The discreet world of Alan Cluer

Want James Nesbitt or a Jean Reno for an ad? Alan Cluer will sort it out. Dominic Mills meets the low-profile fixer with high-profile connections and a lifestyle that matches.

For a man who lives and breathes the heady showbiz air, Alan Cluer's world is surprisingly discreet. But there's no doubt that he finds it distinctly agreeable. There's the Dorchester, his home away from his Geneva residence, golf at Wentworth with Parky, golf with Sir Frank, impresario Bill Kenwright's 60th birthday at Les Ambassadeurs, invites to the country homes of Martin Boase and David Abbott, regular tables at San Lorenzo and The Ivy.

An influential fixture on the London scene in the 80s and 90s, Cluer is, says Michael Baulk, the chairman of the Abbott Mead Vickers Group, "indelibly linked with some great British advertising, ads that pioneered the use of high-profile figures in interesting ways". Despite this, Cluer is an enigmatic figure known of by many, but not known to many. A man who self-confessedly prefers to operate in the shadows, he is essentially a "fixer" who puts celebrities into ads. Curiously, in this netherworld where you might expect to find a lot of wheeler-dealers, he is virtually unique.

With something of the demeanour of a Bond villain - hawkish face, vaguely mysterious, a knowing charm, a manipulative mischievousness and a sense that it would not necessarily be advisable to cross him - Cluer in person comes with all the right accoutrements: the linen suits, Paul Smith glasses, Hollywood-style tan, teeth from central casting, gold lighter and the ever-present box of Davidoff cigarettes.

Although he doesn't tell you such, it is obvious that, like many in this area, his personal life, his friendships and his business are intertwined and indivisible. "It's obvious that this world has rubbed off on him," one agency chairman who has worked with him for years, says "but it's a part of what he sells and he's exceedingly good at it."

Far from finding the term "fixer" disparaging, he revels in it. "In showbiz parlance, a fixer is the guy who knows everyone, who's good, who's available, who's not, what they cost," he says. "I'm in the entertainment business; it just happens to be advertising."

His credits - an appropriate term for a man fixated on showbiz - include the legendary Bob Hoskins series for BT; Burt Lancaster for Foster's; Rowan Atkinson for Barclaycard; Henry Kissinger for The Economist; Dudley Moore, Prunella Scales and Jane Horrocks for Tesco; Nicholas Lyndhurst for WH Smith; Leo McKern and Nigel Havers for Lloyds Bank; and Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista et al for the Vauxhall Corsa.

If his lifestyle and connections have a whiff of the previous century about them, he remains a fixture on the circuit. "It would be a mistake to say he was past his sell-by date," one agency figure says. To this day, he retains close links with the likes of Robert Campbell, the former McCann Erickson creative director and now the joint managing partner at WPP's United London, and Mark Wnek, the chairman and chief creative officer of Lowe New York. And the return of Sir Frank Lowe, with whom he has an extremely close relationship, has him buzzing. It is clear that the Tesco heist came as no surprise to him.

He remains highly active too, and it is perhaps to dispel the notion that he is yesterday's man that he agrees, after some showbiz-style faux reluctance, to give an interview to Campaign. Others suggest that despite his achievements, he yearns for his own moment in the spotlight.

Certainly it is true that, as his business and influence have grown, so he has been invisible in the media. "Look," he says, "I am not in any way a modest man, but I do like to fly beneath the radar because it works better that way. This is a world where trust and confidence mean everything."

More recently, he is the man responsible for Jamie Oliver and Sainsbury's, Alastair McGowan (Capital One), Gloria Hunniford (Axa), James Nesbitt (Yellow Pages), The Sopranos' James Gandolfini (American Airlines) and Jean Reno (UPS). He also has a retainer with Vodafone, whose sponsorship of Nigella Lawson's recent TV series he brokered.

In conversation, it is clear he finds the business as enthralling and charged now as when he first got involved, more than 20 years ago.

That moment came through a call in 1983 from the then BMP chairman Martin Boase, who he had got to know through adman-cum-cartoonist Gray Jolliffe.

Boase had a couple of unusual problems that needed sorting. One involved Lenny Henry and Smith's Crisps, the other Hofmeister. Cluer fixed both through his contacts with agents, and thus was born a unique career moving back and forth between advertising and showbiz.

