CLOSE-UP: NEWSMAKER/ASHLEY STOCKWELL - Passionate marketing director who bleeds Virgin. Creating brand coherence for Virgin is Stockwell's big problem, Jeremy Lee says

Sir Richard Branson, with his gnome-like beard and extraordinary taste in knitwear, has become a brand almost as famous and controversial as that of the company he created.

Everyone knows the tale of how the renegade public schoolboy set up Virgin from a telephone box and how, after spats with companies such as BA and Camelot, it has grown into a diverse empire selling a variety of products.

Branson's attempts to cross the Atlantic in a balloon and predilection for dressing up in drag to promote his companies have sought to endear him to the public and get Virgin to be seen as a champion of the consumer rather than a greedy corporate monolith. But this does beg the question - is there more to the Virgin brand than the bearded, grinning Branson in a woolly pullover?

The company seems to think there is and has appointed its first group brand marketing director - the 34-year-old Ashley Stockwell - as proof of its commitment to developing the Virgin brand.

Stockwell's role is to provide some sort of brand coherence across Branson's vast empire, for which, according to reports, Branson has greater global ambitions.

Stockwell is passionate about the group and seems to subscribe to a similar ethos as his boss, and he maintains that Virgin's brand values extend beyond the Virgin logo and the grinning jumper in charge.

"Virgin is all about simplicity, honesty, fun and providing the best value and challenging the conventions, Stockwell, who has worked for the company in various capacities for 11 years, says.

Whether the legions of hard-pressed commuters on the west coast mainline would agree is arguable, but Stockwell thinks that Virgin has got to the scale where having a central point of contact is critical to the company's future development.

This is a role for which Stockwell has been groomed for some time. He was previously the managing director of Virgin.com - a site that in those crazy days of dotcom hysteria was going to be the main point of interface between Virgin and the consumer.

Of course, things didn't work out that way but Stockwell remained a key figure within the Virgin empire and his new role sees him move to the company's corporate headquarters in west London, working under Virgin's brand development and corporate affairs director, Will Whitehorn.

Stockwell organises the quarterly Virgin marketing forums where all the heads of marketing are brought together to discuss issues and meet the principal incumbent agencies, Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R and Manning Gottlieb OMD.

No-one who knows Stockwell seems to doubt his passion for Virgin. "He's a straightforward fellow. Very positive and always seeking the best for Virgin, James Murphy, a managing partner at RKCR/Y&R, testifies.

Manning Gottlieb OMD's marketing and new-business director, Andrew Stephens, agrees: "If you cut him in half you would see the 'Virgin' brand name written all the way through him."

Stockwell claims that he is very happy with his current agency list and denies that he will instigate a review of Virgin's advertising practices as part of his expanded role. He claims that he is there simply to ensure that all the group companies stick to the group's predetermined brand values.

"The majority of the Virgin companies do adhere to the values but some don't do it as well as others, he says diplomatically. "Part of the success of Virgin is that it isn't totally corporate. Each business needs freedom but, equally, they need to be managed so standards are kept up and levels of customer service are maintained."

One observer who is familiar with the company thinks that his appointment makes complete sense from an advertising point of view but that there are more fundamental problems at the Virgin Group than just establishing a clear corporate identity.

"Virgin has the problem that there is no brand leverage to be had - all the parts of the business are too different. Like it or not, Branson has to realise Virgin is not an experiential brand, he says.

And some say that it is too late for this move, given the number of pies that Branson has inserted his finger into.

It is this breadth of involvement, usually with the help of venture capitalists, that has led to suggestions that Branson has financially over-extended himself, which is why he's planning to take some of his companies public.

This follows the failed public offering in the late 80s when Branson regained control of Virgin Group following the stock market crash and put the companies into a variety of off-shore trusts. This has led to speculation that it's nothing more than a financial house of cards.

The planned sell-off for some of the companies is next year, and it starts with the Australian budget airline Virgin Blue. How many are sold off depends on the level of public interest or indeed the level of Branson's financial problems.

Whatever happens, Stockwell has moved in to a key position at an important time in Virgin's history and he seems likely to stick by Branson's side.

In an uncertain future, his loyalty to Virgin and Branson is without doubt, even if he hasn't got a beard and confesses to wearing a jumper only when it gets cold.

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