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Dundee Exocet bows out with a parting shot

18 Mar 2019  |  Dominic Mills 
Dundee Exocet bows out with a parting shot

Last week saw the IAB host a retirement party for Douglas McArthur, outgoing chairman of UKOM and architect of the Radio Advertising Bureau, forerunner of the Radiocentre and the model for the likes of Thinkbox and Newsworks. Here, Dominic Mills interviews McArthur as he looks back on his career.

One of Douglas McArthur’s many industry fans once explained him to me in memorable fashion: “the most difficult person I’ve ever dealt with, but the most effective”.

It was a description I recognised. The second part I had seen myself many times; the first, although I had often heard it from his colleagues and industry partners, and which clearly was the source of his nickname as the Dundee Exocet, was something I had mercifully avoided.

And with his fondness for chucking rocks into the pool, there’s also something of Dennis the Menace about him — as the picture at the top of this column suggests. The parallel is no coincidence: McArthur’s cartoonist father drew the first versions of Dennis for The Beano, and Dennis made his first published appearance the day McArthur was born. McArthur therefore likes to call Dennis his twin, although there is a case for also describing Dennis as McArthur’s alter ego.

Early in my time at Campaign I was probably fortunate to escape a blast from the Exocet. Weeks before I ever met McArthur for the first time, I wrote a piece describing him as the man with the most difficult job in advertising. At the time, he had just been appointed managing director of the Radio Advertising Bureau, an entity set up to market national commercial radio to the advertising industry. Two previous attempts, way before my time, had failed.

At the time, 1992, radio was in a difficult place. It was primarily a local medium. The one national station, Classic FM, seemed well, like a niche stuck in a rabbit hole, to put it kindly. For media agencies, buying radio was an absolute pain. Creatives, as a rule, couldn’t be arsed with the medium — nobody, apart from Tim Delaney and his memorable ‘Phirrips’ ad, became famous for radio — so briefs were handed out to juniors with the result that the output was crap. Revenue share was a miserable 2%.

The implication of my column, therefore, was the RAB was going to be an unmitigated disaster and McArthur, a Scot hitherto unknown in the close-knit and almost incestuous London media scene (plus ca change, eh) would be the man in charge of this metaphorical Titanic. He needed this welcome like he needed a hole in the head.

So when he invited me over to the RAB’s dingy basement office somewhere on the wind tunnel also known as Euston Road, I was expecting to be hauled over the coals and then some.

But I wasn’t, and I left several hours later thinking ‘Bloody hell, this might just work’. McArthur himself was mighty convincing, his iron-clad determination obvious, and his plan credible. Before long, I became a huge fan, not just of the RAB, but also McArthur himself as he proved me spectacularly wrong. Within a decade, radio’s share had hit 7%. Not bad for the so-called ‘Cinderella’ medium.

Nor is the RAB the only media body into which McArthur has injected impetus and relevance, directly or indirectly.

In the UK we are blessed with a set of dynamic and innovative media trade marketing bodies — Thinkbox, Magnetic, Newsworks and, of course, the current version of the RAB, the Radiocentre — and they have all to various extents copied the model laid down by McArthur. It is a measure of both McArthur’s status and his generosity that he has been on hand to provide them with behind-the-scenes help and guidance.

And at UKOM, where he has been chair since 2009, he has put an institution once on shaky foundations onto a firm, self-sustaining basis with a clear vision for the future.

It’s a measure of his restlessness — unquestionably one of his defining qualities — that even as he heads into retirement he’s still agitating for change and progress, never content with the status quo. But then diplomacy was never a concept with which he was over-familiar.

Here is McArthur, whose many and eclectic passions include opera and Frank Zappa, responding to my prompts on his early advertising career, the RAB, and UKOM and the future for media and audience research.

On his early career

“How did someone with a degree in theoretical physics end up in advertising? I was so poor I needed to find a job immediately. I went to a Unilever recruitment session for graduate trainees. The guy showed an organisational hub-and-spoke chart with marketing in the middle and all the other areas — HR, distribution, manufacturing, finance — as spokes. So I thought: ‘marketing is the one for me’.

"I joined P&G because it offered me a job on the spot. I did well there because I could do maths, whereas most of the other brand managers had classics or PPE degrees from Oxbridge and couldn’t count. But my mum, who was a teacher, always said: ‘how the hell did you get a double first and end up selling soap powder?’.

"I had no particular desire to work in radio, but I went back to Glasgow and met Jimmy Gordon [now Lord Gordon, then co-founder and managing director of Clyde Radio] who said 'I’ve got a sales problem. We’ve got all this audience and no revenue. Can you fix it?'. We doubled it.

"I moved into planning agency-side. It suited my academic background because it’s all about bringing intellectual rigour and honesty to empirical evidence. I went freelance and worked at Leagas Delaney when they did the ‘Phirrips’ ad. I never imagined it would be so well-remembered so many years on. I’m probably alone on this, but I don’t think it was the best one they did. I preferred one called ‘Daft Jack’.

