MEDIA HEADLINER: BBC marketing chief strides through a political quagmire. Sue Farr has what it takes to survive at the top of the BBC Claire Beale reports.

I hate doing it. Truly I do. Because to focus on the physical can be quite an insult for a successful professional woman. But as any bald-headed, beer-bellied, barrel-chested bloke who has had his physical attributes paraded in this slot will testify, this isn’t a sex thing.

I hate doing it. Truly I do. Because to focus on the physical can

be quite an insult for a successful professional woman. But as any

bald-headed, beer-bellied, barrel-chested bloke who has had his physical

attributes paraded in this slot will testify, this isn’t a sex


Anyway, let’s face it, with Sue Farr the physical is impossible to


So we might as well get it out of the way right now. In the

male-dominated worlds of advertising and media, where paunches and

thinning hair rule the boardroom, Sue Farr is a bit of a goddess.

It’s not just the slim figure, the expensive coiffure, the floaty

scarves, exquisite suits and a general demeanour guaranteed to make the

rest of us feel slightly soiled. It’s also the poise and the elegance -

rare commodities indeed in media. And what she looks like does colour

the way Farr is viewed; no amount of Perfect Days or scaled professional

heights will change that.

So there you have it. Sue Farr is a very attractive lady. But since I

have another couple of columns to fill, it’s a bloody good job there is

a bit more to say about her. Not least that the woman has just been

given a shiny new promotion and one guaranteed to thrust her further

into the spotlight.

Farr has been handed responsibility for a new BBC division designed to

market its public service role. On the face of it, this seems like a

mere inch up the corporate ladder from her old rung of marketing and

communications director for BBC Broadcast.

But with the BBC’s entire public service status increasingly in

question, the importance of her new role must not be underestimated.

Farr will now head a revamped and expanded BBC marketing force -

beautifully entitled Shared Service in true Birtspeak style - which will

operate across all of the BBC’s publicly funded activities. Marketing

the core brand, promoting pan-BBC digital activity and co-ordinating

audience research all now fall to Farr and her team.

’The new arrangements will mean more effective, bigger-picture, holistic

brand communications,’ Farr explains. ’There is a real opportunity to

continue integrating marketing right across the BBC and the aim is to

deliver a cohesive message from the core brand and right across the

individual channels.’

Commercial rivals, of course, baulk at the idea of a well-marketed BBC

using the licence fee to promote its wares and snaffle audiences from

the commercial sector. Farr points out that there is a real need to show

the public what their money is being spent on. ’We’re just completing a

virtuous circle,’ she says. ’We are privileged to have the licence fee

but we have to say to people ’this is what your money is paying for’.

People are really positive that the BBC is talking to them


Some observers have seen the promotion as a triumph for Farr in an

internal battle for power against Jane Frost, the head of BBC corporate

marketing. Farr’s talent for empire-building, riding corporate politics

and, of course, damn good marketing initiatives have sent Frost spinning

to the sidelines, they say. Robin Wight, the chairman of WCRS, where

Farr was new-business director in the 80s, says he’s never been

surprised by Farr’s success at the BBC. ’In that political quagmire she

has the sensitivity and skill to contribute to enormous strategic issues

while coping with the various internal warring factions.’

But it wouldn’t be the first time she has played the corporate game and

won hands down. One former colleague describes Farr breezing in to

Thames Television in a brand new Mercedes and proceeding to sweep

through the company, building her own power-base, winning the ear of the

people who mattered and finding influential champions who have remained

loyal through the years.

The worst that is said about Farr is that she’s not the world’s greatest

marketer herself, that her skills lie more in knowing how to pick the

right team and engender in them an often fierce loyalty - and in knowing

how to bask in the glory of their work.

’I am incredibly proud of being able to attract and build a brilliant

team and the fact that these people want to come and work with me is

wonderful. But they wouldn’t want to come and work with me if they

didn’t think I had a damn fine marketing brain,’ Farr insists. She

would, of course, but then Robin Wight points out: ’On top of those

lovely legs sits a true Yorkshire brain.’ In fact, Wight definitely

deserves the last word for his description of Farr as ’a knee-buckling

combination of charm, glamour and intelligence’.


1986: WCRS, new-business director

1990: Thames TV, corporate communications director

1992: UK Gold, marketing director

1993: BBC Radio, head of marketing

1996: BBC Broadcast, director of marketing

1999: BBC, director of public service marketing.

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