According to his friends, Sholto Douglas-Home, ad director of BT, is a passionate gambler. He has a monthly column in Inside Racing, and admits racing is his “hobby and passion”.
This risk-taking streak has made some wonder whether he is taking a gamble by accepting the job of marketing and communications director for the Millennium Dome organiser the New Millennium Experience Company (MW June 25).
The project’s success – or otherwise – could determine his career path over coming years. If the Dome is a flop, he may well return to BT – officially he is on a two-year secondment to the NMEC. But if it is a success, the Dome could be the springboard for a bright new career. By that time he will be good friends – or great enemies – with Peter Mandelson, the minister responsible for the Dome. There are other high-level contacts to be made there, too.
A further attraction to the job is the opportunity it provides for self-publicity. He recently let Hello! magazine into his Chelsea home, and even his friends say he loves nothing more than to talk about who he had dinner with the night before. It will no doubt be an impressive list – Douglas-Home is well connected, a child of the family that provided Britain with Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home. He is even a godson of the late Frank Sinatra and a second cousin of the late Diana, Princess of Wales.
His role at the Dome is not that of a traditional marketing director: the advertising agency (M&C Saatchi), the below-the-line agency (Claydon Heeley International), the design agencies and the press office are already in place.
This makes his task appear quite straightforward: getting the British public to travel to Greenwich and buy 12 million tickets. It’s a crucial role, not simply because if people don’t go the event will be a flop, but also because the Dome is hoping to recover 150m of costs from ticket and merchandise sales.
He will also have to respond to pressure from the project’s sponsors, which include BT, GEC, and BSkyB, which have so far committed 100m. They will no doubt be keen to feature in any advertising, though this will ultimately be down to commercial director Kevin Johnson.
Douglas-Home is sketchy about his plans for the Dome. He says: “Marketing is common sense. It’s about thinking with clarity. It’s a case of designing a strategy which is achievable and then busting your balls to make it work.
“Advertising will play an important part in this, but not like at BT. We should think innovatively and tangentially about how we promote this. It shouldn’t be a conventional ‘lets do some ads’.”
Another oddity about Douglas-Home’s new role is that he will have little control over the product he is marketing. The Dome is riddled with “people in charge”. Its board includes some of the most important names in business (Bob Ayling, chief executive of British Airways and Michael Grade, chairman of First Leisure), not to mention the massive egos of Mandelson and Michael Heseltine.
As marketing chief he will report directly to NMEC managing director Liam Kane, the former managing director of Mirror Group Scotland, who joined in April.
One Dome insider says the appointment of Douglas-Home signals a reduced role for Matthew Freud, the PR guru who sits on the NMEC board. “A lot of his [Douglas-Home’s] tasks will be what Matthew Freud tried to take over,” he says.
Douglas-Home has been at BT for four-and-a-half years – two in his present position as head of advertising for the consumer division. This post has put him at the helm of the country’s biggest ad budget, estimated to be 100m.
Before working for BT, he was an advertising agency man. He began at Colman RSCG in 1983, moved to Chiat Day Mojo five years later and was then recruited by Richard Hytner as an account director for Still Price Lintas. In 1993 he joined BT because “I thought it would be good experience to spend a couple years as a client to give my position an added dimension.”
Despite the obvious attention Douglas-Home pays to his outward appearance – he always wears immaculately ironed shirts, he has been criticised for not paying enough attention to detail on business projects. However, Nick Hurrell, joint chief executive of M&C Saatchi, says his focus on the big picture is what is needed at the Dome because it is such a giant project.
Douglas-Home admits this is a trait he has learned at BT: “The bigger something is, the simpler you have to keep it. It is such a huge task here with 20 million customers. You have to be very focused and distil what it’s about because you could get overwhelmed by detail.
“You have to make something happen and make it big – it doesn’t always help if you become too introspective and analytical.”
Douglas-Home says he will return to BT at the end of the two-year secondment: “Oh God yeah. I love BT. There are huge opportunities there and the industry is fascinating. If I wanted to get out I could have just walked away.” His return is likely to be determined by the size of the job he is offered.
But observers are less sure of his intentions. One source says: “I doubt he’ll go back. He is probably using the Dome as a stepping-stone to greater things. He has probably gone as far as he can at BT.” Another notes: “It’s a great route out. He wants to do things where he is more important. At BT the shots were being called by the marketing people.”
BT’s consumer division has been without a permanent marketing director since Mike Wagner quit that role last year, and the fact that the job has not been handed to Douglas-Home may be why the observers feel he won’t be rising any further at BT.
Although observers unanimously refer to Douglas-Home as being “political”, it is unclear if he is using the Dome to follow in the family footsteps. He says: “I have no plans to go into politics now. If I did, it would be on the back of achieving something else. But I’m in my mid-30s and I haven’t got any experience of local or regional level politics.”
One thing is certain, Douglas-Home is ambitious. As one source says: “You can’t come from the kind of family he does and not be ambitious.”
Douglas-Home is popular, charming and diplomatic. He oozes confidence. Such characteristics will come in handy when co-ordinating events at the Dome. Mark Lund, chief executive of Delaney Fletcher Bozell, says: “He makes everyone feel they are in the loop. He has inherited a politician’s charm and has the ability to make people work together under pressure.”
One source says: “His ambition is greater than his talent.” The statement may not be as damning as it appears, because the man’s ambition seems infinite. He has the charm and profile which the role at the Dome requires and, in return, the Dome is supplying him with great possibilities to feed his hunger for a powerful career and a famous lifestyle.