The problem worrying Mike Harris, the chief executive of Prudential
Banking, is one that most businessmen would give their right arm to
Business is going too well. Since the launch of Egg, Prudential’s direct
banking service, on 11 October, nearly two million people have called up
its website and tens of thousands have telephoned. The company has had
to take on extra people to cope with the demand and would-be customers
have been warned that there could be a delay of up to 28 days before
their accounts are opened.
Harris admits that the level of demand took everyone by surprise. ’We
decided the response level would be totally unpredictable so we worked
out what we thought we might get and multiplied it by six,’ he says. The
reality still beat their expectations.
Unfortunately, this has made the role of Egg’s launch campaign somewhat
redundant. The television campaign has been scaled down, so you may not
yet have seen Zoe Ball reveal that she lost her virginity at 17, or
Linford Christie confess to having said ’I love you’ without meaning it,
in the ’lie detector’ launch spots. But the ads, created by HHCL &
Partners, stand out as some of the most innovative in financial
Harris and HHCL go back a long way. As the chief executive of First
Direct back in 1989, Harris appointed the fledgling agency to create the
launch campaign for Britain’s first telephone bank. Depending on whom
you speak to, the controversial campaign either made First Direct or
delayed its success. Either way, it got it noticed.
’All the agencies we saw pitched well and had very professional
responses to the brief but I didn’t get the impression they really
understood what we were trying to do,’ Harris says. ’They (HHCL) had got
it. There was a tremendous enthusiasm about them.’
Giving HHCL its first big break helped Harris earn his reputation as a
creative-friendly suit, prepared to take risks. But when asked for his
definition of creativity, he is pragmatic. ’The key to creativity in any
business is generating as many different and novel solutions as you
can,’ he says. ’If you’re not being creative you tend to go down one
track - you think, ’I know how to deal with this because I’ve done it
before’. Most businesses are like that. But if you are looking at things
creatively you think, ’how many possible approaches are there and how
novel can I be?’.’
HHCL, he says, came up with seven different ideas for the Egg
Some of them were too off-the-wall, but none conformed to his idea of
traditional financial services advertising.
Harris concedes that it is not hard to be different in the financial
services sector. Despite being in the business, like most of us he can
rarely remember which ad is for which product. Indeed, he feels that the
biggest mistake financial services organisations make is using an ad
that does not accurately reflect their product.
’If the philosophy and style is not what the organisation is about then
I think you get discordance,’ he says. ’What I look for is whether the
ad matches the personality of the product. At First Direct we were
looking to challenge the established methods of banking, so we used
really innovative advertising.’
Many people thought the First Direct campaign was too radical at the
time - a sophisticated ad for a complex product was too much for
But Harris says he has no regrets - if anything, he wishes he’d allowed
HHCL to go further.
’Now, everyone knows about telephone banking. Then, we had a job even
persuading people that it could work. A lot of people were saying,
’You’ve got a great package here, why don’t the ads explain what it
is?’. But in a 60-second ad you just couldn’t do that.
The important thing was to make sure the advertising positioned First
Direct as being very different from other financial services
organisations and that it provoked people to pick up the phone to find
At the time, though, Harris took some of the criticism on board and
dropped HHCL in favour of Chiat Day, about 18 months after the launch.
The agency wanted to keep it radical, while Harris wanted to tone things
down. ’Looking back I think that was a mistake,’ he admits. ’The
momentum was just getting going when we decided to change. I think if
you spoke to Rupert (Howell) about that, he’d say we made a mistake, but
he would also admit that they were very young and difficult to deal with
Harris’s experience is also a testament to what you can achieve with
good-quality advertising on a relatively small budget. After launching
First Direct, he became chief executive of Mercury Communications, where
he had to face the challenge of competing against the marketing might of
At Mercury, he once again turned to HHCL, who created the long-running
Mr Cholmondley-Warner campaign, starring Harry Enfield. At one point,
the Mercury ads had greater spontaneous awareness than BT, with about 10
per cent of the larger company’s spend.
