NEWSMAKER/ADRIAN BIRCHALL: Top European challenge attracts media’s diplomat - Claire Beale on how Adrian Birchall landed one of the Media Centre’s plum jobs

By CLAIRE BEALE,, Friday, 11 April 1997 12:00AM

For a man who’s held on grimly to his Lancashire credentials, whose linguistic aptitude stretches no further than ’O’ Level French, and for whom the word ’cosmopolitan’ seems about as appropriate as describing John Major as the next prime minister, making Adrian Birchall the president of Europe may seem a little odd.

For a man who’s held on grimly to his Lancashire credentials, whose

linguistic aptitude stretches no further than ’O’ Level French, and for

whom the word ’cosmopolitan’ seems about as appropriate as describing

John Major as the next prime minister, making Adrian Birchall the

president of Europe may seem a little odd.

Indeed, the casual observer may feel the most appropriate thing about

the promotion of the Media Centre’s chief executive to the head of a new

European media network is the fact that the new company will probably be

called MediaVest.

But Birchall’s domestic triumph at the Media Centre, his decades of

experience and his stature as a respected industry veteran have

conspired to make him the man for the job. He comes armed with the Media

Centre’s track record (billings up 30 per cent last year) and a solid

reputation, if not as a brilliant hands-on operator, then at least as a

first-rate manager.

And it’s not just Europe that is bracing itself for Birchall, but the

Middle East and Africa as well. For Birchall - at the limits of whose

modest ego lies an occasional tendency to regard himself as a captain of

industry - it’s a dream job.

So what can his international colleagues expect from their new


A dedicated family man from Billinge in Lancashire, Birchall plays the

boring old fart very well. According to his managing director, Jim

Marshall, Adrian ’is very fortunate to have been born looking 60. Since

then he’s hardly aged at all.’

As the seasoned figure at the top of the Media Centre, the antics of

some of Birchall’s younger members of staff would undoubtedly have added

a few grey hairs to his head - had there been more hairs to start


In fact, his very orthodoxy perhaps encourages more high jinx than is

absolutely necessary because of the inherent pleasure of hearing

Birchall moan, ’Oooh nooo’ in his northern drawl at every


But big piss-taking personalities are the price you pay for a talented

team and, according to Marshall, ’Adrian is very tolerant and very good

at pulling together people with disparate personalities. He’s very

patient with people less well behaved than he is.’ Mind you, it appears

that someone close to Mr Marshall himself was responsible for Birchall

uttering the word ’fuck’ for only the third and fourth times in his

25-year career - and both came in the space of a week.

Birchall is a bit worried about his dull and boring image, but in some

ways it’s an image that he has created for himself. You get the feeling

that Birchall found himself a box marked, ’Stereotype: judicious

veteran, wears sensible ties’ and decided to set up home in it. He

doesn’t often let his hair down (if only) and he worries too much. He’s

too prudent, too prudish even. He’s like your dad.

Birchall is a victim of his own success. For, barely six months into his

media career, when he was still a media researcher at Lintas (where he

started in 1969), the departure of his boss - John Billett - propelled

him straight into big man’s shoes, responsible for a team of eight. And,

unlike many of his flashier contemporaries (or today’s wunderkinder),

Birchall actually did make it to media director before he was 30 (at

BBDO), so there wasn’t much opportunity for being one of the lads, even

if he really had it in him.

If you’re imagining that Birchall has hidden depths as a thrusting

careerist who trampled his way to early success, sorry, but he is far

too honest and decent for stop-at-nothing career progression. According

to an old friend, Nick Phillips, the director-general of the Institute

of Practitioners in Advertising, ’Adrian is one of the nicest, most

decent and genuine people in the business. He might be well into rugby,

jam butties and all that is Coronation Street, but I rate him very


Still, Birchall is ambitious in his own way and has what Phillips

identifies as ’steely determination’. As Birchall admits: ’If there’s a

goal there, then I’ll achieve it, though in what way and over what time

frame is a different issue. If I hadn’t got this European job, I’d have

been disappointed, so you could say I’m ambitious. The reality, though,

is how those ambitions are fulfilled.’

So Birchall is a decent chap.

And, according to Graham Hinton, who’s worked with him through

flower-power, disco flares, punk, Thatcher’s shoulder-pads, family

values and new lads (their paths have met professionally in all of the

past four decades), he’s got a very real sense of humour. Hinton offers

an example: ’What do you call somebody playing snooker with a pint on

their head? Beatrix potter.’ Clearly Birchall needs a little more

practice, but it proves he likes a bit of a giggle every now and


Hinton also remembers Birchall for his unfortunate enthusiasm for rugby

league, his idolisation of Jackson Browne (apparently, he knows all the

words to Running on Empty) and for his unique ability to make media seem

easy. ’Adrian works very hard at being a down-to-earth northerner, an

Honest Joe, or is it Honest Stanley up there?’

For the most part, Birchall seems comfortable with his label, and

certainly his role as the common-sensical, steady hand on the tiller has

counterbalanced his more dynamic and flamboyant colleagues to create a

very successful formula. The Media Centre, they say, is a place people

like working in and the company has clocked up 160 per cent growth over

the five years since it launched.

But domestic success is becoming less relevant at a time when

international media brands are where it’s at. A DMB&B media network to

rival the likes of Carat or CIA has been on the agenda of Birchall and

Marshall for some time. While the Media Centre has earned itself a

formidable reputation at home - a natural choice for many pitch lists -

it has had no real presence in the pan-European consciousness. A painful

example of this failing came last year when the Media Centre lost its UK

Philips account to Carat in a pan-European centralisation.

Birchall admits that ’it’s got to the point where we’re missing out on

pan-European pitches.

Despite our strengths in Europe, we’re not perceived as having central


And while Birchall shies away from the suggestion, the fact that the

media operation will no longer be a sub-division of the DMB&B agency,

but a fully fledged network in its own right, will allow media to come

out from the dusty shadows of the relatively bland creative agency.

Not that Birchall is likely to set European skies alight with an array

of colourful fireworks on behalf on his new media brand. Steady and sure

is more the Birchall approach. ’I am a bit intense, and I’m someone

who’s never totally happy with what’s been achieved.

I’ve always believed in the importance of detail. Some might criticise

me for focusing too much on what’s gone wrong rather than on what’s gone

right, and I am a bit of a worrier. But when you look at what we’ve

achieved, then it’s hard to say that’s the wrong thing to do.’

In fact, this is perhaps the real key to why Birchall is the best man

for the job. He is no razzmatazz showman (despite being the son of a

Tiller girl and an opera singer), no egotistical headline-chaser, no

wrong-way rubber-upper. Yes, it may sound dull and boring, but Birchall

is a diplomat.

His caution may infuriate some of his colleagues, but his appointment is

unlikely to raise any hackles and his steady approach is unlikely to

ruffle any feathers.

The one question remaining is whether the 50-year-old Mr Birchall is

really hungry enough to throw everything into what will undoubtedly

prove to be an enormous task. The swift answer from the man himself is a

definite ’yes’. ’It’s something that I want to do and it’s something

that I can do.’ Does ’O’ Level French stretch to an interpretation of

bon chance?

This article was first published on


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