John Harlow believes he’s found a gap in the market, Anne-Marie
John Harlow is weird. He says it himself, Greg Grimmer, associate
director at CIA Medianetwork, says it (well, he said ’odd’,
Even his missus thinks her husband, the new media director of Rocket, is
a bit of a crackpot.
Actually, quirky is probably a more accurate word to describe
This is a man who doesn’t read magazines because he thinks none of them
speaks directly to him, who doesn’t read newspapers because he refuses
to swallow the editorial line they peddle and who reads only the books
of one author (Philip K. Dick, who’s big on paranoid delusions).
Add to this the fact that he’s buying a house in an area of London he’d
never visited until three weeks ago (Dulwich), would rather have a new
synthesiser than a flashy motor and used to work in a Tin-Tin shop and
you begin to get the picture, right?
Somehow, it comes as no surprise to hear that Harlow initially wanted to
be a science fiction writer or play keyboard in a band like Kraftwerk
(classically trained in piano and violin, he’s had his own band for
years ). He also writes and illustrates children’s books. Conventional
Harlow’s quirkiness perfectly mirrors Rocket’s attempt to position
itself as a creatively led ’third- wave’ media shop (Campaign, last
week). Eclecticism, innovation and ideas are what fire this man, factors
that are largely the legacy of working in a creatively driven,
As assistant media director at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO before the
merger with New PHD, Harlow enjoyed the buzz of interacting with
different sorts of people but watched the inevitable unbundling of media
with mixed feelings.
’The whole commodity-driven thing didn’t appeal and I remember thinking,
if this is the future of media I don’t want to be part of it,’ Harlow
His mate, Mark Robinson, the marketing director at J. Walter Thompson,
says that creativity has always been key for Harlow. ’He’s known as a
creative media thinker and he’s constantly pushing to think in a more
Before he was handed the media director’s role at Rocket - New PHD’s
second brand - Harlow worked with Jon Wilkins in New PHD’s creative
communications department and it’s clear they are kindred spirits. Are
there conclusions to be drawn from the fact that these creative,
laterally thinking media men were nurtured in a full-service
’Jon’s an inspiration, I love working with him. We’ve bounced so many
ideas off each other,’ Harlow says, nursing his pint and looking
thoughtful (typically, this interview does not take place within the
traditional confines of the office but in the pub).
As you’d expect from someone who’s been given guardianship of a New PHD
brand, Harlow also appears to have something of the vision thing. He has
played a key role in the refocusing of Rocket and he is sure there is a
gap in the market for its unique offering.
’If size was the principal thing, Rocket wouldn’t exist. Clients want a
bespoke specialist team of media thinkers combined with size and clout,’
he says. ’The elevation of media means the market must respond to the
changing demands on it. It’s all about communications and how brands
interact with media.’
Thinking like this isn’t new but it’s not yet common currency and it
probably explains why Harlow has been courted so assiduously in his
short career (or it could just be that he was a Campaign Face to Watch
CIA’s Grimmer admits he tried to hire him as a planning manager.
Michaelides and Bednash also came calling some 18 months ago and just
before the Rocket move, Harlow had been offered the job of strategic
planning director at Griffin Bacal.
Harlow hasn’t let this attention go to his head. He’s likable,
unpretentious and as down to earth as a genuine eccentric can be. But he
stubbornly refuses to consider the possibility of Rocket turning out to
be a damp squib. ’It’s right for its time,’ he says simply.
Others aren’t so sure. ’Rocket was a second-string operation to keep
Alan Brydon (Rocket’s managing director) happy and it will be a tough
job to try to refocus it,’ one media independent source says. ’I wonder
whether it will be able to attract the right sort of clients. I think
Harlow was better placed at New PHD.’
Predictably, Harlow is loath to disclose detailed early plans. There is
much bold talk of research initiatives, projects, one-off events and
forging different sorts of relationships to help clients build their
The true test of Rocket’s thrust factor will become clear in the months
ahead. But who’s to say Harlow’s not right about all this and that he
really has found a gap in the market? Third-wave media shop - you read
it here first.
The Harlow file
1990: FCO, media assistant
1993: AMV BBDO, media manager
1995: AMV, associate media director
1996: New PHD, director, creative communications
1997: Rocket, media director.