Water way to go - Chris Wallace interview
As he speaks candidly about his time at Barkers as well as his current role at Scottish Water, his honesty and straight-to-the-point attitude makes it clear that he’s not worried about saying what he thinks. Perhaps also explaining the mixed reports given by some of his advertising peers as well as the reputation he has been (fairly or unfairly) labelled with for ruffling said feathers.
Wallace will celebrate his first anniversary in the role at Scottish Water next month and is clearly experiencing a new lease of life, following his jump client side.
He claims that the move, last February, to depart from the agency where he spent more than 13 years, offered him “an interesting challenge”. A challenge that he has embraced over the last year.
He cites the idea of building the Scottish Water brand and the opportunity to learn new skills in news and media management as just a couple of the reasons that he chose to move on.
“While I had completed four tours in the MD role with Barkers and enjoyed it, I was getting ground down by the constant need to seek out income.
“Scotland is desperately competitive, and I don’t think that we were fantastically successful in my last year at Barkers in attracting new income. I thought ‘this is an awful slog. Someone else can take this up. Maybe someone else with a bit more freshness and a different idea on how it gets done.’
“I tried to implement things, some of which were more successful than others. Then it felt like the time was right to go.”
Wallace claims that he managed the agency the best he could, juggling the good times with the bad. However, there came a point when his enthusiasm waned and the importance of other aspects of his life took over.
“It’s just wasn’t that important to me any more, digging as deep at the cost of family and friends, working seven days a week. I couldn’t do it anymore, so when I got this opportunity of a big job there was very little thinking to do. Ok I’ll still wake up in the morning with issues and headaches, but one of them won’t be chasing new clients.”
A new business push was instigated by Barkers in 2004 following a move by the Scottish Executive to increase the number of incumbent agencies to seven (from two). While Wallace admits that the agency knew it was playing a dangerous game with one client providing up to 75 percent of its income at one point – “we, myself included, were short sighted, but we weren’t blind to the problems” – he still claims Barkers did “fantastically well” out of its work with the Executive.
In his new role, Wallace is not coy in admitting that he has “shied away” from appointing Barkers for Scottish Water briefs as he believes that it would leave him “open to criticism.”
Despite that, he says that it does not mean he will never look to work with his old agency in the future, which could well be a possibility with the marketing requirement Scottish Water will need in coming years.
Indeed, he now says that having recently worked with Newhaven on a series of projects, he is relearning about the quality of agency in Scotland and admits to having new found respect for the industry as a whole.
According to Wallace, the board of Scottish Water made a clear strategic decision in bringing in someone with a background in marketing, following the departure of previous comms chief Atholl Duncan.
Despite Wallace’s lack of experience in media communications, he says that he has “a very good team” behind him that helped him learn and overcome his lack of experience in certain areas.
Duncan returned to BBC Scotland, where he had worked for 18 years as head of news and current affairs, at the end of 2006.
He had joined Scottish Water in 2003, a time when the organisation was in the grip of a PR nightmare, following its creation by the merger of three water authorities in 2002.
Among the issues Duncan had to deal with was the water bug crisis in Glasgow, which saw the organisation being blasted in the Scottish Parliament and the media for its handling.
Since Wallace’s appointment he has not had to deal with such communications crisis. The most pressing issue being the continued debate that rages over the privatisation of Scottish Water.
Indeed, in April the supply of water and wastewater services to 130,000 business customers in Scotland will be opened to competition following the deregulation of the water market for business customers. Business Stream – a new stand-alone, independently managed company – has been created by Scottish Water to service the £330m retail water sector.
With this change in regulation being introduced, the entire industry in Scotland will change, claims Wallace, with Scottish Water for the first time facing competition.
Meanwhile, Scottish Water has appointed a new chief executive, following the departure of Jon Hargreaves in December. Richard Ackroyd, presently at Yorkshire Water, will be arriving in the Spring. His first job will, presumably, be to oversee this change in the marketplace. This will see the increase in marketing from the company, and despite making his job more challenging, Wallace welcomes the move and what it will mean for Scotland.
“There will be more visible marketing activity as a result of building our brand. There will have to be.
“There is a whole host of channels for us to use. We will start this as and when there is an opportunity and an actual need to communicate with customers about improving services and benefits that they should be made aware of.
“We won’t ever get to the point where we are saying ‘Scottish Water’s great, so love us!’ There has to be a legitimacy to the communication, which means linking it to investment and investment rights.”
Wallace will now oversee the building of the Scottish Water brand, which he says will be achieved through various mediums including advertising, online, signage and livery among other communication channels.
“Fundamentally, we will build a brand by how we do what we do,” he says.
This is definitely a different Chris Wallace than was expected. He has even started to write again – a passion that was put on hold towards the end of his agency life – having begun his fourth novel following his spell away from the word processor.
It would seem the change has definitely been good.
While he admits to not enjoying his final year at Barkers, Wallace doesn’t entirely rule out ever returning from client side again, but claims that it would entirely depend on the role and the freedom he would be given. “I’d want the power as well as the responsibility,” he says.