Jeremy Bullmore and Dame Stephanie Shirley profiles.

By The Drum, Administrator

April 29, 2002 | 12 min read

straight talking by Bullmore.

Anyone born in 1929 will have obviously seen many changes in society. However, being Jeremy Bullmore, the non-executive director of WPP Group, respected industry commentator, author and Campaign’s resident agony uncle, means that change has been a way of life.

However, as his gentlemanly manner would suggest, he remains philosophical about the changes affecting the media and marketing industry: “Like most people I can only recognise change in retrospect. We can all be very clever when it is too late to do anything about something.

“I suppose the common belief at the moment is that change will get rid of everything that has gone before it, but I have never subscribed to that theory. The thing which amazes me is that people think new media will get rid of old media, but there is no way media such as outdoor will be affected by new media.”

It seems ironic that barely seconds into our conversation Bullmore pulls it down the new media pathway. Bullmore is old school, and that is no criticism, but a compliment. He has seen it all.

He remembers the advent of commercial television and recalls the cries that it marked the end of cinema advertising. He has seen the outdoor advertising sector grow and heard the yells that press advertising is ultimately doomed. Now he sees the new media revolution taking hold but, drawing on previous experience, confidently predicts that it will not have a devastating effect on any other medium.

“There is a great deal of confusion over the internet. Nobody has really grasped what the internet can do yet for brands. The internet is still, and will probably always be, a very private medium. To achieve brand fame, brands have to reach many people. The problem is that an internet experience is not shared, like the TV, radio or outdoor advertising. Brands need that publicity to develop. The internet alone has not developed a famous brand. Amazon is perhaps the most famous, but that is mostly because it is mentioned in public media like TV and press.

“People have come to realise that internet banner ads are the worst kind of ambushing of people. There are really two kinds of advertising. There are ads that people go to in order to look for specific things, like the classified newspaper ads, and there are ads which look for people, such as display ads in newspapers, billboards and television ads. The best, and perhaps the only, use of the internet is when people go actively seeking things like they do in the classifieds.”

For those who don’t know, and I assume that number is very few, Bullmore started his career in 1954 when he took a job as a trainee copywriter at J Walter Thompson. Thirty-three years later, when he retired, he was still at J Walter Thompson, though his position had changed somewhat during the thirty-three years. Progressing through the ranks of copywriter, writer/producer, creative group head, head of television, head of the creative department, his final 11 years saw him as chairman of JWT London. Not a bad career path, but it did not stop there. Despite Bullmore saying he “never had any ambitions”, he was appointed non-executive director of the Guardian Media Group and WPP Group and is now the president of NABS.

His achievements in the advertising and marketing business mean he is ideally placed to address industry matters, which he will be doing in a week’s time when he addresses the Marketing Society Scotland’s annual conference in Edinburgh.

Another change that Bullmore says he has witnessed during his career is that of globalisation. He believes it is something which has brought with it identity problems for marketers.

“Globalisation is affecting things. There is a view that you can speak to people in Thailand in the same manner you do to the people in Edinburgh, which is daft. I argue strongly that the global brand is a contradiction in terms. McDonalds is seen differently in Thailand than it is in Moscow and the US. It makes people at corporate headquarters feel good about their brand, but it is a treacherous way forward.

“Obviously, globalisation has also brought advantages for media agencies. When buying media from the increasingly small number of large media owners it is an advantage to have the leverage of a large buying group behind your brand. I believe that the future could see the media-buying agencies taking much more of a leading role in marketing strategy.”

Another change Bullmore believes is threatening the cosy world of advertising and marketing is the distance many marketers are now keeping from their brands.

“If I have one criticism of marketing it is: why do many marketers complain that they are not being held in high enough respect? I believe this is because they have detached themselves. I believe that the chief executive of a company should be its brand manager. The only person who should fully understand the entire ethos of the company is the chief executive. Therefore, it makes sense for them to manage the brand. You cannot delegate that kind of responsibility, but that is what most companies do.

“Ultimately you have to have passion for the product or service you are selling. The best type of car company is the one run by people who love cars. Likewise, the best newspapers are those run by people who love newspapers. That passion is often missing in marketing people today and it is when they get together that they perpetuate the view that they are not regarded highly enough.”

So, is marketing, and are marketers, ultimately doomed to drown in a vat of self-loathing, or is there any salvation waiting for the industry? Are there any lessons the industry can learn? Fortunately, Bullmore believes so.

“It is interesting to look at a lot of the first-generation companies in the UK; companies like Pret A Manger, The Body Shop and Dyson. You can see real passion in these companies and their chief executives really manage their brands. Many do not do a lot of advertising either. Take James Dyson, for instance. Much of his success has come through PR. He set himself up as the David who slayed the Goliath of Hoover and through his unconventional design, publicity, books and communication has established his brand. The fourth- and fifth-generation companies could learn much from these companies and it would be good to see more people in marketing with the same passion as James Dyson.”

