John Allwood chuckles. But the vice-president of Orange UK is not giving Campaign a cheery hello; he's having a derisory laugh at the expense of Vodafone's latest strapline.
Such unabashed rivalry is something of an addiction for Allwood. His pot shots at his competitors continue throughout the interview, though Vodafone is clearly marked out for special treatment. When conversation turns to Formula One sponsorship, Allwood proudly lauds Orange's branding exercise over its main rival: "You can hardly spot the Vodafone thing on Ferrari. It's not Vodafone Ferrari, is it? But it is Orange Arrows.
Allwood grins a lot. He's possibly one of the jolliest clients you're likely to meet. At regular intervals in the interview, the plain-speaking, no-nonsense Allwood erupts into laughter before, during and after answering a question. It's quite disarming and leaves you wondering where all the stress is that usually goes hand-in-hand with one of the top corporate jobs in the country.
If Allwood had a predilection for stress, Orange could certainly feed his craving. Shares in technology, media and telecommunications companies have not been performing well lately and by mid-April, the share price of Orange's parent company, France Telecom, had dropped to 30.80 euros and Orange's shares had fallen to 6.61 euros. In fact, since relisting at the start of 2001 after being bought by France Telecom, the UK share price has dropped from more than 600p to 440p.
But according to 2001 data, Orange is the number one UK network by volume (i.e. the number of active subscribers) with a 28 per cent market share.
It's also the fastest growing network. But it should be noted that Orange and Vodafone trade places for this slot on a regular, sometimes monthly, basis. This perhaps explains Allwood's passionate reactions to anything Vodafone - he knows it's a tight race.
Orange burst onto the mobile market scene in 1994 with a marketing strategy that broke a few moulds: apart from the snappy name and distinctive colour, the Orange advertising created by WCRS took the radical step of never featuring a phone. Orange also backed this by being the first network to offer such deals as pay-per-second in an effort to show better technology and greater customer care than its rivals.
It worked, too. The trouble is, when things work, people copy them. Once Orange "owned the future
with its concerted branding effort, now it no longer has such a grip on this territory. Competitors, such as Vodafone with "How are you?", are getting cuddly with their advertising and shouting about customer care.
"Orange came into the market as something very much completely different,
Allwood says. "There was the fantastic baby campaign. It revolutionised the sector. It just was not a mobile phone ad. Compared with what the other operators at that time were doing, it was simply totally different."
Rooney Carruthers and Larry Barker, then creative directors at WCRS, came up with the famous endline "The future's bright. The future's Orange
and worked on the ads. The revolutionary first brand campaign waxed lyrical about how, in the future, communication would no longer be restricted by physical lines and featured a baby's umbilical cord being cut.
The account moved to Lowe two years ago and since then the agency has acted as a safe pair of hands, creatively continuing the strategy set by WCRS, and Orange has risen from number three in the mobile telecoms market to effectively being the joint leader with Vodafone.
"We've maintained that stance of using the Orange brand through the advertising very heavily, and tried to get over our brand promises and values. We have to make sure that the advertising is the manifestation of what the brand stands for. As the market evolves and the business evolves and the competition evolves, then we have to strive to keep ahead of the pack, keep moving it forward. That obviously gives us a challenge because others see what you do and then try to copy. The brand has helped us keep that fresh and different."
But has it? Now all mobile ads seem to extol the latest service provided rather than brand values. Orange always did this but every year shot a big branding campaign as well - but it no longer does this. This means that the advertising is becoming homogenised. Surely this isn't a good thing?
"We're very conscious of that,
Allwood admits. "I won't sit here and deny that it's not a constant challenge. The market is now changing. It's not just about selling mobile phones and taking on new customers. Most people in the UK have one now (at the last count it was around the 44 million mark). What we have to do as a business is show that it's not just about making a phone call or sending a text message - we have to stimulate people through marketing to adopt new products and services.
We talk about them at Orange as the life services of the future."
This is Orange's new deal: providing "life services". But Allwood doesn't mean it will start sorting out your plumbing. To get the jump on Vodafone, Orange will have to predict and invest in mobile products of the future.
"Life services are where we believe mobile services will go. You won't just be talking about your phone in relation to calls, it will be about content, information on demand and more ways of communicating. Person to machine, machine to person, machine to machine."
"We believe that your mobile device (Allwood won't call it a phone) will be something you carry around with you as an integral part of what you do."
To illustrate this Allwood starts to explain how many text messages he gets a day; how he gets hourly updates on the share price via his "device".