On the RAB

“I was interested in the job because I liked the challenge. I did some research with media directors for my job proposal. I asked them how big the total commercial radio audience was. They said 8m. The right answer was 24m.

"The gap was huge, but I realised we didn’t have to close it much to make a big difference.

"Bridging that gap was central to my plan for the RAB. Some of the industry wanted the RAB to be a selling body. But I realised it was about education. Agencies were ignorant — as evidenced by their estimates of the audience — and prejudiced on its creative potential. Some thought it was just cheap TV.

"I’m not sure the radio industry completely bought into my vision for the RAB. It was certainly controversial. Richard Eyre [then managing director of Capital] later said to me: 'We didn’t really believe your answers, but you yourself were so convinced they were right we were convinced by you.'"

On chairing UKOM

“I suppose joining UKOM appealed because of the challenge. I thought digital measurement was cowboy land, and something needed to be done.

"Right at the beginning, UKOM was on shaky ground financially. I remember the IAB hosting a town hall meeting with advertisers, publishers and agencies. They were unanimous they wanted a joint industry measurement body like the other JICS. But they didn’t want to own it (which meant paying for it) so it couldn’t be a JIC.

"We had to create an entirely new model with a fraction of the money JICs have. So rather than UKOM buying the research and selling it to the industry, UKOM governs the collection of the research, but allows the research company — Nielsen originally and currently, although the contract is out for pitch, Comscore — to sell it.

"It’s a JIC in all but name. The governance of the research is the key thing. But it’s been frustrating that some people in the industry don’t see it that way. But I’m glad that ISBA has now come on board alongside the IAB as a co-owner.

"UKOM’s job is much harder than the other JICs because everything changes all the time. It’s not just new platforms or devices — we’re working on adding voice devices now — but, for example, every time Android has an update that has an effect on how we collect the data.

"What’s next? Well, we want to go from audience measurement to campaign measurement. That’s the big question we’ve set in the pitch. From there we could see UKOM underpinning trading. Iain Jacob [McArthur’s successor as UKOM chair] certainly understands the trading side given his background at Publicis Media.

"Ultimately, the whole business of audience measurement needs to be de-siloed. Advertisers are very clear they want de-duped cross-media audience data. We’ve tried to get the whole JICs industry to use our data to underpin their digital components.

"My regret is that this hasn’t happened yet. But it will.”

Goodbye epic Moneysupermarket dancers, hello cat

And so it seems we have seen the last of the epic, edgy, dancers who entertained and infuriated (depending on your point of view) the nation for years in Mother’s long-running TV campaign for Moneysupermarket.

They’ve been replaced by a cat which, although it plays a low-key role in the new campaign from Engine, may be destined for greater things.

I’d put good money on the cat becoming the long-running icon for Moneysupermarket. This is a commodity category — price comparison websites — where differentiation is largely defined by a brand spokesperson. The wackier the better, regardless of irritation, and all characterised by a desire to shout loudest.

Hence the meerkats and opera singer Gio Compario. But it is clear the sector is in a state of flux. Of the four major players — Comparethemarket, Confused, Go Compare and Moneysupermarket — three have, or are about to, change agency or strategy.

There’s the cat, Confused has dumped James Corden and his pumping 70s sound-track, and Go Compare has just appointed a new agency, Droga5.

Now we wait to see if Gio is consigned to the great opera house in the sky.

Curiously, both Confused and Moneysupermarket have similar strategies. Moneysupermarket is about removing stress or, as it puts it, getting ‘money calm’. Confused, similarly, uses actor Timothy Murphy navigating his way through a cluttered, noisy, somewhat dystopian landscape to make the case for clarity and simplicity.

Moneysupermarket’s problem is that Confused got there first.

Personally, I am sorry to see its epic dancers go. And in this interview a few weeks ago in the Evening Standard, Moneysupermarket CEO Mark Lewis seemed equally equivocal. Defending the dancers from the accusation that they were overly sexual and homophobic, he said: “I think you’ll find it was Campaign of the Year. The best advertising always creates a point of view”.

I’m not sure — yet — the same could be said for the cat.

Which begs the question: why did he dump agency and brand icon together?

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TessAlps, Chair, Thinkbox on 18 Mar 2019
“I love Douglas for many, many reasons. How many other left-wing opera-lovers are there in the industry for me to be pals with after all? But I'll never forget how much help he gave me when setting up Thinkbox. Lots of good advice about structure, remit, levy systems and governance. But perhaps the most useful was a personal warning: "Make sure you get yourself a 3 year contract because they'll think you're shit for the first 2 years, but, by the 3rd, they'll think you can walk on water." I never reached the messianic status that Douglas achieved but it proved to be extremely perspicacious advice!”
HughBurkitt, Editor at Large, The Marketing Society on 18 Mar 2019
“Dominic, A very good piece on Douglas. An interesting bit of history.”