’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
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
THE WATSON FILE
Dexion, Lonsdale Crowther, Gordon Proctor & Partners, production
executive then copywriter
Trenear-Harvey Bird & Watson, co-founder
Watson Ward Albert Varndell, co-founder
WWAV Rapp Collins, chairman and chief executive.