Feature

High-profile advertiser turns RadioCentre chief

Love him or hate him, Andrew Harrison's next career move after leaving Muller has got people talking, Alasdair Reid writes.

It's the Marmite effect. People seem to either love him or hate him. Andrew Harrison divides opinion, but even his most ardent admirers admit he has an unfortunate tendency to rub people up the wrong way.

Of course, some people in the business love him for that. They love him for the fact that he's a brash Northerner (actually, he's from Derbyshire) whose infectious enthusiasm and plain speaking are a breath of fresh air. He's the sort of man who gets things done and isn't afraid to make a few waves in the process. There should, in short, be more Harrisons in this world.

Others aren't quite so sure. But, one way or another, people are taking a big interest in Harrison's fortunes as he begins to negotiate the latest leg of his career - on Monday he took up his new role as the chief executive of the RadioCentre, the new body designed to supersede both the Radio Advertising Bureau and the Commercial Radio Companies Association.

One of the more fascinating aspects of this appointment is the difficulty in establishing benchmarks. Is Harrison, at 42, still to be regarded as one of the industry's heavy- hitters? Or is he a spent force?

After all, you could argue that he failed to make a success of his breakthrough from marketing into general management. He left Nestle Rowntree, where he was the marketing director, to join Muller as its managing director in April 2004. Chris White, who joined Nestle as its managing director just as Harrison was departing, subsequently gave him a public dressing down, claiming the company's marketing efforts had "lost their focus" during Harrison's tenure.

This would have been no more irritating than a pinprick had Harrison gone on to forge a glorious career at Muller - but it wasn't to be, and he left without a job to go to in June last year.

And then there's the nature of the new job. The RadioCentre is often mentioned in the same breath as TV's generic marketing body, Thinkbox; or even the Internet Advertising Bureau. But the truth is that it has none of the heavyweight importance of the former or the glittering potential of the latter.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are those who are willing to predict that Harrison will shoot himself in the foot a couple of times before he truly gets going.

Diplomacy, as we've already indicated, is not held to be one of his stronger suits. Observers point in particular to the ugly rows he has provoked in the past when he has chosen (ironically enough) to attack the medium of television for being too expensive and more than a little complacent.

Many advertisers applauded the sentiment but deplored the way Harrison went about it. And in the media community, more people were angered than were amused when he added insult to injury - earlier this year he had the gall to apply for the top job at Thinkbox.

So it will be interesting to see how he pitches himself in dealing with the advertising industry. One source hints that some of Harrison's fans in the industry may have been motivated by what he calls the "Debbie McGee phenomenon" - as in the time she was asked what first attracted her to the millionaire Paul Daniels.

He explains: "He was a high-profile advertiser who always had large amounts of money to spend - and, as such, he's always had agencies fawning on him. The danger is that he mistakes such fawning for real popularity. He'll have to make his own way now. In his new situation, the agencies are his bosses rather than the other way around."

Another puts it more starkly: "He has an ego the size of a planet and it tends to get him into trouble. He's one of those unashamed networkers who's always looking over your shoulder to see if anyone more important has come into the room. Those who don't find him to their taste will argue that pride always comes before a fall."

On the other hand, his many fans point out that he can be truly inspired and is brave in following his instincts. He relaunched Yorkie with the tagline "not for girls"; in a previous role, as the marketing director at Coca-Cola in the UK, his reintroduction of the classic glass contour bottles was heralded as something of a masterstroke.

And those who like colourful characters note with approval that he's prone to the touches of unwitting comedy that have become, in the mind of the public at large, absolutely archetypal of the marketing profession. He's liable, for instance, to say things such as: "Yoghurt is well placed to take a leadership role." Or, in attempting to explain why people no longer worry about sweets ruining your appetite, may proclaim: "No-one eats meals any more."

He takes a Dale Carnegie approach to the fine arts of persuasion, using your name constantly to underline his absolute engagement and empathy with you personally. Some fall readily under this spell; for others, it's a transparent conceit that's irritating and patronising.

Thankfully, there's an army of people in the media sector more than willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Jonathan Barrowman, the head of radio at Initiative, says Harrison has a wonderful opportunity to make a difference.

"He can bring all the constituent parts of the RadioCentre together and galvanise the whole organisation. Someone coming into the medium with a fresh pair of eyes can help challenge traditional thinking," he maintains.

And Nick Hurrell, M&C Saatchi's chairman of Europe, can speak with more authority than most - Harrison has been a client on and off since the late 80s.

Hurrell has no doubt he'll succeed. He says: "The truth is that he's always been an excellent client. He's very interested in the process, in the work, in the strategy, and was always very generous in understanding how the agency wanted to approach these issues. That meant he tended to get good work. Andrew is nothing if not bright and he understands he's moved to the service side of the business. I'm sure he appreciates that requires a different approach."