CLOSE-UP: NEWSMAKER/LESLIE BUTTERFIELD; Perfectionist planner keeps BT at Butterfield Day

Leslie Butterfield believes only hard work brings the right result.

Leslie Butterfield believes only hard work brings the right result.

There’s something about Leslie Butterfield that is reminiscent of a bank

manager. Not the suit, which is just as well cut as it should be for the

chairman of an advertising agency. Nor his grin, which is half

schoolboy, half social worker.

No, it’s something that lurks behind his aura of worthy sobriety.

Something that warns you that this pleasantly soft-spoken man could whip

your overdraft facility away at a moment’s notice. Or at least has the

power to.

Butterfield is not an expert on overdrafts, though. He claims his

agency, Butterfield Day Devito Hockney, has never had one. Nor is it

likely to, now that it has retained British Telecom’s pounds 14 million

business advertising for another four years (Campaign, last week).

The pitch was a team effort, of course. It went to a well-fought second

round, and BT says the creative work was neck and neck with the other

finalist, Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper. Butterfield Day, though, had brought

out its own secret weapon - the little grey cells and 20 years’ planning

experience of Leslie Butterfield.

‘His strategic ability and intuition are first class - some might say he

is the David Abbott of the planning world,’ Sholto Douglas-Home, the

advertising manager of BT, says.

‘As an account planner he’s one of the best,’ Michael Hockney, his

former partner, adds. ‘Give him a huge load of data, and he’ll distil it

into exactly the right essence.’

‘If you passed him in the street, you’d think he was a civil servant,’

one observer says. ‘But he’s got a brilliant mind.’

And this brilliant mind has been dealing with BT since 1984. Butterfield

was then planning director of Abbott Mead Vickers, and heavily involved

in pitching for its entire business. Abbott Mead didn’t win first time

round, but Butterfield began some relationships that led to BT being his

first client when he set up his own agency four years later.

Better than that, when he walked into the pitch last week with the

future of the agency riding on the outcome, he had known some of the

panel for as long as 12 years.

Butterfield is convinced his experience played a part in Butterfield

Day’s eventual victory. ‘There are very few markets that have changed as

much as telecommunications over recent years. So staying abreast of what

people say, think and feel about telecoms is valuable experience. I

think BT values the experience it thinks I have in the marketplace,’ he


This last delivery was quietly done, but without a trace of modesty. The

power broker peeps through the bank manager facade yet again.

In fact, for a low-key man in a sober suit, Butterfield is extremely

well known about town. Not only for being a brilliant analytical thinker

and for founding Britain’s first so-called ‘third-wave’ agency, but for

being one of the few committed socialists who drives a Ferrari. A red

one, of course.

The Ferrari is a limited edition SZ. Pristine on the inside and shiny on

the out, and it betrays Butterfield as a man of grand passions. He is

not, friends will tell you, someone who ever does things by halves. If

he is working on a project, it’s full commitment or nothing. If he loves

fast cars, why not a rare Ferrari?

It’s a thread that runs through his life. His commitment to the Labour

Party, for example, ranges from canvassing in his Slough constituency to

running the party’s advertising. And it was one of his great

disappointments last year when Tony Blair’s rise to power effectively

shifted most of the account to BMP DDB Needham (Campaign, 7 July 1995).

Butterfield doesn’t find it easy to talk of these passions, though. Ask

him why he supports Labour, and he looks up in surprise as if to ask:

‘What kind of question is that?’ The same applies to a discussion on

his other interests. These are dismissed in a couple of minutes, ticked

off, as it were, on the fingers of one hand: skiing, motor racing,

taking holidays (‘I’m meticulous about that’) and Thai food.

He will tell you - and this is backed up by friends and colleagues -

that his biggest interest is advertising. Butterfield has arranged his

life so that he can throw himself into work with little disruption. His

wife, Judy, works for BMP, and they spend the week in a small flat in

Marylebone, near Butterfield Day, only going home to Windsor at


The downside is that such dedication allows him to give free rein to

what former colleagues call an ‘unquenchable thirst for work’. Once he

is fired up it is all systems go, and you either go with him or get left


‘People say I’m not the easiest person to work with,’ he admits. ‘I tend

to interrogate people in the same way that I interrogate problems. I

know some people I work with think I have high standards and expect

rather a lot.’

The tales of working with him, in fact, can be colourful. People say he

can be a brilliant source of inspiration for creatives on one hand, but

too analytical and lacking warmth on the other. Talk abounds of

Butterfield being one of the toughest negotiators around, but critics

claim that he is often too inflexible, digging his heels in over the

smallest issue.

‘If he had an improvement opportunity, it is that he can be bad at

distinguishing between minor points and big ones,’ one friend comments.

Less friendly observers accuse him of being driven, of having an

obsessive nature that can stifle the achievements of those working below

him. However, Gary Duckworth worked as his deputy for six years, and

found the experience a rewarding one.

Duckworth, co-founder of Duckworth Finn Grubb Waters, and one of

London’s planning gurus, worked with Butterfield at Abbott Mead. ‘He let

you get on with it, and never looked over your shoulder or got in the

way. He’s a highly focused person. He has a lot of drive. A very strong

analytical thinker, he works very hard with a lot of energy.’

Duckworth defines Butterfield as one of the strongest influences on his

development in planning: brilliant at constructing arguments, totally

immersed in what he’s doing, and with a technique of asking just the

right question to crystallise a jumble of facts into a clear line of


So, a passionate, focused steamroller, this. And once in motion, he can

make as many enemies as friends. ‘Leslie thinks he’s right about

everything,’ one observer notes. ‘That’s his biggest failing. He can’t

see the areas he’s bad at as well as good at.’

Such traits have led to stand-up rows in the past. With his former

partner, Michael Hockney, for example, and with Abbott Mead when he left

to start up his own agency.

His friends describe this last point as ‘not suffering fools gladly’.

Less kind critics call it being rigid and having an apalling


However, Butterfield is no fiery, hotheaded fly-by-night. In his 20

years in the business he’s had only three employers. His career began

when he joined BMP, as it was called then, as a trainee planner in 1975.

In 1980 he left to join Abbott Mead as a planning director, and finally,

Butterfield worked for himself. So, I ask, what does that tell us about


Butterfield stops toying with his pack of cigarettes and takes a deep

lungful of smoke: ‘It says I like stability and I like the relationships

I form with people,’ comes the considered reply.

The whole interview has, in fact, been full of considered replies. It

rolls out on wheels, impersonal, but correct. As we go back over his

career, every step has a date promptly and carefully attached. This is a

man, you feel, who absorbs facts like a sponge, retains them, and

reprocesses them in the blink of an eye.

So, don’t come to Leslie Butterfield for gossip, cuddles or an easy

life. Come to him for intellectual stimulation and a 25-hour day.

Butterfield is, as one industry source sums up, ‘brilliant but difficult

- and the end result is always worth the trouble’.


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