Close-Up: Newsmaker - Can Sky's 'visionary' turn ambition into results?

The arrival of Matthew Anderson, a former Ogilvy PR man, has coincided with a cultural change at BSkyB, Ian Darby writes.

Last November, BSkyB, a company that is, despite its innate distrust of publicity, adept at generating headlines, was more than usually in the spotlight.

While adland's eyes were fixed on the outcome of the broadcaster's advertising pitch, an account eventually won against the odds by WCRS, Sky was busy scuppering ntl's bid to take over ITV by acquiring 18 per cent of ITV's shares.

Both moves were typically Sky: unexpected and audacious, but underpinned by sound business logic. In the case of the ITV move, it stymied a rival, while making a solid investment; in appointing WCRS, it went for an agency rich in creativity and new-business form.

WCRS won in a two-way fight with WPP's Grey. Many had expected Grey to land the £75 million prize owing to the close links between the holding company and Sky, right up to their chief executives, James Murdoch and Sir Martin Sorrell.

One version of events goes that Grey missed an open goal in not converting the pitch, and that WCRS capitalised on its weakness. Not that Matthew Anderson, Sky's communications director, and the man in charge of its advertising strategy, sees it like that. Anderson, a PR man who joined Sky a year earlier with a place on its executive committee, found himself leading the pitch process after the abrupt departure of Jon Florsheim, Sky's chief marketing officer, mid-pitch.

Sky and WCRS

Anderson is keen to emphasise that WCRS was the most impressive agency and offered the best fit with Sky's culture, as well as delivering the best creative ideas.

"We were constantly evolving, with High Definition and the new Sky+ offerings, so we needed agility and a willingness to break ground quickly. WCRS was ready to respond to this and to make change happen," he says.

Anderson is an ebullient Californian with a passion for technology who joined Sky from WPP's Ogilvy PR business. He's keen to talk about WCRS' first campaign for Sky. Its "see, speak, hear" activity is the first Sky-branded work to talk about a television, telephone and broadband offering in one place.

Despite the competition about to emerge from the new Virgin Media brand and from BT Vision, Sky is "very bullish at the moment", according to Anderson. "We want to send out a strong message. There's a bit of 'offer weariness' in the market, but we are bringing choice, quality and value together."

As for WCRS, Anderson says, "We're working with an agency that understands what Sky stands for: challenging the status quo for the benefit of customers. In the broadband market, people have been paying too much, for too little, for too long."

The new tactical campaign is just the start, reckons Debbie Klein, the chief executive of WCRS. She says of the challenge ahead: "What with broadband, Sky+ and the carbon neutral issue (Sky has joined The Climate Group and became the first major media company to declare its intention to become carbon neutral), there are so many great stories to tell. Sky has some very inspiring people. Matthew is a man who knows what he wants - he is intelligent, a visionary, and is ambitious for the brand. Sky wants the best work in the category; we view it as a great creative opportunity."

Anderson's route to Sky

But will Anderson deliver in one of advertising's most demanding roles? His move from Ogilvy took many by surprise - as the president for the region, he had established Ogilvy PR as a strong unit in Asia-Pacific before adding Europe to his remit. It seemed he was being groomed to become its global chief executive. Those who know Anderson say there were two factors in his decision to move. First, his strong relationship with James Murdoch, and second, his intellectual curiosity, especially related to technological issues.

Anderson's relationship with Murdoch was forged in Asia, when Ogilvy worked with the Murdoch-owned Star TV operation. The two worked closely together for four years and are described as "best friends" by one insider.

David Muir, the chief executive of The Channel, and a former Ogilvy colleague of Anderson's, says: "He's the most preppy American I've ever met - in a good way. He's bright-eyed and bushy-tailed; he fills the room with a large volume of energy. He's intelligent and thoughtful and, unlike many people who have high energy levels, he doesn't shoot from the hip - his arguments are always well crafted."

Sources close to Sky agree, viewing Anderson as a capable communications specialist with a big brain. However, some question his lack of experience in a day-to-day advertising role and, more fundamentally, the absence of operational experience in a subscription or retail environment. One says: "When the subs didn't come in for a quarter, Jon (Florsheim) knew what buttons to press. Will Matthew?"

There are some who link Anderson's arrival with a changing of the guard, and even a softening of attitudes at Sky. As one insider says: "He's different to Florsheim. He has the advantage of having previously worked at an agency. A lot of the "old guy macho culture" that dates back to the Sam Chisholm (Sky's first chief executive) era is going and Anderson is not like that. I think you might see a change in the way Sky deals with agencies."

All change at Sky?

Sky is evolving into a service-led company, with a focus on selling a range of products to its customer base, as new subscribers become harder to come by.

The cultural change could be far from deliberate. Florsheim has gone and sources indicate that Charles Ponsonby, the brand marketing sales director, is also poised to announce his departure. This change in marketing personnel seems to be part of a wider brain drain that has seen several key Sky directors leave. These include the respected chief operating officer Richard Freudenstein, Dawn Airey, the managing director of Sky Networks, and James Baker, the managing director of networked media. This has left Sky, according to one source, "with some very strategic non-operational directors who will deliver what James Murdoch asks". Reports have even suggested Murdoch himself will soon be moving on, linking him with a move to News Corporation in the US.

Observers have been impressed with Anderson's impact on Sky's communications, arguing he has ushered in a more open era. The carbon neutral issue is just one example, but Anderson points out this is not just some fluffy initiative: "We are seeing customers taking more from Sky than ever before."

Anderson is keen to employ the approach he developed at Ogilvy, using the PR element to amplify the message of the advertising: "It's getting marketing and communications linking up together."

But what does he say about Sky's reputation as being a bit of a difficult client? Over the years, it has earned a reputation as an aggressive company that has got the better of many a good agency. Anderson concedes Sky's agency partner must be able to adapt with it, but denies it has been hard for the sake of it. "What Sky has shown is how valuable it can be to a company to be able to adapt at lightning speed; we want partners who can move with us."

Anderson will challenge WCRS, but the pressure is on both to deliver the broadband customer and overall subscriber numbers, and to keep pace with Sky's ever-evolving product offering.

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