CLOSE-UP: NEWSMAKER/GEORGE BULL; Military man set to defend freedom to advertise

Caroline Marshall talks to the GrandMet chief about his new position at the AA

Caroline Marshall talks to the GrandMet chief about his new position at

the AA

God bless Margaret Thatcher. Say what you like about the pestilent

battle-axe, her effect on the economy, her triumphalism over the

Falklands victory, her cooing when Ronald Reagan decided to bomb Tripoli

- but think of all she did for advertising freedom in keeping the anti-

tobacco, anti-alcohol, anti-sweets, anti-this, anti-that lobbies in


These days, it looks as though the next general election may well result

in the first Labour government since 1979. Many fear Labour’s allegiance

to Europe, where advertising regulation is more widespread than in the

UK. The party is already committed to banning tobacco advertising and it

would also sharply restrict food and alcohol advertising, as well as

advertising to children.

Which is where George Bull, the newly appointed chairman of Grand

Metropolitan, comes in. Bull took over as president of the Advertising

Association from Unilever’s chairman, Sir Michael Perry, last month. His

task will be to hold together a divergent, and sometimes tense, alliance

of 27 trade bodies representing advertisers, agencies, the media and

support services formed to defend the freedom to advertise. It is a

position he will hold for three years and about which he is a little,

shall we say, guarded, at present.

Ushered into a vast corner office by a kindly, middle-aged secretary, I

find Bull sitting behind the sort of desk that only pinstriped company

chairmen have. On it are a few piles of ordered letters and one of those

leather-clad blotters that may have been useful before the invention of

the ball-point pen. Two computers (he is 60, and one of the first senior

executives to be fully computer literate) lurk at the corner of his


At the start of our conversation, and in his booming Donald Sindenesque

tones, Bull lays down the ground rules: he is the AA’s new boy, he will

do his best for Campaign, but there are many industry issues he has not

even had a chance to consider yet. As for the questions, I am to ask

nothing too detailed. He will, if necessary, refer to his AA briefing

notes and we will get along just fine.

His hesitation is a trifle disingenuous, for here is a man who has

worked in the drinks industry for 35-odd years, who rubber-stamps a

spend of more than a billion pounds a year on marketing some of the most

prominent brands in the UK, including Burger King, Smirnoff, Haagen-

Dazs, J&B and Baileys. To say he is not well informed about industry

regulatory issues is rather like saying John Hegarty knows little about

Levi’s, or that Martin Sorrell cannot read a balance sheet.

Later, he admits that his GrandMet duties, while ‘all-pervading’ are, in

fact, synonymous with his AA position: ‘At the level I operate, I am

interested in preserving an environment in which I can promote the

brands upon which I am entirely dependant.’

As the conversation broadens, a clearer picture of the man emerges.

Mostly he plays the former Coldstream Guards officer and no-nonsense

tough guy, selected by GrandMet’s Lord Sheppard (then simply Allen

Sheppard) to be his successor in a bruising battle that saw two of his

rivals for the top job leave the company, one with a million pounds in

compensation in his pocket.

And then, briefly, there’s a whiff of the warmth beneath the military

exterior. A colleague says that his appointment to GrandMet chairman

came as a surprise: ‘He went home to tell his wife, Tessa, who told him

she was very proud and impressed. ‘But now the horses need mucking out,’

she said.’

He can poke fun at himself and is fond of referring in his speeches to a

‘load of old bull’. His sense of humour clearly extends to the absurd:

in the mid-70s, when he was running the troubled IDV Home Trade, he

called the troops in and addressed them in a World War II tin hat in the

parade ground style he had learned in the Guards. It worked.

Winston Fletcher, chairman of the AA, remembers Bull from this time,

when he was a marketing manager at IDV and Fletcher was a director of

the then Fletcher Shelton Delaney: ‘He’s always had strong, ethical

views and an incredible belief in the power of marketing.’

An insider at one of GrandMet’s agencies describes Bull as many others

do - more brands champion than deal-maker: ‘He’s got a lot on his plate

at GrandMet, but it has high value-added brands that need marketing

support to succeed. All my instincts suggest that he would be good at

fighting the right to advertise.’

It was Bull’s belief in brands that put him at the top of Fletcher and

Perry’s hit list for the AA job. He says he accepted over a feast of

claret and grouse, amid promises that the job would entail no more than

‘a couple of dinners and meetings a year’.

Bull joined IDV in 1958, before its acquisition by GrandMet, and became

chief executive of IDV in 1984. He joined the GrandMet board in 1985 and

became chairman of IDV in 1987. In July 1992, he became chairman and

chief executive of GrandMet’s food sector and, in December 1993, group

chief executive. He is also a non-executive director of United News and


In the past five years, Lord Sheppard sold more than 30 GrandMet

businesses to turn it from a messy conglomerate into a far more focused

business based on three main divisions: IDV, Burger King and Pillsbury -

the US food industry star performer. Sheppard’s dazzling series of deals

are largely complete, and Bull’s buzzwords now are ‘organic growth’ and

‘improving shareholder returns’.

Marketing wasn’t quite his first job. After the army, and before

marketing school, he spent 15 months in the advertising game at

Dorlands. Old Spice was the shop’s flagship account. ‘I went right

through the agency,’ he recalls. ‘I bought media [under Jack Rubens] for

everything from the coal industry to Rolls Royce. Field research [for

McVitie’s] was the classic slap-of-cold-fish-in-the-face-at-West-Drayton


Bull joins the AA at a time when Fletcher and the director general,

Andrew Brown, have done much to improve its standing and image. It is

probably true to say that he will have three years as little more than a

figurehead if the Tories are re-elected - or three years in the

political trenches if Labour swings it. Is he prepared for the worst?

‘I think it’s wrong to regard Labour as a serious danger to

advertising,’ he says. ‘I prefer to say that there will be some

inflections in tonal terms - some of which we will be able to

accommodate and some we will have to debate. We will fight to preserve

the right to advertise anything that can legally be sold and, by and

large, we can demonstrate that good advertising doesn’t damage the

consumer. I feel very strongly that it is not for Big Nanny out there to

tell people what to eat, smoke or buy.’

So where does that leave tobacco advertising, on which Labour, according

to its consumer affairs spokesman, Nigel Griffiths, would impose an

outright ban? ‘It’s not incumbent upon me to defend or attack tobacco

advertising,’ Bull offers, referring to that freedom-to-advertise mantra

again. He argues that, in the UK, Germany and Holland (where there is

relative freedom to advertise), tobacco consumption is ‘falling quite

rapidly’, while in other countries who do not have that freedom,

‘consumption is quite static’.

An hour’s verbal jousting with Bull and his booming BBC voice is tiring.

It is a relief when he finally pauses to consider my last question.

George, what advertising really turns you on?

He picks Smirnoff, a brand which, in his early days as a salesman at

IDV, he fought to get placed alongside whisky, gin and brandy on pub

optics. ‘Smirnoff’s ‘through the bottle’ campaign is truly exciting

because it’s extendible over time and throughout the world,’ he says,

fondly recalling ancient lines like ‘I was only an accountant till I

tasted Smirnoff’ and a 60s campaign that created both a brand and a


Somehow, this seems the right choice for the next president of the

Advertising Association.