Avoiding media's bandwagons at all costs

From ITV to the Internet Advertising Bureau, Richard Eyre has been at the top of the UK's major media businesses and sectors, but he has always gone his own way. 'I don't want to be predictable,' he tells Philip Smith.

Avoiding media's bandwagons at all costs

A key piece of advice that Richard Eyre gives to all the aspiring advertising industry stars on the Media Business Course in Brighton is to think of three words: "What three words would you most like people to use about you and what are you going to do to deserve them?"

Richard won't tell Campaign the three words he wants people to use when they talk about him, but he does let slip that he would like to be seen as unpredictable.

"I fear more than any one thing as being thought of as predictable. We are so surrounded by people saying and doing the predictable. The trend lines are so powerful in media and advertising, the bandwagons are incredibly seductive and part of me revolts against the bandwagon. I have this slightly irritating desire to just 'think this one through again'. I like there to be something about me that you wouldn't have thought of."

Certainly, his career path might appear, with hindsight, to have had the inexorable momentum of a bandwagon speeding downhill; but, equally, much to Richard's pleasure, it's hard to see it having followed a predictable course.

From the rising media agency star at Benton & Bowles in the 70s and Bartle Bogle Hegarty who became "poacher turned gamekeeper" with chief executive roles at the media owners Capital, ITV Network and Pearson Television to the pluralist and serial non-executive director and chairman, as well as the influential chairman of the Internet Advertising Bureau, Richard has seen media and advertising from all sides.

Not only that, he went "plural" some ten years ago and has been the experienced non-executive director and chairman at a range of businesses from Guardian Media Group and RDF Media to digital start-ups such as Rapid Mobile and even his internet station Radio Crimson, which will launch later this year. And, from 2009 to February 2013, he was the chairman of the board of the pioneering Eden Project in Cornwall.

He clearly delights in being different and taking a left turn, as he did in 2004 when he left RTL Group to write his novel, The Club, an intensely readable satire on media and the television industry.

Unpredictable career

Equally unpredictably, for a heavy hitter in media who is known as both charming and self-deprecating, Richard says one key element in his career is luck. But, if you follow the cliche, his abilities, capacity for work and thought for others have helped him create his own.

"I have never been able to plan my own career and I find people who have planned their careers slightly unsettling. For me, it has been entirely opportunist," he relates, as he reminisces about 37 years in media over lunch at The Ivy - possibly one of his few predictable settings.

He maintains that a media career wasn't an ambition initially. His father, who was "quite strict", had worked in marketing and sales and became the managing director of the office supply company Ofrex. He gave Richard one simple piece of career advice as he started out: "You are always welcome to come back here at any time, but you can't live here any more."

In 1975, after graduating into the recession-hit UK and following a university milkround encounter with Crispin Davis, who was launching Head & Shoulders at Procter & Gamble, Richard felt inspired by the disciplines and challenges of marketing but confesses, with some irony, that he didn't want it to take over his life. So, having been turned down by charities and after a close encounter with Y&R, he found himself being interviewed by the legendary Ray Morgan, the founder of Benton & Bowles.

It was an utterly bewildering experience for the "proper" 21-year-old. "He (Ray) sat with his feet up on the desk with his hands behind his head and we talked about music. Because what he was interested in was talking about what I was interested in. I later discovered that Ray's technique was to find people who had a certain, basic level of education (he only hired graduates, which was fairly unusual at that point) but with some interests in life. If they could be quirky, all the better, and so he created this extraordinary group of people."

So Richard's love of King Crimson (follow him on Twitter and you'll see he also loves new music) got him his big break and he had nine fun, and occasionally prank-filled, years in the "amazingly collegiate atmosphere" at Benton & Bowles with people such as Simon Marquis and Christine Walker at the start of their careers.

For him, Morgan's way of building a team still works: "Out of very different people, a group forms that can tackle the problem. Different styles and temperament help.

"I'm much more interested in who they are than if they can work out 70 per cent of seven. Great things come out of very different people grappling together with the same problem. In the leadership/management teams I have attempted to build, one of the features is a real diversity of style and temperament. From a leadership point of view, it can be quite exacting, but out of which comes incredibly good solutions."

After a stint at Aspect Advertising, Richard became BBH's first media director. In his five years there, he experienced his proudest professional moment when, thanks to the eight minutes he spent explaining the future of media to NatWest in 1990, BBH won the bank's much-coveted media business. "'We have never heard such a compelling account on the future of media,' apparently, 'so we are giving you the buying as well.' It was a great example of intense activity leading to a completely unpredictable outcome," he recalls with understandable pride.

Industry gamekeeper

BBH was the springboard to a series of big media owner roles in the 90s. All of which presented different challenges - so much so that Richard finds it difficult to describe the biggest single challenge.

At Capital, he led an industry lobby to change ownership rules and acquired radio businesses outside London. His appointment was an "unbelievable risk" for both parties, he says: "It was tough to get established there, but I had a lot of fun."

At the start, he thinks his value was in being the gamekeeper who could tell them what the media agency poachers were thinking: "I told them what I thought the agency world thought of them - that they were a shower and that we (Capital and the radio industry) are allowing that to happen. And it makes us look like idiots."

Ralph Bernard's voice rose above the throng to support him and so the Radio Advertising Bureau was formed. "It was not my idea, but I was very enthusiastic about it. That was thrilling," he says.

