Leslie Butterfield believes only hard work brings the right result.
There’s something about Leslie Butterfield that is reminiscent of a bank
manager. Not the suit, which is just as well cut as it should be for the
chairman of an advertising agency. Nor his grin, which is half
schoolboy, half social worker.
No, it’s something that lurks behind his aura of worthy sobriety.
Something that warns you that this pleasantly soft-spoken man could whip
your overdraft facility away at a moment’s notice. Or at least has the
Butterfield is not an expert on overdrafts, though. He claims his
agency, Butterfield Day Devito Hockney, has never had one. Nor is it
likely to, now that it has retained British Telecom’s pounds 14 million
business advertising for another four years (Campaign, last week).
The pitch was a team effort, of course. It went to a well-fought second
round, and BT says the creative work was neck and neck with the other
finalist, Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper. Butterfield Day, though, had brought
out its own secret weapon - the little grey cells and 20 years’ planning
experience of Leslie Butterfield.
‘His strategic ability and intuition are first class - some might say he
is the David Abbott of the planning world,’ Sholto Douglas-Home, the
advertising manager of BT, says.
‘As an account planner he’s one of the best,’ Michael Hockney, his
former partner, adds. ‘Give him a huge load of data, and he’ll distil it
into exactly the right essence.’
‘If you passed him in the street, you’d think he was a civil servant,’
one observer says. ‘But he’s got a brilliant mind.’
And this brilliant mind has been dealing with BT since 1984. Butterfield
was then planning director of Abbott Mead Vickers, and heavily involved
in pitching for its entire business. Abbott Mead didn’t win first time
round, but Butterfield began some relationships that led to BT being his
first client when he set up his own agency four years later.
Better than that, when he walked into the pitch last week with the
future of the agency riding on the outcome, he had known some of the
panel for as long as 12 years.
Butterfield is convinced his experience played a part in Butterfield
Day’s eventual victory. ‘There are very few markets that have changed as
much as telecommunications over recent years. So staying abreast of what
people say, think and feel about telecoms is valuable experience. I
think BT values the experience it thinks I have in the marketplace,’ he
This last delivery was quietly done, but without a trace of modesty. The
power broker peeps through the bank manager facade yet again.
In fact, for a low-key man in a sober suit, Butterfield is extremely
well known about town. Not only for being a brilliant analytical thinker
and for founding Britain’s first so-called ‘third-wave’ agency, but for
being one of the few committed socialists who drives a Ferrari. A red
one, of course.
The Ferrari is a limited edition SZ. Pristine on the inside and shiny on
the out, and it betrays Butterfield as a man of grand passions. He is
not, friends will tell you, someone who ever does things by halves. If
he is working on a project, it’s full commitment or nothing. If he loves
fast cars, why not a rare Ferrari?
It’s a thread that runs through his life. His commitment to the Labour
Party, for example, ranges from canvassing in his Slough constituency to
running the party’s advertising. And it was one of his great
disappointments last year when Tony Blair’s rise to power effectively
shifted most of the account to BMP DDB Needham (Campaign, 7 July 1995).
Butterfield doesn’t find it easy to talk of these passions, though. Ask
him why he supports Labour, and he looks up in surprise as if to ask:
‘What kind of question is that?’ The same applies to a discussion on
his other interests. These are dismissed in a couple of minutes, ticked
off, as it were, on the fingers of one hand: skiing, motor racing,
taking holidays (‘I’m meticulous about that’) and Thai food.
He will tell you - and this is backed up by friends and colleagues -
that his biggest interest is advertising. Butterfield has arranged his
life so that he can throw himself into work with little disruption. His
wife, Judy, works for BMP, and they spend the week in a small flat in
Marylebone, near Butterfield Day, only going home to Windsor at
The downside is that such dedication allows him to give free rein to
what former colleagues call an ‘unquenchable thirst for work’. Once he
is fired up it is all systems go, and you either go with him or get left
‘People say I’m not the easiest person to work with,’ he admits. ‘I tend
to interrogate people in the same way that I interrogate problems. I
know some people I work with think I have high standards and expect
rather a lot.’
The tales of working with him, in fact, can be colourful. People say he
can be a brilliant source of inspiration for creatives on one hand, but
too analytical and lacking warmth on the other. Talk abounds of
Butterfield being one of the toughest negotiators around, but critics
claim that he is often too inflexible, digging his heels in over the
‘If he had an improvement opportunity, it is that he can be bad at
distinguishing between minor points and big ones,’ one friend comments.
Less friendly observers accuse him of being driven, of having an
obsessive nature that can stifle the achievements of those working below
him. However, Gary Duckworth worked as his deputy for six years, and
found the experience a rewarding one.
Duckworth, co-founder of Duckworth Finn Grubb Waters, and one of
London’s planning gurus, worked with Butterfield at Abbott Mead. ‘He let
you get on with it, and never looked over your shoulder or got in the
way. He’s a highly focused person. He has a lot of drive. A very strong
analytical thinker, he works very hard with a lot of energy.’
Duckworth defines Butterfield as one of the strongest influences on his
development in planning: brilliant at constructing arguments, totally
immersed in what he’s doing, and with a technique of asking just the
right question to crystallise a jumble of facts into a clear line of
So, a passionate, focused steamroller, this. And once in motion, he can
make as many enemies as friends. ‘Leslie thinks he’s right about
everything,’ one observer notes. ‘That’s his biggest failing. He can’t
see the areas he’s bad at as well as good at.’
Such traits have led to stand-up rows in the past. With his former
partner, Michael Hockney, for example, and with Abbott Mead when he left
to start up his own agency.
His friends describe this last point as ‘not suffering fools gladly’.
Less kind critics call it being rigid and having an apalling
However, Butterfield is no fiery, hotheaded fly-by-night. In his 20
years in the business he’s had only three employers. His career began
when he joined BMP, as it was called then, as a trainee planner in 1975.
In 1980 he left to join Abbott Mead as a planning director, and finally,
Butterfield worked for himself. So, I ask, what does that tell us about
Butterfield stops toying with his pack of cigarettes and takes a deep
lungful of smoke: ‘It says I like stability and I like the relationships
I form with people,’ comes the considered reply.
The whole interview has, in fact, been full of considered replies. It
rolls out on wheels, impersonal, but correct. As we go back over his
career, every step has a date promptly and carefully attached. This is a
man, you feel, who absorbs facts like a sponge, retains them, and
reprocesses them in the blink of an eye.
So, don’t come to Leslie Butterfield for gossip, cuddles or an easy
life. Come to him for intellectual stimulation and a 25-hour day.
Butterfield is, as one industry source sums up, ‘brilliant but difficult
- and the end result is always worth the trouble’.