Media Headliner: Robert Ray's youthful image belies experience

The Newspaper Society's new marketing director has the energy to push regional papers forward, Alasdair Reid writes.

According to sources at one of his former employers, Starcom Mediavest, Robert Ray keeps a portrait of himself in his attic. It's like the portrait of Oscar Wilde's fictional creation Dorian Gray. While he remains, to all outward appearances, unaffected by the passing of the years, the face in the painting is, we can only assume, increasingly ravaged."It's true," Jim Marshall, the chairman of Starcom UK Group, says. "He's the only person I know who gets younger each year - and, given that he looked 17 when I first met him, I'll bet he has trouble getting served in pubs."

The Peter Pan (or should that be Cliff Richard?) syndrome may be awkward under some circumstances but, on the other hand, it does mean that Ray can just about get away with some of his professed lifestyle choices.

His musical tastes, for instance. Ray insists that we reflect the eclectic nature of his listening and the fact that it embraces "old-school hip-hop". Or his hobbies. He tells us that he's really into "mountain boarding", a sport in which teenagers hurl themselves down the side of steepish hills on skateboards rigged out with oversized wheels. So much does he admire the cult clothing associated with the pastime that he has set up a website dedicated to the phenomenon. You get the feeling that when our photographer called, Ray had a tough time deciding whether he should wear a backwards baseball cap or not.

In most cases, all this sort of stuff in a 42-year-old would be indicative of a severe case of mid-life crisis - but, according to acquaintances, Ray's boundless energy and ingenuous enthusiasm mean he still seems well shy of mid-life.

What his new employers make of all of this should be interesting, though.

Actually, the cultural discontinuity won't be so great with his immediate employers, the Newspaper Society, but some of the society's constituent members, the regional newspaper publishing groups, still retain a notoriously cynical, old-fashioned worldview.

That said, the NS knows pretty much what it's getting. Ray's first contact with the society came when he offered it the services of his consultancy company, Robert Ray Associates. As a dialogue developed, the marketing director's role became vacant (Russell Collier having decided to move on) and the NS decided to cut to the chase and offer him the job.

It was the right opportunity at the right time for Ray - Robert Ray Associates, a media and marketing consultancy, while not exactly a failure, was hardly on its way to being the most successful marketing consultancy in town.

Launched almost exactly a year ago, the company had kept a low profile - and this was perhaps no accident.

In retrospect, this past year may come to seem almost like a gap year.

Back in 2000, Ray was a joint managing director of MediaVest UK, alongside Chris Locke - a classic planner-buyer duo. But with his future career path uncertain (the evergreen Marshall was his boss and a group restructure was in the offing), Ray jumped at the chance to head the specialist global business unit that the agency uses to service its Procter & Gamble client internationally.

Ray says he felt immensely privileged to be given such an important role on such an important client. "It was a tremendous opportunity to work upstream with a client such as P&G and I really love getting stuck in to big strategic issues," he explains. "I learned a hell of a lot. The UK is an advanced market in some respects but in others it can become parochial and introspective. I liked learning about different cultures."

What he didn't like so much was living out of a suitcase and the endless hours spent hanging about in airport departure lounges. There's only so much of that anyone can take and Ray felt that a change of gear was needed.

He could have continued with the organisation in a less itinerant mode, he says - but only if he had relocated, lock, stock and skateboard, to the US. For the sake of his children's education, he decided not to.

The next-best option was setting up on his own - though he admits he perhaps lacked the sort of over-inflated ego you need to really blow your own trumpet. Ray says that he will relish the opportunity to focus on a big, clearly defined challenge once more.

He says: "It's a wide brief. At its heart is a need to emphasise what the medium can deliver for national advertisers. In many respects the regional press is still not on the menu. In some ways that's down to a lack of understanding of the nature of the relationship regional newspapers have with their readers and the way they pull communities together. Perhaps, in the past, the way the medium has positioned itself has been too timid. Sometimes people don't appreciate what a massive medium this is."

But will the regionals take to him? They can be an awkward bunch to deal with and can so often pull in different directions.

Marshall thinks Ray will make an impact. "It's a good appointment," he says. "Robert has boundless energy and enthusiasm. He needs a proper focus for that. And, because he's constantly upbeat, some people miss the fact that he is actually very good at dealing with difficult people. Because he looks so young, they also forget that he has 20 years' experience. I suspect he will do a magnificent job."


Age: 42

Lives: Aldbury, near Watford

Family: Wife Sally, son Jonathan, 17, daughter Sophie, 14, son Calum, 10

Favourite ad: COI Child Road Safety

Describe yourself in three words: Down to earth

Most treasured possession: Montesa trials bike

Interests outside work: Mountain biking, keeping fit, music

Favourite regional newspaper: Yorkshire Post