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Executive class

By The Drum, Administrator

May 3, 2007 | 6 min read

It’s an interesting time for Roger Williams, head of marketing and new media at the Scottish Executive. In the run up to this week’s Scottish election, he faces the uncertainty of whether his budgets will be cut or expanded by the victor. Apt, however, that he chooses to accept an invitation from Mark Gorman, chairman of the Scottish Marketing Association, to speak to its members just a fortnight before the election.

Gorman admits, in front of the members who gather in the boardroom of The Union to hear what the most powerful man in Scottish marketing has to say to them, that it’s a rare thing to hear Williams talk to assembled parties.

Williams explains that when first asked to speak at the event, he wasn’t sure what he could say to a room of marketing professionals that they would not already know. This led him to take the decision to speak on what he describes as “a rather personal trip through the years” in his career in marketing and communications in a presentation entitled ‘High Ground and Quick Sand’.

His journey begins in 1982 as the Thatcher era is in full swing, when in his first day in a role in communications at the Department of Energy, he found himself embroiled in the middle of the infamous miners strike.

“It was like shells exploding around you, with the media bombarding you with questions. Days merged into days, it was a seven day [working] week. It was a very curious experience and any kind of enthusiasm that I had for working in government communications was literally knocked out of me,” Williams says, as he describes his memories of the event which he also says was “a sweat shop”.

“I do remember being a duty press officer on one infamous Sunday when I woke up nursing a hangover from the excesses of a Saturday night. I was not on duty, I have to say, but the duty press officer’s job is to go through the Sunday papers and make sure you’ve got everything that’s going on. Unfortunately the telephone went at about nine o’clock in the morning and I answered it thinking it would be a press call, but it wasn’t. It was Peter Walker, Minster for Energy. And his curious voice came down the phone ‘I’m seeing the Prime Minister in ten minutes, what’s in the papers?’... anyway, he was still Secretary of State on Monday morning so I must have said something right.”

He moved to Scotland in 1989, joining oil major Chevron where he spent “seven very happy years” before being appointed as head of corporate affairs at Clydesdale Bank.

In 1998 he joined the Scottish Office on the eve of Scottish devolution, and was part of the team responsible for the “back of fag packet branding” that would see it become the Scottish Executive, using the same branding as before, despite the change in moniker.

“We saw it as a chance to make a statement. I remember sitting in a dark room in St Andrews House...we changed the name in about 10 minutes. ‘We’ll call it the Scottish Executive’ - it was decided. It was mind boggling.”

He went on to say that he had found that politicians were not marketing savvy and did not fully understand the benefits that it could bring, “they’re not into this business at all and I think they’ve been found out since,” Williams jokes.

Williams also highlighted the evolution that he has witnessed and been a part of in his time at the Executive in the maturity and far reaching results that social campaigns could have in Scotland.

“We look back now and ask, ‘were we really doing this?...’ Campaigns were single issue, four weeks long, with little or no surrounding communication,” he says somewhat apologetically. “Domestic abuse aspiration was only to raise awareness, there was no response mechanism.”

Highlighting the recent successes for the Executive, he chooses recent campaigns for ‘Vote Scotland’ and ‘The Smoking Ban’ as his favourites.

“We’re on a successful wave,” comments Williams, who is obviously proud to be overseeing the “evolution” of the Executive’s marketing, as he highlights both campaigns, ‘ones to remember’.

Of Vote Scotland, he says; “It’s a very hard campaign...a lot of effort has gone into the website and we’ve had a great response, bringing companies such as the banks in, who have helped get the message out to their staff.”

Continuing to be brutally honest about his early years at the Scottish Executive, Williams talks about the appointment of Yellow M, which was added to the list of agencies on the Executive’s roster alongside Faulds and Barkers.

“Wendy Alexander appealed to me that the agencies had lost their ‘zip’ and that we needed a ‘sparky’ agency. Along came Yellow M and we thought that they would be the people to do this. But then Yellow M went bust and you all know the story about Faulds, which did scar me significantly.”

Answering questions following his talk, Williams was asked whether he thought that the 25 per cent budget cut to the Scottish Executive marketing budget would be increased following the elections if the SNP or Liberal Democrats were to gain power in Holyrood.

Williams admits that he has “no idea” if there will be any change but says; “It’s very easy to say this, but when you get into power it’s easy to say ‘they’ll cut the budget’. I think we are going to grow and that this 25 per cent cut will be rethought...we need to be more active. Things like the smoking ban have begun to show them [the Executive] what marketing can do. If they can see direct correlation between spend and results and how it can effectively communicate messages then they will do more of it.”

With this Williams was greeted with an appreciative applause for an enlightening and enjoyable talk that guided its audience through a career that has a long way to go yet.

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