Headliner: Quirky media chief has faith in Rocket as third-wave shop

John Harlow believes he’s found a gap in the market, Anne-Marie Crawford says.

John Harlow believes he’s found a gap in the market, Anne-Marie

Crawford says.

John Harlow is weird. He says it himself, Greg Grimmer, associate

director at CIA Medianetwork, says it (well, he said ’odd’,


Even his missus thinks her husband, the new media director of Rocket, is

a bit of a crackpot.

Actually, quirky is probably a more accurate word to describe


This is a man who doesn’t read magazines because he thinks none of them

speaks directly to him, who doesn’t read newspapers because he refuses

to swallow the editorial line they peddle and who reads only the books

of one author (Philip K. Dick, who’s big on paranoid delusions).

Add to this the fact that he’s buying a house in an area of London he’d

never visited until three weeks ago (Dulwich), would rather have a new

synthesiser than a flashy motor and used to work in a Tin-Tin shop and

you begin to get the picture, right?

Somehow, it comes as no surprise to hear that Harlow initially wanted to

be a science fiction writer or play keyboard in a band like Kraftwerk

(classically trained in piano and violin, he’s had his own band for

years ). He also writes and illustrates children’s books. Conventional

he’s not.

Harlow’s quirkiness perfectly mirrors Rocket’s attempt to position

itself as a creatively led ’third- wave’ media shop (Campaign, last

week). Eclecticism, innovation and ideas are what fire this man, factors

that are largely the legacy of working in a creatively driven,

full-service environment.

As assistant media director at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO before the

merger with New PHD, Harlow enjoyed the buzz of interacting with

different sorts of people but watched the inevitable unbundling of media

with mixed feelings.

’The whole commodity-driven thing didn’t appeal and I remember thinking,

if this is the future of media I don’t want to be part of it,’ Harlow


His mate, Mark Robinson, the marketing director at J. Walter Thompson,

says that creativity has always been key for Harlow. ’He’s known as a

creative media thinker and he’s constantly pushing to think in a more

lateral way.’

Before he was handed the media director’s role at Rocket - New PHD’s

second brand - Harlow worked with Jon Wilkins in New PHD’s creative

communications department and it’s clear they are kindred spirits. Are

there conclusions to be drawn from the fact that these creative,

laterally thinking media men were nurtured in a full-service

environment? Possibly.

’Jon’s an inspiration, I love working with him. We’ve bounced so many

ideas off each other,’ Harlow says, nursing his pint and looking

thoughtful (typically, this interview does not take place within the

traditional confines of the office but in the pub).

As you’d expect from someone who’s been given guardianship of a New PHD

brand, Harlow also appears to have something of the vision thing. He has

played a key role in the refocusing of Rocket and he is sure there is a

gap in the market for its unique offering.

’If size was the principal thing, Rocket wouldn’t exist. Clients want a

bespoke specialist team of media thinkers combined with size and clout,’

he says. ’The elevation of media means the market must respond to the

changing demands on it. It’s all about communications and how brands

interact with media.’

Thinking like this isn’t new but it’s not yet common currency and it

probably explains why Harlow has been courted so assiduously in his

short career (or it could just be that he was a Campaign Face to Watch

in 1995?).

CIA’s Grimmer admits he tried to hire him as a planning manager.

Michaelides and Bednash also came calling some 18 months ago and just

before the Rocket move, Harlow had been offered the job of strategic

planning director at Griffin Bacal.

Harlow hasn’t let this attention go to his head. He’s likable,

unpretentious and as down to earth as a genuine eccentric can be. But he

stubbornly refuses to consider the possibility of Rocket turning out to

be a damp squib. ’It’s right for its time,’ he says simply.

Others aren’t so sure. ’Rocket was a second-string operation to keep

Alan Brydon (Rocket’s managing director) happy and it will be a tough

job to try to refocus it,’ one media independent source says. ’I wonder

whether it will be able to attract the right sort of clients. I think

Harlow was better placed at New PHD.’

Predictably, Harlow is loath to disclose detailed early plans. There is

much bold talk of research initiatives, projects, one-off events and

forging different sorts of relationships to help clients build their


The true test of Rocket’s thrust factor will become clear in the months

ahead. But who’s to say Harlow’s not right about all this and that he

really has found a gap in the market? Third-wave media shop - you read

it here first.

The Harlow file

1990: FCO, media assistant

1993: AMV BBDO, media manager

1995: AMV, associate media director

1996: New PHD, director, creative communications

1997: Rocket, media director.

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