The son of a Peterborough publican, Cluer's career has been marked by a series of unlikely choices. Sparked by apparently chance encounters, they have taken him a long, long way from his first job as an accountant with the tractor-maker Massey Ferguson.

But it was a social meeting with a cash-strapped music promoter that set him on the path to adland. With a booming concert promotion business (tours for Sinatra and the Jackson 5, among others), Cluer's showbiz connections led him to a world he has really never left.

Music took him to the theatre as an angel and latterly as a West End theatre producer. Then came TV and film, where he met both triumph and disaster. The former came through a mini-series for NBC called Golden Girl, about a Californian runner who participated in the Moscow Olympics despite the US boycott, the latter via a film called The Stick Up, starring David Soul, which a reviewer in Punch described as "not just the worst film of the year, but possibly the worst film of all time".

And so it was that, armed with a contacts book full of agents and a deep working knowledge of (and passion for) the interlocking worlds of music, film, TV and theatre, Cluer fell into adland. "What was fortuitous," he says, "is that Martin Boase demonstrated to me that there was a business in this area. What wasn't was that I already had ten years' experience and contacts in the world of showbiz."

It may sound odd, therefore, that when we first meet, Cluer is waxing lyrical about the animated esure campaign starring a mouse, the successor to the Michael Winner campaign universally derided by adland. "Winner was a self-ironist of the highest quality. But the mouse is very funny.

He's a wonderfully colourful character. It's a great script, and a great piece of casting," he says - offering up twin themes of scripting and casting to which he returns constantly during our ten hours or so of interviews.

He is also a huge admirer of Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy's Alan Whicker campaign for Travelocity.

Although he is, essentially, a hired hand operating at the behest of his clients, there is no doubt that Cluer is no mere go-between. He has forceful views about which actor or celeb suits which client, and this, coupled with his inside knowledge of who's available and what they cost, gives him an influential voice at the agency table.

"If you get him involved early on," Baulk says, "and describe what you want, he'll suggest names. He can get you a long list and then negotiate on your behalf. He understands the stars and he knows how to approach them, and agencies can't always do this. There's a huge amount of legwork involved, and it's difficult and time-consuming. He takes all that on."

"Everyone says they want Caine or Connery, and Alan disabuses you of that notion very quickly," Campbell says. "For American Airlines we wanted someone who personified a tough, unreasonable New Yorker. We talked about Martin Scorsese or Rudi Giuliani, but we settled on James Gandolfini, who'd just finished a series of The Sopranos. Not only was he available, but he was also very much in the public eye and perfect for the role."

"Alan can be very persuasive about the costs of a celebrity," another creative director says. "Clients can be horrified by what they have to pay, but Alan can be much better at explaining it than an account director."

In the current climate, as clients increasingly come to rely on celebrities to achieve standout, Cluer believes his real contribution to agencies is even more significant.

"When agencies pitch, and the client puts the work into research, the ads with the celebrity always tend to do better than those without," he says. "But of course the agency can't actually guarantee that it can deliver that star if it wins the business. Equally, until it wins the business, it can't make an offer to the actor, and in showbiz, an offer is a commitment."

It was exactly this situation that AMV found itself in when it proposed Bob Hoskins for BT. The client indicated to AMV that if it could guarantee Hoskins, it was likely to win the business. But AMV couldn't offer Hoskins any guarantees, or even make him an offer, until it had won the account. Cluer's solution, to which Hoskins' agent agreed, was to write BT an artfully constructed letter indicating that Hoskins "was aware of the proposed campaign and was prepared to allow his name to go forward".

In reality it meant nothing, but it was sufficient to allow both sides to progress. To this day, the Hoskins ads remain among his all-time favourites.

Cluer believes - and Campbell backs him on this point - that his reputation with actors' or celebrities' agents is such that this potential Catch-22 can be circumvented. "Contracts can take a long time to be completed - sometimes after the shoot. So trust is essential, and I speak a language that showbiz agents understand," Cluer says.

Cluer won't comment on specifics, but legend has it that the original Dotty campaign for Tesco was supposed to feature Maggie Smith, with Kate Beckinsale as her daughter. After Cluer got involved, it was Prunella Scales and Jane Horrocks.

