In the fast revolving world of marketing, spectacular entrances and exits are not uncommon. However, one of each this week – in the guise of Rick Bendel’s arrival at Asda and Martin George’s exit from British Airways – makes comment too tempting an opportunity to pass up.
George’s resignation may not have been a surprise, in view of his suspension since June, but it was still a shock. He is one of that small but reassuring elite of long-innings marketers, such as Sir Terry Leahy and Tim Mason, Peter Erskine and Martin Glenn, who have inspired almost universal respect. Not merely on account of their marketing professionalism but their wider executive ability. George himself never became a chief executive, but after nearly two decades at BA he was within an ace of doing so when Willie Walsh pipped him at the post last year. His subsequent promotion to the BA board (as a kind of supercharged commercial director) may have been a consolation prize, but one that has inspired other, aspirant, marketers to believe that their profession can still provide a conduit to the top in business.
The circumstances of his abrupt departure are peculiarly unsatisfactory. It is nemesis without the justificatory hubris. No one who knows the unassuming, assiduous George can quite believe he is to blame. And indeed his carefully drafted and publicised letter of resignation invites us to accept that he is personally untainted by any price-fixing scandal. BA has been noticeably less forthcoming about the departure of Iain Burns, its communications chief – who of course reported to George. All the same, George now finds himself in an unenviable limbo.
Rick Bendel may not be able to claim membership of the elite marketers’ club (at least, not yet), but his phoenix-like transformation from grizzled adman to board marketing director at Asda has certainly demonstrated his ability to startle. Quite what Bendel got up to during his long career at Publicis is a bit of a mystery, not least because Bendel himself, quite uncharacteristically for an adman, deliberately cultivated obscurity as he inexorably climbed to the top as chief operating officer.
The wits have been quick to point out that he must have done the work of two men, since he has been replaced by a combination of Olivier Fleurot and Richard Pinder. Pinder is a seasoned adland operator; Publicis executive chairman designate Fleurot knows little of advertising, having spent his career in newspapers. Maurice L赹, head of Publicis Groupe, insists strategic insights from newspapermen are likely to be of more value in understanding the digital world that so challenges brands than those of any adland insider. He may be right, but that has not stopped commentators from suggesting L赹 is also fudging the issue of his own succession for a few more years. Bendel was the somewhat unconvincing Anglophone heir presumptive who finally got fed up with incessant travelling and decided to quit. He was smart to have found such an amenable exit route as Asda. But in truth, it should not surprise. Bendel brought Asda with him in 1991 when he astutely folded tottering Geers Gross (of which he was the hapless legatee) into Publicis without losing a major client. He has been careful, whatever the other distractions of his upwardly mobile career in Publicis, to remain Asda’s chief account man.
So, a shrewd politician, a dealmaker with a tremendous capacity for hard work and attention to detail: will this make Bendel a great marketing director? It might at Asda.