Gordon MacMillan talks to the marketer whose looks don’t match up to his
Surely there’s some mistake? Am I at the wrong newspaper? The
overwhelming first impression of the marketing director, Stephen Palmer,
is that he can’t possibly work for the Guardian.
It is both his appearance (Hackett man to a stripe) and his demeanour
(seemingly practised cool nonchalance) that is reminiscent of all those
fine chaps at the Telegraph - the sort who like to hunt, fish and shoot
The point is - and everyone says it - that he does not look the part. He
appears to personify a young Tory MP, an Evelyn Waugh Englishman or a
young fogey. Not the Guardian. But as Mark Jones, the IPC sports
publisher, puts it: ‘He is very deceptive. There lurks underneath a
wildly anarchic personality very in tune with the philosophy of the
For while Palmer’s pinstripes don’t look as if they would bend,
apparently they do in the pub. Palmer likes a beer or two, Davies says,
along with anything to do with football. But according to the Network’s
Paul Mukherjee, it has to be cricket and beer.
It has been a busy time for Palmer. The Guardian and the Observer are
changing faster than a set of traffic lights - new editors, new writers,
old sections go, new sections arrive, more new sections arrive backed by
a greatly increased marketing budget. Last week, the Observer launched a
new marketing drive - complete with an ad campaign - to herald the
arrival of a new magazine, the Tiddler.
But it’s OK. Palmer, so people say, knows what he is doing, which he
really should as he has been with the Guardian group for almost a
The reality is that Palmer is enjoying himself. He gets a buzz from the
frenetic pace of newspapers.
He may have been at the Guardian since Neil Kinnock made his first
abortive attempt for Number 10, but it was only earlier this spring that
the board pulled out the big chair and beckoned young Palmer to take a
seat, following the departure of his boss, David Brook, to Channel 5
The industry feeling is that the chair fits very well. But this is not
an industry that allows you to be comfortable for long. It moves too
quickly and makes formidable demands of those who wish to play, lest you
end up in the dustbin like a Today, a Sunday Correspondent or a News on
To see this, Palmer says, one only has to look at the Independent.
‘Newspapers are products you can never really get on top of. When you
feel that you have, they change. Look at the Independent - it felt that
it had got it right at one point around ’89/’90, but it did not move on
and now it is in big trouble because of that.’
The Independent did almost have it right, and it almost had the Guardian
as well - coming as close as 4,000 copies at one stage. The gap is now a
respectable 130,000 copies, an achievement which owes more than a little
to the Brook/Palmer partnership.
Another example is the Observer - the paper that looked at one stage as
though it was holding an ongoing farewell party for its readers,
sluggishly waving them off in their tens of thousands each week.
Palmer admits that the Guardian did not realise how much trouble the
Observer was in. ‘I think if we did anything it was to under-estimate
the degree of distress the Observer was in as a brand. There has been a
steep learning curve.’
Steep? The Guardian has gone from offering the Observer a pair of
crutches, arguably not much use to a paper barely alive, to the full-
blown, Six-Million-Dollar-Man ‘we can rebuild you...’ treatment.
The task is a long way from over, Palmer concedes. ‘Turning a Sunday
newspaper around is like trying to turn an oil supertanker around,’ he
says. ‘It takes time. We know that we are going in the right direction.
It will be a long process.’
The paper is, however, turning and Palmer must take some of the credit,
Ceri Davies, an account director at Mediastar, says. ‘He spends all the
hours God gives in the office to get it right. He’s a great champion and
marketer of the brand. He could market the Telegraph, or the Sun for
that matter, just as easily.’
Market any paper he might well be able to do, but he could right now be
marketing trips to the Costa del whatever. In 1987, Palmer was being
interviewed at Thomson Holidays by a Mr David Brook, shortly before he
was to leave for the Guardian. Brook didn’t offer him the job.
‘I thought Stephen was exceptionally bright and talented. So I didn’t
offer him the Thomson job because I thought he would be much better at
the Guardian,’ Brook says. Palmer is, it seems, the man who was in the
right place at the right time.
The Palmer file
1986 Viking Radio, DJ
1987 Guardian, marketing assistant
1988 Guardian, marketing executive
1990 Guardian, marketing manager
1996 Guardian, marketing director