It’s not hard to work out why Rupert Miles has earned himself the
title, ’Teflon King’. For one thing, he’s smoother than the least
sticky, non-stick pan you’ve ever seen. For another, he’s rarely stuck
at one job for more than about three years.
Which, according to his critics, is why nothing nasty ever sticks to
him. He leaves, as it were, before the stick hits the pan.
But Miles has his fans too. While his laid-back, self-avowedly
’hands-off’ management style leaves some of his charges with the
impression that he’s downright lazy, others say it makes him a joy to
work for. And, as for his tendency to avoid those sticky situations,
they point to his current job as the head of the BBC’s commercial online
service, Beeb, as one of the stickiest and trickiest you could wish upon
What is undeniable is that, for a pioneer of non-traditional media,
Miles is remarkably old school. A veteran of magazine publishing, you
could see him being far more at home in the pin-striped world of Conde
Nast than leading Beeb’s open-plan, open-necked revolution at BBC TV
With the zeal of a true revolutionary, Miles has restructured the Beeb
operation four times in two-and-a-half years. But in truth, the
attributes which have enabled him to succeed at Beeb are not those of an
uncompromising radical, but the ultimate diplomat. He has skilfully
walked a tightrope between a number of potentially warring factions.
The most obvious antagonists are the commercial arm for which he works,
BBC Worldwide, and the directorate which produces the programmes and
therefore the brands with which he works, BBC Broadcast. But his
position is further complicated by the fact that Beeb is a joint venture
between Worldwide and the computer company, ICL.
In essence, the deal between the two is that ICL provides the funding
while the BBC supplies the content and the kudos. According to insiders,
however, both the nature of the content and the extent of the kudos have
not quite turned out to be what ICL had hoped for.
Thus far, Beeb has been an entertainment site aimed exclusively at a UK
audience, rather than a global news and entertainment site. News resides
on the other BBC site - which carries the prestigious BBC name and is
run by BBC Broadcast.
The deal with ICL runs out at the end of 1999 and, although he will not
say it, Miles appears resigned to the end of the relationship. One
possible way of saving it would be for the BBC to stump up some of its
own cash alongside that of ICL. The only other two options would seem to
be going it alone or finding another partner.
In the meantime, Miles awaits the outcome of the BBC’s strategy review
into the way it divides its different activities. Should the commercial
arm be responsible for developing websites based on licence fee-funded
There are those inside the BBC who think not and it’s a testament to the
pressure he’s under that Miles has come up with an ingenious defence of
his activities: namely, that sites for brands such as Top of the Pops
and Top Gear are at least as much based on the magazines (produced by
Worldwide) as they are on the TV shows.
Will this argument hold water? One former BBC Worldwide employee is
’There is an axe hanging over Beeb,’ he says, ’at least in its current
format. If the BBC wants its digital function to be strong, it has to
accept it. But its role may change.’
But Miles is far from pessimistic. He’s excited to be involved in trials
of Microsoft’s WebTV service, is looking forward to the introduction of
more transactional facilities and is currently promoting the launch of
two Beeb sites: the Good Food Show and Good Homes. This move into more
mature, female-orientated content is, he says, a crucial step which
shows how the online audience is growing and diversifying.
So what will Beeb be like in two years’ time? ’We’ll have a mixed
economy at the BBC, with commercial and public service content on the
web,’ Miles predicts. ’I don’t know how we’ll be funded, but we’ll still
be in our ’investment phase’. We should be making profits in three to
four years’ time.’
Then, as now, the key measure of success will not be page impressions
but ad impressions and share of ad revenue. In this respect, Beeb has
performed well so far - remaining in the late 20s in terms of traffic
but taking the ninth-highest share of the ad market. The only problem,
as Miles points out, is the size of that market - but it’s growing and
will, he says, be ’buoyant’ at the turn of the year.
Indeed, there is much to look forward to. But whatever happens, it will
be a miracle if Miles emerges from the battles ahead with his teflon
THE MILES FILE
1996: BBC Online, director
1994: Radio Times, publishing director
1992: IPC Weeklies, group ad director
1991: Elle, publisher
1989: Sunday Correspondent, ad director
1980: The Guardian, ad sales executive, then ad manager
1977: Cambridge Evening News, ad sales executive.