Profits reached levels never achieved before (over £6m a year). The crowning achievement was our 20th anniversary bash in 1998, at which we successfully launched the Marketing Week Effectiveness Awards.

No analysis of the 1990s would be complete without mention of what I believe is Marketing Week’s greatest scoop of all time – the Camelot scandal. In May 1997, we received some disquieting information: Camelot’s preliminary figures, well before they were supposed to be made public. They revealed that the company’s profits were, for the first time, sharply down but, at the same time, it was trebles all round for Camelot’s directors, who were awarding themselves handsome bonuses paid for with the public’s hard-earned cash.

This was a national scandal and we were the only news organisation in possession of the facts. We ran the story as a front-page splash and had months of great publicity defending the freedom of the press.

Stuart was editor of Marketing Week from 1988 to 2008.

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