Feature

Tories' marketing hard man displays a softer side

Will Harris says he has more perspective since his days in adland. When, at the end of our interview, I asked Will Harris to name his most admired person, he chose to name me, writes Claire Billings.

It was a lame attempt at flattery and humour, but shows that he thinks it is how to ingratiate himself with his audience, a skill that will come in handy in his new job as the marketing director of Conservative Central Office.

He landed the role after working at O2, where he was the marketing chief for three-and-a-half years. He is credited with coming up with the communications strategy that changed O2 from a technology-led company into a modern mobile brand.

It was also at O2 that he won notoriety in adland after he replaced Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, a former employer, with the then start-up Vallance Carruthers Coleman Priest.

Harris claims his predicament was "horrendous". His version is that AMV had work in research when he ran into the VCCP founder Rooney Carruthers in the pub. Carruthers had an idea for a campaign, the VCCP work was put into research along with AMV's and the rest is history.

But the decision worked out well for O2, and Harris remains unapologetic, denying that he could have handled the situation better, although he admits that it was terrible having to fire his former boss. "That was the worst business decision I've had to take - firing Michael Baulk and hiring a start-up. But the work AMV produced wasn't going to propel the O2 brand to where it needed to be and if I'd stuck with it I probably wouldn't be here talking to you today," he says.

Harris says Baulk talks to him now, although other former colleagues from his days at AMV are still smarting.

It is an episode that adland has never quite forgiven him for and it didn't do much to improve the reputation he built up while working at the agencies.

At WCRS, his second job after a stint at Lowe, his character went down well, however. It was there that his bullishness came to the fore and he earned his nickname "Bomber Harris".

WCRS's chief executive, Stephen Woodford, who was the group account manager of Orange when Harris was the account manager, remembers him well. "He was the fiercely ambitious account man and required some sort of promotion every three months," Woodford says.

But, Woodford points out, Harris had every right to be ambitious because he is talented and capable as well as being determined, aggressive and clear-sighted. He was also "great fun to work with", according to Woodford .

Harris' former colleagues at AMV are less positive. His name still sticks in the throats of some who recall how he treated staff, even though they concede he may, in some cases, simply have been trying to get the job done.

"He is aware of other people's sensitivities but isn't bothered by moral judgments," a former AMV chief, who also describes his approach as clinical, says. Another describes Harris as "an arrogant little shit".

His appointment at Conservative Central Office is likely to amuse his former colleagues who think him suited to a role in politics. Julian Ingram, a former business director of BBDO, says: "He is perfect for the Tory party," which he describes as having "a nasty right wing".

Harris admits that during his earlier career he may have been "brusque, arrogant and focused", but claims that he has changed, since his father died four years ago.

"There was a watershed in my life when my dad died. Anyone who goes through that sort of stuff totally changes. So if you talk to people who knew me before that, they might well characterise me as brusque, arrogant and focused." He says now he has learned "soft skills", and that it gave him a sense of perspective that "you don't have if you've had an untroubled personal life".

He's also quick to assert that he isn't trying to use his father's death to improve his image. "I wouldn't want anyone to think that it was a piece of publicity," he says.

But he also says, without missing a beat, that some of his former colleagues may have taken themselves too seriously.

In his new job, his communications strategy will play a key role in the new Tory leader Michael Howard's attempt to unseat Labour at the coming general election.

Harris, 34, took up the role on 15 December, soon after Howard was made leader of the opposition.

And again, he's already started making controversial decisions. Harris believes that only a couple of people in advertising have the right grasp of advertising, politics and PR for the party's needs.

Accordingly, instead of appointing an ad agency, he has enlisted Charles Vallance, a founding partner of VCCP, and Michael Moszynski, the chief executive of the M&C Saatchi subsidiary Immediate Sales, to oversee the party's advertising. Vallance and Moszynski's ad agencies will take it in turns to handle communications briefs.

The arrangement means that Lord Saatchi, the joint chairman of the party with Liam Fox, both of whom Harris reports to, is kept happy, while Harris gets to keep his mates at VCCP on board. However, he denies that the decision was taken for those reasons.

Harris' first manoeuvre was Howard's "I believe" pledge on 2 January, which was picked up by the national media.

Harris attributes most of its content to Howard, but denies it was plagiarised, after press reports suggested it aped a declaration made by the US philanthropist John D Rockefeller Junior in 1941.

During last month's budget, Harris launched a spoof campaign based on the DFS ads. It showed Gordon Brown sitting on a sofa Linda Barker style with the words "Labour's special offer. You won't pay until 2005", an attack on Labour's borrowing record.

Another tactic was publishing the phone number of Labour headquarters on a poster site in Vauxhall, encouraging the public to phone in and demand a referendum on Europe. It generated 1,000 calls in a day, according to Harris.

What his ideas have so far had in common is their opportunistism. They strike a chord with the public and attract attention without costing a fortune to produce.

The latest initiative, which launched in Campaign last week, is an invitation to the public - beginning with adland and students - to come up with the next big idea to promote the Tory party.

It encourages voters to send in their ideas to the website www.letdownbylabour.com, created by Agency Republic.

It targets people who put their faith in Tony Blair in 1997 and asks them to express how they have been disappointed. The best ideas may be used in the Conservatives' 2004 election campaign.

It aims to capture the public's imagination, as well as the mood of the people who voted for Blair's New Labour in 1997, but who are now wavering.

Not that long ago, such an approach would have fallen on deaf ears because the disillusioned British public did not see the Conservatives as a viable option. However, again, Harris' timing appears to be impeccable and his judgment of the public mood accurate.

QUESTIONNAIRE

Age: 34

Lives: Battersea

Family: Engaged to be married in July

Favourite ad: Land Rover/Army Recruitment

Describe yourself in three words: Balding, amused, late

Greatest extravagance: New Range Rover

Most treasured possession: First-edition James Bond books/my family

Most admired agency: BBDO

Living person you most admire: Claire Billings

One to watch: Robert Phillips, the founder of Jackie Cooper PR

Motto: Don't do interviews

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