Brian Child presentation

By The Drum, Administrator

January 6, 2003 | 8 min read

There’s a bit of a contradiction, really, asking someone who is retired to talk about how to set up a great international advertising agency in Manchester. There is a bit of ‘why me’ in it and, on the other hand, some ‘why not me’, because in reality I guess we had a good go at that at McCanns in Bonis Hall. Maybe we did OK and maybe we didn’t.

But I want to take you back to 1986, the year I got hold of the poisoned chalice of running McCann-Erickson Manchester.

You may find it hard to think that it was a poisoned chalice, but the agency had just been bought by McCann-Erickson after a very strong struggle within the agency to oppose the deal. We even tried to buy it ourselves, but as it came to pass we were not successful. Instead of organising an MBO it was like organising a co-operative movement – 47 people wanted a stake in the company.

When I took it over it wasn’t the happy shop that it is today – well, maybe it isn’t a happy shop today. We were losing business at a hell of a rate of knots. Tom Reddy had just left to set up Tom Reddy and Associates. The then chief executive was asking for a vote of confidence from the board and the media director was saying “I’ll vote for anything if you give me a pay rise”.

So it was a hell of a difficult time. Roger Murray was the chief executive at that time. I had been there for 12 years and I wanted to put some of the ideas I had been developing into practice.

The thing is, if you are going to have to put ideas into practice and achieve things, I suppose the term you would use, which is quite an American term, is, you have to have vision.

Writing a vision was a bit of a struggle for me – a simple guy from Manchester. I was sent to Toronto to get away and spend some time writing a business plan. I found a company writing a business plan over there, liked what I saw and put my name on it. I brought it back to my boss and he said, “Blimey – I didn’t realise that you were that deep and thoughtful.”

He was right of course.

The bottom line is that you do need a vision, but the problem with vision or mission statements is that we do our heads in trying to be clever – saying that we want to be the biggest and the best.

I invented one – “We’re going to be internationally renowned.”

People chuckled at that.

The first thing I did was a piece of research that began with two hours’ drive time in and around Manchester.

I asked the question – how much new business is there available for me to get in Manchester?

I think there was about £38 million worth of business available to me if I won every single pitch and went for every single piece of new business I could. Bearing in mind that the brief for anyone running a McCanns office is to double the amount of business won per annum – I quickly figured out that there was a problem for me. There simply wasn’t enough business in 1986 in Manchester to sustain the ambitions that we had for the company as a whole.

I needed to find and take on people with a different mindset. McCanns was regarded as the more erstwhile agency. I needed to get some people in to the agency who didn’t think about London, Manchester and Preston. The first people that I hired were all from overseas.

The first creative director that I hired was from Canada. He was a great creative director – he had a brain that was so big it was awesome.

I paid him a lot of money – six figures if I remember rightly – and I brought him over here. He wanted a piece of the action that I had offered him. He had worked on multinationals and wanted something different. He was an immense source for people to draw from. The second guy was from our Houston office. He was an account guy – was really upfront and brought another side to the agency. I got an Australian guy who had just put Tina Turner on in concert in Australia. They were a different set of talent to what had gone before. Then I pinched a planning director from London and put him into account management.

We had some fabulous local talent too. Sue Little was the best media head that we had and we made her media director. She was amazing – efficient and creative. I got this team of people together and knew that together we could do something special.

The one thing that I have noticed over the years is that no clients come to the advertising agency with an advertising problem – they come with a business problem. I have always believed that if you can understand the business problem then you can come up with a marketing solution to fit that problem.

Every time a potential new client came into McCanns with a problem we would sit round a table and talk about it. Within the space of months our creative director would end up talking about the relationship with the customer and client, the database, the customer profiles – stuff that a creative director would not normally be concerned about.

The price of being sat around that table was that you had to have an area of expertise; you had to bring something to the party. But the reward of being round that table was that you gained experience in many other areas. It worked. Doing pitches for me would be great fun – and the clients thought that it was good because they understood what we were doing with their business.

Our business began to flow. We started to get business outside of the region, because we went to look for it. We had very little business in Manchester. It is the same today.

But at that time we didn’t have a famous brand on our portfolio. London always got Coke or Nestle, but we, up in Manchester, didn’t get a look in.

So, we became proactive. We came up with an idea, a kind of Band Aid but with footballs. Because every little boy’s dream is to play in the World Cup. So, what we thought about doing was dropping balls in countries throughout the world that people could play with. We got Craig Bolton to write this anthem “Play for the World”.

We flew across to Atlanta and pitched the Play for the World idea to Coca-Cola. I remember one guy smiled at us throughout the entire meeting so we naturally ended pitching the idea towards him. At the end of it the guy who was running the meeting asked us where we had come from. I said Manchester and he said “Manchester, New York?”

I said Manchester, England. He invited us to stay for the rest of the meeting. During a coffee break I went to speak to the guy who had been smiling at us. He said, “Oh, I wanted to speak to you – I run the New York office of McCanns.”

Anyway, we came back with an idea for “Coke is the Music”. Europe ended up buying it. For a period of two months every single Coca-Cola can in Europe had a “Coke is the Music” emblem.

We ended up putting acts like Bon Jovi and Prince on tour throughout Europe. We were doing MTV, did the gig merchandise, and we got Sony to give us stuff. We ended up turning over £1m for Coca-Cola that year. Everybody in the agency said we are as good as any other part of the company. In 1992 Coca-Cola took us worldwide. The next piece of work for us was Esso. We launched an oil across Europe called Ultron. We had become an international agency.

The upshot of it was that the agency just started to grow and grow and grow. More people shared the vision with us.

We always resisted breaking things us. The one thing we didn’t want to break off was media. Media is now becoming a commodity. It is probably the most integral part of what we do. The good news is that the internet is really screwing the media side of things up. So there is an opportunity for agencies to get that back.

Ultimately everyone can do what they want with their own company. These were simply the opportunities which I had and took.

I believe I left at the right time. It was very hard to go, but if you stay anywhere too long you will kill the enthusiasm. I didn’t want to do that.


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