In part, Cluer's contribution to the casting process stems from his encyclopaedic knowledge of the showbiz world. It is clear he reads Variety, Hollywood Reporter, Screen and Vanity Fair voraciously and soaks up reports on film grosses, TV audience figures, syndication deals, casting lists and shooting schedules. "I know the gross of every current film," he says, and it's a statement of fact rather than a boast. He also keeps close tabs on actors yet to hit the big time. When we meet, he is singing the praises of Timothy Oliphant, who plays the ex-sheriff Seth Bullock in Deadwood.

In part, it is also due to his constant contact with agents. He works from early morning till lunch, and then from 7pm (when LA opens for business) till late in the evening. It's a work style that allows him to indulge his favourite afternoon pastime in Switzerland: golf. He is also extremely hot on showbiz gossip, and during our conversations he offers up a few tasty morsels any tabloid would kill for. "I have to say," he confesses with a wolfish smile, "that I get an almost erotic charge from knowing the proclivities of so many." One gets the impression too that Cluer uses this inside knowledge both as a social and as a working currency.

His working method, however, is not one that endears him to all agency staff. He charges a high retainer (said to be in the region of £25,000) plus a time-based fee, doesn't talk to account people, and often ignores TV producers, preferring to deal only with agency principals, chief executives and creative directors. "He's a classic schmoozer at the highest levels," one creative director says, "with a hotline to your boss. Inevitably, he pisses a lot of people off at operational level."

Another leading creative director recalls the time Cluer said he could line up a celeb, only to find that the agency's TV producer had done the deal for about half the price. "I never understood how the prices were arrived at. Alan's figures were not only high, but weirdly round too."

Nevertheless, the same creative concedes: "If you want someone, and you can't get to them, you turn to Alan. He has access."

Despite his age, Cluer, 66, shows no signs of slowing down, and no hint that he is ready to hand the business on. This may be because he can't find the right person, but even if he could you suspect that he would find it difficult, not to say impossible, to let go, such is the thrill he gets from his job. And there are not many people in advertising at his age of whom that can be said.

CLUER ON CELEBS AND ADS

"A star is an actor that the public likes more than others. With James Nesbitt in Yellow Pages, you get a great script, and a great performance from an actor everyone is predisposed to like. That's why it works."

"There are some stars that let you know - subtly, of course - that they've been in better things. Don't use them."

"I hate celeb campaigns where the audience ask themselves: 'How did they get so and so to be in their ad?' And it takes them five seconds to work out the answer: 'They paid them a lot.'" "There has to be an element of credibility. John McEnroe for Seat ... are we supposed to think he drives one?"

"It's very hard to take a really, really big A-list star and give them a part to play. Michael Caine, for example, is a behavioural actor. However good he is, you can't create a character for him. Not that he would do it anyway."

"If advertising is shifting from above to below the line, then celebrities will go with that. What star doesn't want their face on a million pieces of direct mail?"

"Of course there is a dearth of real celebrity now, especially as stars are that much more accessible. But that means smaller campaigns can afford a celeb, and you can focus them for your audience like you focus your media buying."

CLUER ON CLUER

"I am not in any way a modest man."

"I'm a massive spender of money. It just happens to be other people's."

"One of the things that I bring my agency clients is the guarantee that my calls always get returned."

"I'm a good negotiator. And one of the best tactics when you're negotiating with a star's agent is just to go off air."

"You need charm and a steely resolve. I'll use anything from shouting to tantrums to tears."

"I'm a control freak. It's what I like about this. Agencies hand the whole celebrity thing over to me and don't tell me how to do it." "Agents don't want to piss me off. I bring them a lot of money. Equally, when I say they've got a deal, they've got a deal. My word is good, and it matters."

Topics

Become a member of Campaign from just £45 a quarter

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to campaignlive.co.uk ,plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events

Become a member

Looking for a new job?

Get the latest creative jobs in advertising, media, marketing and digital delivered directly to your inbox each day.

Create an Alert Now

Partner content

Share

1 Why creative people have lost their way

What better way to kick off the inaugural issue of Campaign's monthly print offering than with another think piece on the current failings of our industry, written by an embittered, pretentious creative who misses "the way things used to be"...

Share

1 Job description: Digital marketing executive

Digital marketing executives oversee the online marketing strategy for their organisation. They plan and execute digital (including email) marketing campaigns and design, maintain and supply content for the organisation's website(s).