A short step from fireman to firebug

Fresh eyes and fresh thinking are just what a company needs when its marketing has gone stale, or so the received wisdom goes – hence the rise of ‘interims’, the marketing trouble-shooters who drop in, turn things round and check out. But do t

Burger King’s marketing executives could well have had a few sleepless nights since the company brought in a trouble-shooter to help them relaunch the fast-food chain in the UK.

Like marketers elsewhere, who have had self-styled fire-fighting “Red Adairs” thrust upon them, they are waiting to find out whether John Valentine, chairman of US advertising agency VML, will deliver the goods or leave a trail of destruction in his wake.

Valentine, who is joining the team for six months to lead a brand-strategy review prior to a relaunch in the UK (MW last week), brings with him more than 30 years of marketing and advertising experience. He has worked on brands such as Pizza Hut, Northwest Airlines and Hallmark Greeting Cards, and he says this has given him “a feel for what works in certain situations”. With Valentine reporting to Burger King International president Andre Lacroix and Burger King Corporation chief global marketing officer Chris Clouser, any decisions taken by him are likely to be taken seriously.

More and more companies are turning to hired guns to help sort out branding and strategic marketing problems, but there are those that question whether they end up fuelling the flames rather than putting them out. One industry insider goes so far as to describe them as “shakers and movers, as opposed to movers and shakers”.

Chris Hindle, managing director of interim management for recruitment agency Calibre One, says that, while the practice of using “interims” – temporary appointees – in the UK is a relatively new step for marketing departments, it is on the increase.

He says: “Marketing is the area of the company that interacts with customers or clients and is a major differentiating factor between organisations. In the past, companies have been reluctant to bring people into strategic trouble-shooter positions as they didn’t feel comfortable passing control of key decisions to an independent, temporary person.”

Hindle says the quality of interims available has improved, as executives have begun to think more about the work-life balance, and as talented people have found themselves out of work following the bursting of the dot-com bubble.

Strategic imports

In the past, temporary marketers were used primarily as a safe pair of hands while an employee was on maternity leave, or as cover if someone left suddenly. But they are used increasingly for strategic reasons. Typical projects include the implementation of new strategies, product launches, brand reviews and turning around stale marketing operations. What unites these appointments is that the company feels there is no one able to handle the task internally.

But the practice of bringing in the hired guns has yet to catch on at the big packaged-goods companies. A Unilever spokesman says: “We wouldn’t use external marketing trouble-shooters on our brands. Our reputation is as good as any in terms of marketing – it would almost be an affront to us if we had to employ one of these people.”

And Procter & Gamble, which claims to be “the best marketing university in the world”, is unlikely to turn to trouble-shooters: it has a reputation for appointing senior executives from inside the company only.

Outsider, not infighter

Proponents of outside help argue that the biggest advantage of using trouble-shooters is that they bring a fresh perspective to the business and are not encumbered with corporate politics and petty rivalries.

As one insider says: “Some permanent marketing directors are more interested in their next career move than what they can actually do for the company. Interims, on the other hand, have a task and they tend to just get on with it.”

The monetary rewards for these temporary jobs can be great, varying between £750 to £2,000 a day. The final figure reflects the location, industry and sector, and shorter assignments command a premium rate.

But there are also other attractions to being an interim, such as rapid professional development. Paul Hutton worked as an interim marketing director for Mothercare and is now at Sainsbury’s One – the supermarket chain’s added-value division – working on Sainsbury’s Mobile.

Hutton says: “You can get quite cocooned in permanent roles. Each time I get an assignment it takes me up another avenue.”

A collector of P45s

Mike Sommers, a marketing journeyman who has held high-profile jobs at Woolworths, TSB and MGM Cinemas, followed by a temporary stint at Prudential and then the role of chief marketing officer at Sequence, Royal & SunAlliance’s property service division, quips that he does “trouble-shooting by accident” because he either “gets bored of companies or they get bored of me”.

He argues that, in some cases, change will always be for the better: “There comes a point when any change is good change. Companies find themselves in such a rut that it doesn’t matter if the corrective action is not right. Just making the company move and shifting some perspectives gets people thinking again.