Mid explanation, as if on cue, he gets a message. He gets two more in the next 15 minutes. "I am living the Orange life,
he thunders. "It's the cornerstone of how we do business - let me put it this way: I can't remember when I last used a fixed-line phone in the office. When Orange next moves office, there won't be any fixed lines in the building."
To be honest, it looks like he, and everyone else in the building, doesn't have much choice but to live the Orange life. On every office wall, including Allwood's, there are Orange corporate posters. No pretty prints, Orange communications are their artwork.
Allwood began his corporate life as an accountant. After a stint at a Leeds electrical wholesaling firm, he moved to the Huddersfield Examiner for a job in accounts. After three years, in 1980, he moved to The Sun as its deputy chief accountant. He remained at News International for the next decade and rose to be its finance director before moving to run the finances of British Sky Broadcasting in 1989.
Allwood joined Orange in 1991 as the finance director when the mobile network was only in its planning stages. But he found it dull compared to the excitement of working on newspapers, so he promptly jumped to the Mirror Group in 1992, where he was made the chief executive by 1999. Then after receiving a golden goodbye cheque from the Mirror Group for £629,000 - a payoff which embroiled Allwood in the "fat cat
row surrounding 14 executive pay-offs branded "obscene
by the TUC - it was back to Orange.
"Orange back in 1991 was a project, it wasn't a company. All we were doing was planning how to build a network,
he says. "It was not a live operating business. I get a buzz from working in a live business, which this is now. There is far more going on here, this is far more complex than working in newspapers. It's gone full circle really."
Since he rejoined 16 months ago, he has rebuilt half of the UK management: "It was a watershed time after being bought by France Telecom. The market was changing, so different skills were required. Since then we have been melding the team together."
Allwood says the Orange balance sheet is very strong. France Telecom floated 15 per cent of Orange a year ago so the business is cash rich.
"There is no constraint on business here in terms of developing because we paid money for the licence fees for 3G - we're well capitalised,
In other words, he says they have the money to play around developing the all-important new technologies to go with 3G phones - most importantly, these new phones will deliver streaming content. Whoever cracks the 3G services, cracks the next boom in the market.
The only problem with Orange's bulging purse is that whereas the company is relatively healthy with only 6.5 billion euros of debt, France Telecom needs money. It is more than 60 billion euros in debt. France Telecom shareholders will want Orange to keep its reinvestment to a minimum and pass the surplus cash to the parent.
Allwood describes his management style as pleasant...until you get on his bad side: "I start by being nice to people, until they try my patience,
he glares, and for the first time he looks scary. "I'm hands-on, I like to be open. I take people along with me. I expect results and as long as that happens then we all get along famously. I don't like to throw the toys out of the pram."
One agency insider says candidly: "Allwood is tough but straight-talking.
If he has a problem you know about it. Equally, if he likes something he is quick to praise so you always know where you stand."
Chris Thomas, the chief executive of Lowe, says: "John is not one to sit in his CEO ivory tower dishing out orders. He wants to roll his sleeves up, muck in and get the issues sorted."
Which brings us nicely to what Allwood thinks of advertising, considering that marketing is his chief concern right now.
"I do enjoy advertising, I find it fun and interesting. I have to be honest, though, that my background is more financial. I am not an expert, so sometimes I think that it's important the message and the advertising actually appeals to me. I can at least put myself in the position of the straw man here and if it works for me, then it ought to work for everyone else. It's a good litmus test to ensure that the advertising is relevant."
So Allwood's influence on company advertising is great, he rubber stamps it before it can go out. Of the internal business issues which consume adland, Allwood has few worries; consolidation of the agency networks, for example, is not something he loses sleep over. He sees advertising as a people business so it matters less what the agency is and more what people are working on his account.
"From our point of view, we want the best people working on our accounts.
Consolidation, whether I like it or not, is going to happen,
"I would say, though, that a real difficulty for agencies is that some of the more creative people don't really like working for the big consolidated networks. That's the challenge that the agency side has, that they don't become large corporates."
As we wind up the interview, Allwood shows off the "imaginarium". He's very proud of the imaginarium. The small, white-walled room, or "think tank", seems to be the heart of the visionary side to Orange and the key to the company's future. People have been writing on the walls between playing on the space hopper or shooting hoops. Today they are "imagineering
how to incorporate digital radio into the Orange lifestyle.
Somehow, the diminutive Allwood in his suit and tie looks out of place in this den of creativity, lost among the magic markers. He laughs again and says it doesn't matter if he's not a visionary - he pays people to be visionary for him.