You have been warned.

It seems that if there is one guarantee for business success it usually starts with people telling you that ‘it will never work and you are barking mad’. Which is exactly what people said to Dame Stephanie Shirley when she launched her computer software company, the FI Group, recently rebranded as Xansa, on her kitchen table in 1962 with £6 in capital behind her.

Forty years later Dame Stephanie is Life President of Xansa, which turns over more than £100m a year, a highly respected entrepreneur and an ardent philanthropist.

But, like the vast majority of business success stories, that success was hard to come by, particularly in the 1960s when the technology sector was even more of a male-only domain than it is today. Despite the sexual prejudices that threatened to starve her of oxygen before her company had drawn its first breath, Dame Stephanie found a way around it.

“I date from a time when women were not expected to do anything in business,” she says. “We were supposed to be tied to the kitchen sink. I started out in 1962 and I really wasn’t getting anywhere with my sales letters. I just couldn’t get a foot in the door. So my husband suggested that I should start to sign all of my sales letters as a man, so I began to sign them all Steven Shirley.

“It made a huge difference for me and, sure enough, doors began to open for me. I have found that nowadays many women have androgynous-sounding names such as Jo or Sam, names that could be male or female. Many women in businesses today try to hide their femininity.”

But, even despite the huge advances women have made in all business sectors, Dame Stephanie believes that sexual prejudices still exist in many sectors.

“Today many people seem to think that the technological sector is not compatible with women, but that is absolute nonsense. The same is true of women working in the medical and legal professions. There are plenty of women working at the lower end of these sectors but, for instance, there are not many women heading up regional health boards.

“It takes a long time for these kinds of stereotypes to change, but at least women are now making their own choices and are able to make those choices.

“The best piece of advice I could offer any woman considering starting up a business is to choose your partner very carefully. Another piece of advice is learning to sell in Scotland. I have sold in the USA, Japan and throughout Europe, but I always struggled to sell in Scotland. I guess it is because the Scottish are very shrewd in business, so if you can learn to sell in Scotland you can do it anywhere.”

Despite the barriers thrown up before her as a woman, Dame Stephanie has never lost her enthusiasm for new technologies and still believes that, while social change may take some time, technological change is ongoing and rapid.

“I have always been interested in the social and economical aspects of computing. I started my software business up at a time when hardware manufacturers were giving software away for free. People told me I was barking mad back then, but nothing happens in our society without technology.

“We all depend on technological advancements nowadays. Those advances are not something to question, the question is how to move it forward and make sure that it is pro bono. What is amazing is how quickly new technologies catch on. Could you imagine life without a mobile phone or the internet?”

It is the internet that Dame Stephanie believes holds the key for change in the coming years. But she does have some concerns over the issues that go hand in hand with it.

“The Oxford Internet Institute is the first group of its kind in the UK to look at the social, economic, legal and ethical issues which the internet brings with it. These issues are enormous and this group will advise the government on the way forward.

“I suppose the biggest legal issue is taxation of the internet. Nobody really knows whom to tax and for what. One thing is for sure. We need to support our society through taxation, but at the moment it isn’t obvious where the tax is going to come from through the internet.

“The biggest ethical issue is pornography and terrorism on the internet. These issues have taken over people’s consciousness, but there are many regulatory issues that need to be addressed. So far, the internet has been self-regulatory, but whether that can go on is a huge issue which needs to be addressed by the government.”

Dame Stephanie also now devotes much of her time to supporting various charities and her charitable Shirley Foundation is one of the top 50 grant-giving foundations in the UK, with £50m donated over the last six years.

This is an area she feels strongly about and she is also active in promoting the use of technology by the voluntary sector. But she feels that businesses are still falling short when it comes to supporting the communities they operate in.

“For a long time the tax breaks have been in place to make it easier for businesses to make charitable donations. But you find that it happens more as you move away from manufacturing and into service industries where people are seen as much more important to the business. People like to work for and with organisations that are part of a community and that like to use their skills to help the community. The level of charitable giving by corporate businesses is improving in the UK, but it is nowhere near the level of the US, where it is very much the norm to support charities and causes.”

With so much under her belt does Dame Stephanie have any ambitions left? Of course. She has recently started putting together a global network of medical researchers to work together to research the causes of autism; a condition suffered by her son Giles, who died in 1998 aged 35.

“We are doing this through a virtual net and so far we have got 100 accredited researchers signed up worldwide. We have universities in Sacramento, Connecticut and Cambridge taking part, so it is a huge project which will keep me very busy.”

The Marketing Society Scotland’s annual conference takes place on 2 May at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre. For ticket details please telephone Allison Lock on 0208 879-3464.

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