“Most companies are good at handling incremental change. What they are bad at is recognising that the things they need to do are out of kilter with their company’s culture – anybody who tries to make a radical change becomes a pariah.”

No two trouble-shooters are the same, but according to observers common characteristics include impatience, energy, irreverence, creativity, confidence and a touch of arrogance. But one skill is essential – the ability to get staff on-side quickly and to gain their respect.

Campbell Grocery Products interim marketing director Rob Rees says: “The main thing is that you effect change. You can’t just produce a strategy that doesn’t win staff hearts and minds.”

This can be challenging. Chris Moss, who runs consultancy Red Zebra, has experienced “looks of terror and open hostility” on meeting permanent marketing teams at the outset of assignments.

He counts as one of his most high-profile successes the rebranding of ONdigital to ITV Digital. Moss, who has also worked at Orange and Virgin Atlantic on a permanent basis and at Lloyds TSB as a consultant, says he encouraged the management of the digital terrestrial platform to take a chance with advertising agency Mother and its creation, “Monkey” – a move that has gone down in marketing history.

But Moss is pragmatic about what trouble-shooters can achieve: “I wouldn’t say that everything I’ve ever done has been successful. Yes, ITV Digital had some new advertising and gained them some extra months of life, but quite often it can be wallpaper, unless you leave behind that passion and excitement. It is essential to make sure that the right people in the organisation are there to carry the flame. Quite often you see there’s nobody to hand over to and it can be quite sad.”

Having “someone to pass the baton to” is, according to Banc chairman – and former BT marketing director – Robert Bean, vital to the success of any strategy implemented by a trouble-shooter.

Twisted fire-starter?

Bean is a fan of what he calls “fire-starters”. He says: “These people tend to be brave, decisive and do the right thing, not the politically expedient thing. It’s wonderfully refreshing.” Their biggest enemies, he adds, are the middle managers caught between younger members of the team, who probably recognise the need for fresh ideas, and the executives, who are responsible for hiring the problem-solvers.

One man who has managed to annoy his managers is Royal Mail chairman Allan Leighton. Brought into stop the Post Office haemorrhaging money and to beef up its business acumen as postal services are deregulated, the ex-Mars and Asda executive has gained the public’s vote by ditching the much-derided Consignia brand. But at the same time he has announced 17,000 redundancies and has alienated both union officials and managers by attacking them in a controversial letter to postal staff. His actions of late have prompted some to ask whether he is more of a pyromaniac than a fire-fighter.

Another ex-marketer, Sir Peter Davis, who returned to J Sainsbury in 2000 as chief executive, is further down the road to recovery than Leighton. For the year to March 30, his company announced a 14 per cent rise in profits before exceptional items to £627m. This followed two years of declining profitability. Davis now intends to target low-income households through Savacentres and to cut down on the range of luxury products in Sainsbury’s supermarkets in favour of more basic items.

Davis will be hoping that he can repeat his performance at Prudential, where he is credited with streamlining operations and launching online bank Egg. City analysts remain concerned, however, about how long it will take for the group to regain the top spot in the supermarket sector from Tesco.

A heavyweight executive

Some temporary executives feel so passionately about their task that they ruffle more than a few feathers in a bid to introduce change.

US consultant Ed Carter, who was hired by BT during the mid-Nineties to help it cope with increased competition in the telecommunications industry, is credited with overhauling the concept and marketing of the Friends and Family scheme. He also worked for a year on the then BT Cellnet.

Carter gained notoriety by getting involved in two physical confrontations, one with Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy chairman Jeremy Miles, who was then board account director for BT at Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO – Carter was barred from entering the agency as a result – and the other with one of BT’s finance department.

He dismisses both incidents as over-sensitivity on the part of the people involved, but admits to being impatient – “patience is not a virtue if your business is failing” – and challenging consensus.

“I’m a change agent. By definition I’m a person not everyone is going to like,” says Carter, who is now in semi-retirement but still takes on small projects through his company Carter Marketing Group. He adds: “In some companies, the culture is such that you have to agree with everyone. But I say that if an idea is agreeable to everyone, then it must be agreeable to the dumbest person in the room.”

It may be the role of trouble-shooters to fight fires with new ideas, but sometimes they end up fanning the flames, rather than diffusing the problem and setting the marketing strategy back on track.


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