CAMPAIGN DIRECT: PROFILE: JOHN WATSON - DM supremo heads for new pastures/John Watson is leaving WWAV and looking forward to fresh business challenges, Eleanor Trickett writes

’No, I am NOT retiring,’ John Watson sighs for what is probably the 50th time today.

’No, I am NOT retiring,’ John Watson sighs for what is probably the

50th time today.

There aren’t many people in the UK direct marketing industry who would

rock the world if they handed in their notice, but Watson is an


His decision to pass over the responsibility of running Europe’s largest

direct marketing agency provoked the natural reaction. He’s 50; he’s


But the man has plans. And anyone who knows him - or has known him

during the 19 years of WWAV Rapp Collins’ unavoidable existence - would

not be surprised by the news that he intends to start all over again.

After all, old entrepreneurs don’t die, they just have to take two years

of gardening leave.

It’s not surprising that Omnicom, which bought WWAV to sit in its

Diversified Agency Services division in 1994, has slapped the cuffs on.

In Watson’s own, deservedly immodest words: ’Would you want me running

around on the loose?’

The reasons behind this - some would say surprising - move are


But over-riding the other factors is one big one: when Watson sold WWAV

to Omnicom he found that the move from being an entrepreneur to being a

corporate man was increasingly untenable.

Not that he was unwise to strike the deal. Having emerged bruised, but

not quite battered, from the recession, he knew that he didn’t want to

go through the cutbacks and redundancies as the man accountable


Omnicom had been courting WWAV for some time - along with every other

holding company - and suggested a deal that involved a merger with Rapp

Collins. Although Watson wasn’t keen on that part of it, he bit the

bullet and went ahead.

But it appeared that the sale to Omnicom was, for a natural entrepreneur

such as Watson, less of a canny deal and more like a compromise. Watson

agrees: ’It’s just taken me this long to realise it. I don’t like being

part of a large corporate organisation and I don’t have the right

political instincts. I can’t become a professional manager and move

forward like that.’

Omnicom realised this and has never expected him to scale the DAS

ladder, according to Watson.

The flipside of building such a strong business with a heavyweight

management team is that you can start to edge yourself out of the

picture. ’I was surrounded by so many bright people, I started to

contribute less and less. I just wondered whether if I went away for six

months anyone would really miss me.’

Watson was also frustrated by the lack of progress with his one big

corporate ambition: to take WWAV into Europe - an ambition he admits is


There is, it seems, a fundamental tension at work. WWAV is owned by DAS

while the Rapp Collins network, which was developed separately to the

WWAV Rapp Collins merger, is owned by DDB. Neither seems over-keen to

jump into bed with the other, despite their common parent.

’It’s a situation that ought to be resolved,’ Watson admits. ’There is a

potential network but having two different people at the top needs

sorting out. And I’m not the person to do it.’

When it comes to Europe, as the old adage would have it, if a job’s

worth doing, do it yourself - which is just what Watson intends to do


His legendary reluctance to fly anywhere has resulted in a grass-roots

knowledge of Europe and a deep passion for all of its peculiarities and


’Europe is being ignored at the moment, apart from Ogilvy and Rapp

Collins,’ he complains. ’Look at above-the-line agencies, they’re all

over Europe. Below-the-line networks need to pull their socks up.’

So the plan is clearly to build a European network. Getting funding

should be a doddle, he says, and he’s bound to attract a heavyweight

team. ’It could be backing start-ups or buying agencies,’ he ponders,

while admitting that things could look very different in two years’ time

when his gardening leave is over.

He says: ’I don’t just see myself as the managing director of a new

agency, more like a business angel or a venture capitalist, but more

hands-on than those terms would suggest. What I won’t be doing is

setting up another WWAV. The model that has served it well for the past

20 years doesn’t appeal to me now.’

Here he hints at a frustration that data never became the fulcrum around

which the rest of the operation revolved. It’s a notion that further

illustrates the likely look of his next project. ’People think, ’yeah,

data’s important ...’ and go on to the next thing,’ he observes. ’In two

years’ time, reality will glimmer through.’

His holy grail is an agency that applies the service and creative values

of a traditional direct marketing agency to a much more data-focused

business. ’I want analysts and data people talking to the IT people at a

much higher level and to get creatives to understand statistical

analysis,’ he says.

Perhaps the most ambitious element of his dream is to wrestle the

databases away from clients who still guard them jealously. In his

opinion they don’t use them to their full potential - if at all.

Watson says: ’It’s bizarre. Clients hold data for non-marketing reasons.

My aim is to go to BA or to Ford and take the data from them. They’ll

argue that I can’t do that. But does the best data planner in direct

marketing really work at BA?’

He is, however, reluctant to map out his vision in too much detail.

After all, the industry can change an awful lot in two years, especially

in the accelerated technological environment. But he has spotted the

niche before and built the largest business of its kind. It is not

impossible that he could do it again - providing the right young blood

is present.

There is no doubt that Watson has made a valuable contribution to the UK

direct marketing industry and beyond. He is reluctant to admit this but,

when pushed, says: ’Perhaps what I’ve done is to prove to direct

marketing people that they’re not second-class citizens. You can take

the ad agencies on and win.’

It’s clear that Watson enjoys the nuts and bolts of the business as much

today as he did when he was writing Scotcade ads for the colour

supplements in the 60s. He says: ’Direct marketing is much more fun and

demanding than above the line. And we’re a damn sight cleverer than they




Brunnings, messenger


Dexion, Lonsdale Crowther, Gordon Proctor & Partners, production

executive then copywriter


SJIP, copywriter


Trenear-Harvey Bird & Watson, co-founder


Watson Ward Albert Varndell, co-founder


WWAV Rapp Collins, chairman and chief executive.