After Capital came ITV Network, which had a very different structure to today. Richard had to take on a demotivated and declining network in terms of audience share. He overhauled its commissioning team and set aggressive audience targets. As ever, he instigated change head-on and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire was part of his legacy.

"ITV was a real challenge and it was the first time I encountered an institutional challenge," he says. "At Capital, the organisational structure of the business did not get in the way of the business. At ITV, the opposite was the case. As chief executive, I had seven shareholders, each of whom was running a TV business in their own right. All the decisions we were making in the network, they were making in the regions."

If he has any regret, it's that he should have stayed there longer: "I loved my engagement with the staff, the agencies, the clients - even the government, for God's sake."

But the tension with shareholders took its toll. "My role kind of became a reinforced umbrella to prevent the bricks falling on the creative people who were going to turn this thing around," he says.

And then on to Pearson Television, which merged into RTL in 2001. During his time there, among many things, he acquired Talkback, cancelled Baywatch and midwifed Pop Idol, which became the most successful TV format in the world.

Change in direction

The catalyst for Richard's change in direction a decade ago, when he went plural, was simple. He was flying into Luxembourg after the RTL merger. "It just hit me. I suddenly thought: 'Just a minute - I hate this. I am killing myself on its behalf.' This begged the question: 'So what do I do?'"

The unpredictable answer? Write a book. The Club was published by Penguin in 2005 and, if there is a more readable insight into the pressures of a modern-day TV business (all fictional characters, of course), then it has not made itself known.

"It was the most creative thing I have ever done. The unfettered creativity was, for me, the greatest thing about that. I am very much more creative-led than method-led," Richard believes.

Taking time out to write the novel coincided with an opportunity to chair the then less well-known IAB in 2003.

Again, Richard was attracted by the opportunity to do something new. "This digital stuff was going to change everything. At one of the first meetings with stakeholders, we actually had a discussion about how we define what it is that we do. How do we create this? If you know me, you know just how much I enjoyed that."

Andrew Walmsley, the co-founder of i-level, had first-hand experience of Richard's impact. "Richard joined the IAB at a crucial time - he's got a unique combination of gravitas and charm; leading and focusing the organisation, while captivating audiences from the stage at Engage."

Richard is one of the star turns at the annual IAB Engage conference (no mean feat when you consider that the stage can and has featured anyone from Sir Martin Sorrell to Stephen Fry) and is a much sought-after speaker. This is down to meticulous preparation, according to Eyre, and a little something extra.

Ironically, he thinks he is a very unnatural presenter: "I cannot do the walking around thing. I stand behind the podium and read the words that I prepared. And I spend a long time preparing them. I bother a lot about the words that I use.

"I want to deliver the words that I prepared, so I can't stride around like a lot of people do, seemingly surprised by the slide that has just come up on screen. I just can't do it."

Typically, he remembers another self-deprecating tale: after speaking at the Media Business Course to students once, John Billett took to the stage to talk about presentation and said: "Walking around is essential. You've just seen a presentation from Richard Eyre. Has Richard Eyre got any legs? We'll never know."

After 37 years in the business, Richard has a remarkable passion for exploring new ways of thinking and working: "I love change. I love change in all its forms. I love it slightly too much in some ways. My wife used to joke that she didn't like going out on her own because she would come back and the sofa would be facing the wrong way."

But the media business does not experience real change generally, in his opinion. "New magazines launch. The growth of commercial radio. But that's not real change. We can understand that as an embellishment on what went before.

"With the digital stuff, the fact that the media you are using engaged with the media in a personal way - which is not to denigrate other media incidentally. The media know who they are talking to and adapt the message.

"This is not an embellishment on what has gone before. This is not a new chapter in the same book. This is a whole new book. This is a whole new library. A whole new bookstore! In the last ten to 15 years, a complete change around of how people do things. It couldn't be a more interesting time to be alive. Unpredictability is now a fact of life."

So, it might be fruitless to ask what next. In the short term, Richard is planning a walk to the South Pole with Walking With The Wounded, despite having just recovered from a major operation.

As ever, the constant is helping, and working with, people he likes. Everywhere he has worked, it's the people he enthuses about the most. "I have this view: when you are hiring someone, just hire the best. Getting the best people creates the luck that wins you medals."

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Executive roles
Benton & Bowles, 1975-84 Graduate trainee to head of media planning
Aspect Advertising, 1984-86 Media director
Bartle Bogle Hegarty, 1986-91 Media director
Capital, 1991-97 Chief executive
ITV Network, 1997-2000 Chief executive
Pearson Television, 2000-01 Chief executive
Pearson Television merges into RTL Group, 2001 Director of strategy and content

Current non-executive roles

Internet Advertising Bureau UK Chairman
PayWizard Director
Results International Director
Grant Thornton Director
Next 15 Chairman
Walking With The Wounded Trustee
Radio Crimson Founder (going live this year)
Previous non-executive roles
RDF Media, 2001-09 Chairman
Guardian Media Group, 2004-07 Board member; on audit and nominations
GCap Media, 2007 Chairman - led its sale to private buyers in June 2008
Eden Project, 2003 - 09 Director; chairman from 2009 to February 2013


Age: 59

Family: Married to Sheelagh for 36 years; two children, Tom and Katie - both have two kids each

Education: KCS Wimbledon; Lincoln College; University of Oxford; Harvard Business School (Advanced Management Program)