THE BOARDROOM PLAYERS: MIKE HARRIS - A creative-friendly suit who is inspired by new technologies and taking risks, the chief executive of Prudential Banking talks to Claire Cozens about his passion for innovation

The problem worrying Mike Harris, the chief executive of Prudential Banking, is one that most businessmen would give their right arm to have.

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

out more.’

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

back then.’

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

it happen.’

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

industry yet.’

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




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.’

Favourite campaign

The Orange launch campaign.

Business guru

’I mustrust gurus’


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