Life after marketing

By The Drum, Administrator

October 29, 2003 | 9 min read

Steve Duncan hands me the Key Wise newsletter and waits for a reaction. I scan it for a couple of seconds before my eyes are drawn to the top right hand column. It’s the Franchisee of the Month section. I digest the text, look back up and catch his beatific beam. Steve Duncan, Key Wise Franchisee of the Month, is a very happy man.

Mr Duncan is not your average locksmith. He can get into a Yale Night Latch in ten seconds and has won the employee of the month accolade after only half a year in the business, for which, by the way, he’ll shortly receive £20 of supermarket vouchers. But although both of these achievements are undeniably impressive (I’ve heard those Night Latches can be a bitch), the real difference between Duncan and the rest of the UK’s mortise magicians is his background.

You see, Steve, as you can guess from his appearance in these hallowed pages, used to dabble in a bit of marketing. This dabbling involved launching Dettox, overseeing the 27-strong marketing department at Crown Paints and quadrupling the market share of Nouvelle toilet tissue. Not to mention trebling the sector share for Thirst Pockets and growing Harpic from a £2m to a £10m brand in just three years. As I said, he’s not your average locksmith.

“Yes, I guess I am fairly unique in the trade,” admits Steve, as I munch on a sandwich in the dining room of his (on the day particularly windswept) Darwen home. He’s just come off the phone to his daughter after trying to persuade her that he was buying butties for me, rather than pies for himself (apparently one of her local informants saw him entering the bakery), and we’re enjoying getting re-acquainted.

Last time I saw him he was the category-marketing director of toilet tissue titan Georgia Pacific GB. He had a marketing budget of £8m, a department of fifteen, a smart grey suit and a polite smile. This time round he’s got a budget of a few hundred quid, his wife helps with the banking, his polo shirt’s got his name on it and he’s traded in that small smirk for something altogether bigger and better. It’s quite a makeover. Which begs the question why? What the hell happened?

“I just decided to make a complete break,” is the simple answer. “Basically, I was a casualty of what they so aptly call down-sizing, which was a bit of a shame really. After all I’d achieved with Nouvelle and Thirst Pockets, with the growth in market share, the cost savings and winning the SWOT awards, to be told that I was then surplus to requirements came as a bit of a blow. It was very amicable, just disappointing.

“They sent me to an out-placement company, which is traditional when you get to that level, and whilst I was there I wrote my CV. I remember taking a look at it and thinking, ‘Steve, if you’ve achieved all that and they can still afford to let you go, what else do you need to do?’ It was then that I decided it was time for something else.”

“Something else” is fair enough, but the move to dealing with customer’s keyholes rather than marketing products for their other holes is certainly not an obvious one. It must have taken a lot of folk by surprise?

“I think everyone thought I was mad, and at first the wife wouldn’t believe me,” he laughs. “Some friends from agencies offered me opportunities and I could have done consultancy work, but I wanted a clean break. Anyway, I’ve done consultancy work before, once for Henkel, and I found it so frustrating. I wrote a proposal, handed it over and that was it. I’m somebody that wants to see things through to the end. It does pay well, but I didn’t find it rewarding in any other way – it wasn’t for me.”

Being a locksmith, on the other hand, ostensibly seems to suit him just fine. He talks animatedly about the two-week training course he went on, about letting in old ladies who are stuck out in the cold, listening to people’s problems and helping them – even doing his own admin and filing his VAT forms (“strangely enough, I get a kick out of sending in my VAT. I feel like I’m actually contributing, like I’m paying my dues”). He also says he is coming to terms with actually running a business, a character-cementing experience he’s never faced before.

“I’ve completely changed my view of big business and corporations. Personally, I now believe that no-one should be allowed to run a business unless they’ve run their own in the first place. It’s such a fertile learning ground. I used to have secretarial support, I had never bothered with invoices before, or payroll – my salary just appeared in the bank every month. Dealing with all those things on the ground level is an education, it gives you a new appreciation for the fundamental workings of a firm and that’s absolutely invaluable.”

Duncan exudes the aura of a man who’s following his dream. Not that it’s always been his dream to be a locksmith (as he admits, he’d never even considered it a year ago) rather that he’s doing something that he’s content with, that he finds fulfilling. The same can’t be said of his final few twirls in the marketing spotlight.

“Well, I’m certainly enjoying it more than my last few years in the industry,” he concurs, although it’s clear to see that he often looks in the rear-view mirror with great fondness of his Key Wise cruiser. “Over the years I had some great teams of people and I do miss that. I miss the constant contact with them.”

However, the tone changes as the honest, pragmatic side of his character elbows the sentiment out of the way. “But I have to say it’s interesting.”

What?

“Well, that when you’re a marketing director all the people that work for agencies are all very pleasant, all very nice to you. There are a few of them who have kept in contact, but it’s amazing how many people drop away because you can’t give them work. People that you thought were friends suddenly aren’t friends any longer.”

Does he think it’s a superficial industry then? “Yes,” he says coolly, “without a doubt.”

Realising that reassuring platitudes would be about as welcome here as chewing gum in a keyhole, I decide to move on.

The great thing about interviewing someone like Duncan is that he can say what he genuinely thinks without fear of the axe scything him down or political animals gathering, eager to feed their greedy ambitions. As far as he’s concerned, he’s served his time, got let out early for good behaviour and is enjoying the feeling of freedom. If he believes the industry is superficial he can say so without retribution. With his vast experience, it’s therefore interesting to hear his opinions on a range of topics, from superfluous meetings to what he sees as a dearth of talent in the industry today.

“We used to call meetings in Bridgend all the time,” he says of the days at Georgia Pacific. “Four hours there, four hours back for a two-hour meeting. Now I don’t travel anywhere unless it’s absolutely necessary and I have one meeting a year. That’s with my wife and the accountant. I just don’t see the need for meetings all the time when you could be achieving other things.”

And the dearth of talent?

“These days, I think that people often go into marketing or advertising wanting to do everything from day one. When I was at Reckitt & Coleman (1973–1988) we had to analyse Nielsen charts, do our own figures, be a salesman for two weeks of the year and basically learn the trade through and through. People don’t do that these days so they often lack the understanding that those insights and that hard work give you.

“I do also think there’s now a lack of genuine talent and there were far more talented people twenty years ago. I guess people will say I’m just an old fogy, but you don’t quadruple the sales of Nouvelle in six years without having a fairly good understanding of the rudiments of marketing.”

Whatever you think about his opinions, at the time they at least seemed to be level-headed and genuine rather than bitter or spiteful. They were delivered with a smile on his face rather than bile in his throat and therefore he’s obviously entitled to them.

Bearing all this in mind, it seems unlikely that Duncan will return to the marketing milieu anytime soon. He seems happy with his work, happy with his van and happy with his place in the world. As he sagely concludes with a swig of tea, “I feel much more accepted now on a one-to-one basis. I get on with the other tradesmen at the Swan (his local) and I’ve yet to come across anyone that’s said ‘There’s Steve Duncan. He used to be a company director and look what he’s doing now.’ It’s been more a case of ‘There’s a guy who’s taken the decision to do something completely different with his life and he’s giving it a go.’ I think there’s some respect there, really.”

Well, kudos to him we say. He’s certainly paid his dues in the marketing world and seems to have unlocked a bright future for himself. Taking that in mind, we’d like to make Mr Steve Duncan our inaugural Ex-marketeer of the Month. Congratulations Steve, the vouchers are in the post...

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