Life After Marketing
“People often say that working in advertising isn’t really a ‘proper job’. Well, if that’s the case then what the hell would they say about this?” Roger Ward is grinning. And you can’t really blame him.
The former managing director of BDH is sitting at a sun kissed table outside the back of his pub. As the sunshine peeps round the branded umbrella above us his Prada specs react and shield his eyes, just at the exact moment when I swear he’s about to shut them in contentment. If you ever needed proof that there is life after marketing, then here is its embodiment.
Ward, along with his long-time friend and business partner Steve Pilling, owns an important little piece of Manchester. In fact two important pieces; Sam’s Chop House and Thomas’s Chop House. If you’ve been to Manchester and haven’t set foot in either, then your feet have been taking you to the wrong places – get a new pair. The Chop Houses are institutions. Gastro pubs before the phrase even existed they’re revered by wine drinkers, beer imbibers and food aficionados as the option for long business lunches and post work pints.
But don’t take it from us - the proof of the success is in the pudding, which in this case is steak and kidney. Last year the pubs sold 10,000 of the buggers, along with 9,800 portions of proper fish and chips and 35,000 bottles of very fine wine. That equates to a turnover of £3 million and 150,000 individual transactions. And, having recently picked up the Punch Taverns Pub of the Year gong, from a competing field of 9,000 boozers, you might get a measure of their success.
So what, you may ask, was Ward doing wasting his time in the ad industry?
“I loved my time at BDH,” he says proudly, “Wynn Offland and Bryn (Butler) created a fantastic culture there. I still love the company, I love the people and I haven’t said a bad word about them since I left, and what’s more I never will.
“Mine was an atypical advertising career as I was always a one agency man. I joined on the 3 December 1984 as a graduate trainee and I left exactly 15 years later on the 3rd December 1999 as MD. It was a great career while it lasted and I would wholeheartedly endorse it to my kids, if that’s what they wanted to do.”
Although the warmth Ward exudes for the agency appears to be utterly genuine, it can’t have all been sunshine and lollypops or he’d still be a part of the team. So, what gives?
“I did feel in advertising that Groundhog Hog day was starting to happen,” he says as the same waitress delivers us two more cups of identical coffee. “The business and the scenarios were starting to repeat themselves, only with one major difference - the clients kept getting younger. If you’re inquisitive about life fifteen years in any one business can be long enough and you want to throw yourself back onto the learning curve and give yourself a new challenge.”
Ward’s slow burning realisation that he might want out was stoked into epiphanic flames by personal tragedy. In the space of three months he lost his mother-in-law and his dad, events that unsurprisingly left him reeling, but also gave him resolve and determination.
“When you have something to put life into perspective like that it temporarily gives you balls. So, for once in my life,” he admits with charming candour, “I actually did something brave.I thought ‘well, it’s only a job, it’s only a mortgage, they’re only school fees – bollocks to it’.”
A week later he was in Cuba watching the Buena Vista Social Club record with Andy Hamilton, an 89 year-old tenor sax player and his dad’s best friend. A few months later he’d finished gardening leave with BDH and re-mortgaged his house. Less than a year later he’d set up a company with Pilling, at that time the man pulling the strings, and pints, at Thomas’s. And four months after that they’d opened Sam’s, merged the business side of the operation and were busy building a Manchester institution and defining pub brand.
It’s now Ward’s fifth year as head of the Chopping board and business is quietly booming. Both pubs are enjoying the rare delight of double-digit growth and our interviewee now finds himself in the position where he’s employing enough staff to run a very sizable Northern ad agency.
“In the two pub/restaurants we’ve now got eighty members of staff, and this is a quiet period. With a third place on the cards we could soon be looking at a payroll of between 250 and 300 at peak times. Now that would constitute a huge agency.”
Which brings us nicely onto stress, one of the main reasons marketing bods usually reach for the industry escape hatch. Isn’t he actually under more pressure now, with his own business and myriad mouths to feed, than he was at BDH?
“Pressure from who?” Is his answer, “the staff, the customers, or myself?”
Well, all three I suppose.
“I think there’s far more pressure and stress in the ad industry – especially from the clients and quite rightly so. They’re spending huge amounts of money with you, so they have extremely high expectations. The pressure they can exert on you is huge and it can eventually feel like they want your time with your children, your blood group and your soul. It’s very wearing. Here punters only want a drink and perhaps some nice food, so they have essentially low expectations. Surpass those, which we do, and you’ve got some very satisfied customers.”
He continues, “the only pressure as an employer is the responsibility you have to pay the people you employ so they can support themselves and their families. But if you’ve got a good business, that’s well managed, then that takes care of itself. I’ve never felt any stress from that perspective and I enjoy that.
“From a personal point of view I’m of the opinion that if you do get to the stage where it’s getting you down then it’s time to sell up and get out. If growing makes life too difficult then don’t grow, simple as that – only emperors want empires.”
As the meeting comes to an end it’s obvious that Ward has no regrets about leaving the ad industry, but equally no regrets about being a part of it in the first place. He speaks with disarming affection about several key industry figures, both rivals and colleagues past.
‘Ah, but is that because they’re customers present?’ I suggest knowing that marketing men like the odd tipple.
“Some are,” he admits with a grin, “but ad men – pah, rubbish drinkers!
“We used to think we were good, but I’ll tell you what, you want to meet a surveyor! They’ll drink you under the table every time.”