CLOSE-UP: NEWSMAKER/MATTHEW BANNISTER - BBC stalwart aims to reinvigorate the corporation/Matthew Bannister’s move to marketing shouldn’t be a shock

Matthew Bannister, the new director of marketing and communications at the BBC, is evidently running on a tight time schedule. After dispensing with one sentence of small talk, he pushes on with ’now, what do you want to talk to me about?’ He answers questions rapidly, plausibly and with geniality, so that, at the end of my hour-long interview, he has told me all I want to know and more.

Matthew Bannister, the new director of marketing and communications

at the BBC, is evidently running on a tight time schedule. After

dispensing with one sentence of small talk, he pushes on with ’now, what

do you want to talk to me about?’ He answers questions rapidly,

plausibly and with geniality, so that, at the end of my hour-long

interview, he has told me all I want to know and more.

Given the task Bannister faces in fashioning a new, streamlined

marketing and communications division, one cannot help feeling that it

is something he will do quickly and methodically.

Described by those who know him as being ’brutal’, ’quite intimidating’

and ’intolerant of those he doesn’t respect’, history shows that he is

not a man averse to swinging the axe. Take a look at his high-profile

cull of Radio 1’s resident DJs in 1994, just weeks after becoming its


Greg Dyke, the BBC’s director-general, has ordered his board of 17

executive directors to make staff cuts across the board in order to

contribute to target savings of more than pounds 200 million a year. The

idea is that this money will be ploughed back into programming.

Bannister makes no bones about his mission: ’We have to avoid

duplication, save the licence fee money. I will do it as quickly as I

can. I’m not arriving with a blueprint on how it should be done and a

set of people to put it in place. I’m arriving with a blank sheet. All

my staff have been invited to e-mail me with their views.’

While some people who have worked with him say he usually arrives at a

new job with a pretty good idea of what he wants, Morag Blazey, joint

managing director of New PHD, which holds the BBC media account, says he

is not an autocrat: ’He would always listen when we worked on the Radio

1 account. He’s not in the ’not invented here’ school. He’s

collaborative. He involved himself and had something to bring.’

Bannister’s appearance as the new marketing head was not a predictable

move and there has been speculation over whether he mooted the new role

or whether it was Dyke’s idea. Bannister says it’s the latter: ’Greg

asked me to do it. We had a number of conversations over a range of

issues in the BBC - this included what the strategy of the BBC should be

and how we should be much more consumer-focused.’

Bannister is certainly not oblivious to the noses he has put out of

joint with his swooping in as the BBC’s marketing impresario. Sue Farr,

the BBC’s director of public service marketing, who during the last

seven years has steadily built the presence of marketing within the BBC,

would have been a strong candidate for the post. Bannister’s presence

calls into question her future role and, following her statement last

week that she will ’now need to consider my own position’, it’s evident

that she’s not likely to hang around.

When asked about any misgivings that Farr may feel, Bannister puts his

diplomatic skills to full use: ’Clearly, it’s tough for someone who

championed marketing with such skill and talent. But this is a different

and much broader job and I hope Sue will stay and give me the benefit of

her wisdom and talent. I’ve worked closely with her in radio marketing

and broadcast marketing. I admire her and she has built up a great


Later on, Bannister spells out that there is no room for any form of

rivalry in his department. ’What I want is a united team working for

me,’ he firmly states.

Sophie McLaughlin, managing partner of the media research and strategy

company Blinc Media Intelligence, worked closely with Bannister when he

headed Radio 1 and then BBC Radio. She notes: ’On the one hand he will

be quite ruthless, because that’s what Greg Dyke hired him to be, but

the team he puts in place will be highly valued. He’s not a hierarchical

person at all, so he will want those people to work with him.’

Bannister, who has been with the BBC for the greater part of his working

life, is typically enthusiastic about his new task. ’I feel very much at

home with this job because it’s what I’ve always done. I really love the

people, I love the brand and have made nearly a life’s work of it, so to

be a guardian of the brand is wonderful.’

He has spent the majority of his career in radio, joining BBC Radio

Nottingham as a reporter in 1978 and steadily working his way through

the different programme genres of music, religion and current affairs

before becoming head of news for Capital Radio seven years later. At

just 31 years old, he became managing editor of BBC Greater London Radio

where he first worked with Chris Evans who he was later to install at

Radio 1.

Bannister’s transformation of GLR into a cult music station for people

in their 20s caught the eye of the BBC’s then director-general John Birt

and, after earning his spurs through becoming involved in the BBC

charter, he was appointed head of Radio 1.

His one and a half-year stint as chief executive of BBC Production

helped to broaden out his CV, giving him valuable experience in

television. The only area where he lacks any formal qualification is

marketing. Ready to deal with any residual doubts about his abilities in

this area, Bannister swiftly runs through his qualifications. ’Is it

strategic thinking? Yes, I do that. Is it brand management? At Radio 1 I

developed a brand strategy, aligned the product and then went and

shouted about it. I have always put consumer knowledge at the top of my


McLaughlin backs up Bannister’s marketing claims: ’When I worked with

Matthew I found him immediately attuned to the whole business of

marketing. So he does not have FMCG experience and hasn’t been a brand

manager of Fox’s Biscuits, but being in charge of a media brand is a

much harder marketing task than being in charge of a static


David Pemsel, an account director at St Luke’s, who worked on the Radio

1 account when it was at the agency, agrees with McLaughlin: ’He ran

radio, turned around most of the aspects of the radio network, so he’s a

man who is in touch with an audience, which any marketer should be. He’s

never had marketing after his job title, but he’s been bigger than


But Bannister is not without his detractors. One industry source

comments: ’It’s such a big deal that you’d think the BBC would go with

someone with more marketing experience. It’s a big job.’

It is inevitable that the BBC will come under closer scrutiny from the

commercial sector as it transforms itself into a more efficient,

effective and, perhaps, more ruthless organisation. Ready for

accusations of being too commercial, Bannister declares: ’The only

reason to have commercial activity is to bring money back to reinvest in

programming for our licence fee payers. We shouldn’t leave our assets

sitting on the shelf. If by being too commercial we are better at

marketing and promoting our services, that is absolutely in the

interests of our licence fee payers.’

Preparing the BBC against the growing proliferation of other media will

form a key part of Bannister’s marketing strategy. ’We need to focus on

what is a cut-throat, aggressive market. Look at the dotcoms, DVDs,

computer games and the explosion of things which people can use to

entertain themselves.’ Above-the-line advertising will continue to play

an important part in the BBC’s marketing strategy and he confirms that,

just as he is undertaking a staffing review, he will look at the BBC’s

roster of agencies.

Bannister appears more at ease with Dyke’s managerial style than


’Greg’s is much more like mine,’ he explains. ’He has fun, delegates, is

very open and a good communicator. I find myself getting on very well

with this culture.’ Despite being a candidate for the director-general’s

job, Bannister holds no grudge against his boss. ’I think they gave the

job to the best man. You have to have a crack at the thing, but they’ve

given it to someone with great experience.’

With this job in the bag, maybe next time around Bannister will have

more success. At 43 years old, there is plenty of opportunity and he has

proved to be very adept at scaling the career ladder.