At Egg, budgets are less of a problem. Prudential is spending around
pounds 8 million on the launch of Egg and plans a second big advertising
push next year. This will focus on mortgages and other planned new
products, including credit cards.
At the moment, recognition is the priority for its advertising, but
positioning will become more important.
Like most big advertisers, Prudential will use an outside agency to
monitor the effectiveness of its advertising.
’Monitoring advertising effectiveness is an inexact science,’ Harris
says. ’On the whole, the agencies that I’ve worked with have been honest
about effectiveness, but it’s hard to be objective about your own work.
Sometimes you can be overcritical - although that is unlikely in
advertising, I have to admit.’
Harris is an unlikely champion of the creative cause. The conservatively
dressed 49-year-old, who works from a large, but rather characterless,
office was brought up in Dudley, where his parents ran a garage
He married his childhood sweetheart 27 years ago, and now lives in
Oxfordshire with his wife and two children.
Harris looks as if he would stick out like a sore thumb in the trendy
offices of most agencies. But Howell describes him as one of the most
challenging clients he has worked with.
’We have produced three campaigns for him now and each time he has
challenged us to produce mould-breaking work,’ Howell says. ’What is
really remarkable about him is his passion for customer service. That’s
something everybody talks about, but he really believes in it and makes
Early on in his career, Harris worked in information technology, which
explains why the projects he has worked on more recently have all had a
high-tech angle. Britain’s first telephone bank, then Mercury and now
Egg, which will operate via the internet and telephone and is aimed at
young, technology-literate customers.
And this is one area that Harris feels is being neglected by ad
’Most agencies I’ve spoken to are not thinking radically enough,
although some are starting to do so,’ he says. ’I’ve got a theory that
the information revolution is slowly lapping on the shores of every
industry. It’s already overwhelmed the one that created it, the IT
industry. But I get the feeling it hasn’t reached the advertising
Unlike many chief executives, who leave dealing with agencies to the
marketing department, Harris likes to be personally involved. He likes
the agency to be closely involved in company strategy and thus to have
influence in the boardroom. ’I think ad agencies can help define what
you stand for in the marketplace. That is about more than just
communications, it’s about the way you deal with your customers, and how
you deliver your product or service in practice.’
But he doesn’t think agencies can replace management consultancies. ’I
see agencies more as specialist advisers, a bit like HR or IT
consultants. They have a key role, but they don’t deal with the whole of
the business, which management consultants do.’
Harris has presided over some pretty good campaigns in his time, but he
is magnanimous when it comes to choosing his favourite. He opts for a
former rival - the Orange launch campaign.
’Orange launched while I was at Mercury,’ he tells me. ’We were nine
months ahead of them and we looked at the name and thought how strange
it was to call a mobile phone after the technicians’ term for
out-of-range. But then I saw the first ad, and I thought uh-oh, this is
clever. I thought that was tremendous advertising.’
For Egg, advertising has yet to fulfil its role. Harris believes that
while the press ads have had some effect, most of the demand seen so far
is the result of the media coverage Egg got at launch. Now, they are
concentrating on making sure they can handle the demand next year.
’I think that’s when the advertising has the most work to do,’ Harris
says. ’If we’d launched the full ad campaign when we had planned to,
then we really would have seen something spectacular and, frankly, we
didn’t have the capacity. We’re rewriting some of the rule books
THE HARRIS FILE
Becomes chief executive, Prudential Banking.
Began a four-year stint as director of Cable & Wireless, first a chief
executive of Mercury Communications, then as executive director in
charge of global partnerships and products.
Appointed launch chief executive of First Direct.
Joins Midland Bank
Egg is being launched on a budget of #8 million through HHCL & Partners.
Most admired adman
Steve Henry. ’He’s awesomely clever, he’s very funny and he’s a lovely
guy as well. It’s a good combination.’
The Orange launch campaign.
’I mustrust gurus’