CLOSE-UP: NEWSMAKER/IAN MCALLISTER; Hands-on Ford chairman fosters creative change

Ian McAllister talks about the development of Ford’s new ads.

Ian McAllister talks about the development of Ford’s new ads.

It is only towards the end of our 90-minute interview that Ian

McAllister, chairman of Ford UK, bares his teeth - metaphorically

speaking, at any rate. We are talking about the extent of his

involvement in Ford’s advertising. It’s about as total as you can get.

‘Strategy, concepts, research, where and which media the ad will run in,

whether it’s a burst or not... I get involved all the way through,’

McAllister says. He continues: ‘If we do a 60-second TV ad, then I

insist on seeing a 60-picture storyboard. This is so I can see that the

timings are right, that the product is featured the right way and so on.

But I refuse to be too prescriptive. So, I say to the director, ‘If you

think there is a better way to shoot the ad or a better idea, then do

that.’ But I also insist that as well as the director’s cut, the agency

delivers me a cut as we agreed.’

Sounds reasonable. ‘It’s sensible,’ McAllister replies. ‘But it doesn’t

always work out. If there’s one thing I won’t tolerate it’s an agency

that gets too far down the road on an ad without consulting me. On one

occasion, a delegation from the agency arrived to discuss a storyboard.

I asked for some changes. There was a shuffling of feet, everybody

looked at the floor. Finally, one of them said: ‘There’s a problem. It’s

going on air tonight.’ I told them it wasn’t and showed them the door.’

It is a small point, but one that reveals McAllister as a man who, while

claiming self-deprecatingly (if not entirely convincingly) to know

nothing about creativity, is nevertheless determined to place himself

right at the heart of Ford’s advertising renaissance. For him there is

no chairman-like desultory look at the new ads, no moan about agency

luvvies. Inside a meticulously ordered mind lurks a love for the

business and a keen respect for advertising professionals. Later, to

underline the point, he pulls from his briefcase a proof of a new Ka

press ad, and we discuss its finer points.

Such in-depth, detailed involvement is no surprise to Phil Horton,

marketing director of Renault UK, who worked with McAllister at Ford in

the 80s. ‘There’s been a big improvement in Ford’s ads since he

returned. It would appear he’s gone a long way to scrap the ‘advertising

by committee’ style that Ford had.’

Kevin Morley, managing director of Rover and a one-time colleague of

McAllister’s, agrees: ‘Ian is essentially a marketing man. He’s always

had a penchant for communications, and he can take a great deal of the

credit for the changes.’

Unusually perhaps, for someone in the car industry, where suppliers are

viewed as a species fit to be nailed to the floor, McAllister abhors the

idea of a master/slave relationship with his agencies. ‘It’s all about

partnership. Agency people have a rough time. Clients can be very

difficult,’ he acknowledges. ‘But agencies must make a profit on a

client’s business. If you pay peanuts you’ll get monkeys. We need our

agencies, they’re part of the planning process. We need them to tell us

when we’re going wrong.’

In fact, as those in the agency world who know him say, it’s a pity his

obvious passion for advertising can’t be bottled and distributed to less

enthusiastic clients. As one observer comments: ‘If you’ve got somebody

who spends pounds 80 million a year, believes it works and isn’t looking

to cut his budgets, then the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers

and the Advertising Association should strongarm him on to as many

public platforms as possible to make the case for advertising.’

So is McAllister’s faith in the power of advertising unshakeable? Well,

yes. ‘I used to have this saying which I kept on my wall,’ he remembers.

‘It said: ‘Marketing without advertising is like winking at a girl in

the dark.’ Advertising is the only way you can reach a lot of people

quickly. We are in a commodity market so we have to focus on the brand,

and advertising is the most fundamental force in the way people perceive


He can name his three favourite ads without hesitation - Tango, Hamlet

(‘it had the courage not to take itself seriously’) and the VW Golf ad

in which Paula Hamilton chucked away the fur coat but kept the car.

‘That was a defining moment for me,’ he enthuses. ‘People remember where

they were when Kennedy was shot. I remember where I was when I saw that


So what is he like, this Scots-born son of a tax inspector, who trained

as an economist and has since risen through the ranks - via spells at

Ford Germany and as general manager in the US for the Lincoln Mercury?

Now in his early 50s, a devout Catholic and a Ford lifer, in manner

McAllister is charming, gracious and relaxed. But some say he was not

always so, remembering him as abrasive and abrupt with staff who could

not match his intellect.

If he has mellowed, it may have something to do with a serious car

accident in 1994 as a result of which his spleen was removed. (There is

a story, perhaps apocryphal, of a tough meeting in which McAllister

reportedly said: ‘I’d vent my spleen on you - if I still had one.’)

Says Horton: ‘When I was a junior manager there I would best describe

Ian as an intellectual thug. However, as with all intellectuals, there

was a tremendous amount to learn and I enjoyed it in a masochistic way.’

We meet in the Mayfair corporate headquarters of Ford UK, formerly the

Ford family’s London residence. McAllister pours the tea himself and

cheerfully admits he is looking forward that evening to watching the BBC

Rover-BMW documentary. He is happy to allow Campaign’s photographer to

spend 25 minutes tugging him this way and that.

Every question gets a straight answer; little is off the record.

McAllister makes you feel he’s enjoyed the interview as much as you


Jerry Judge, chief executive of Vauxhall’s agency, Lowe Howard-Spink,

knows McAllister from his time at Young and Rubicam, a Ford roster

agency. ‘We had many conversations about advertising and his grasp of

the nuances was very strong. He’s thoughtful, intelligent and open-

minded,’ Judge recalls.

Perhaps one thing McAllister has brought to the party is confidence. As

he admits, the old advertising was bland because Ogilvy and Mather was

giving Ford what it thought it wanted - which effectively meant that

neither had the confidence to break the circle. Now, one detects, O&M

has the confidence to push the barriers back creatively, and Ford the

confidence to take on board bold ideas. At the root of this system lies,

apart from mutual trust, a rigorous briefing, strategy and research

system. Once the strategy and the positioning have been agreed, O&M has

to be as creative as it can.

By way of encouragement to the agency, McAllister reminds it that

whether he likes an ad or not is irrelevant, providing it is on brief

and researches well. ‘The agency must have the courage to challenge the

way we think. I’ve told them they won’t be fired for upsetting me.’

If Ford’s new style of advertising is about differentiating the

individual Ford brands - Escort, Maverick, Fiesta, Galaxy, Mondeo, Ka

and more to follow -through different strategies, it is not without

risks. ‘If you’re asking me if there is a danger Fordism will get

diffused,’ McAllister says, ‘that is an interesting question. If you’re

asking me if there should be a Ford look about all our ads, we’ve

decided no. If you try to appeal to everybody you run the risk of

becoming anodyne. That’s what we were.’

Is new-look Ford working? McAllister says it is too early to say,

although he cites Y&R’s work for the Galaxy - it has 42 per cent of its

market in the UK - as proof of the power of advertising.

But, as one observer warns, Ford and O&M shouldn’t get too carried away

yet. ‘It’s obviously improved hugely. But when all is said and done

there’s a long way to go. This is not the beginning of the end, but the

end of the beginning.’

Feature, p38


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