Media: Who will buy the Dome?

Sholto Douglas-Home is a man with a mission. But, amid public scepticism and press hostility, is it an impossible one? By Helen Jones
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The Independent Culture
YOU MIGHT be forgiven for thinking that Sholto Douglas-Home has got it all. He was conceived in Frank Sinatra's home and old Blue Eyes was his godfather. His wedding was featured in Tatler and his Chelsea home has graced the pages of Hello! His great-uncle Alec Douglas-Home was prime minister, Diana, Princess of Wales was his second cousin, Michael Howard is his stepfather. The list of connections goes on and on, and for all we know his pet pony may well have been Red Rum.

He's also got potentially the worst job in Britain - he is the marketing and communications director for the Millennium Dome.

Douglas-Home is on secondment from BT, where he was head of advertising and controlled a budget worth an estimated pounds 100m a year. He admits he has taken a huge gamble and that he approached the Millennium job "with a degree of trepidation" but adds: "As each day goes by, I'm more and more reassured by the quality of the people here, their complete dedication and enthusiasm and their ability to ignore the inaccurate, mischievous and potentially demoralising stories that seem to be put around about the Dome."

His task is a daunting one. With an ad budget of pounds 30m he has to sell at least 12 million tickets in the face of public scepticism and press hostility. "On the one hand it's a fantastic opportunity, but on the other we have very little time and it's a very pressured environment in the full public eye. It's a fantastic job but not the easiest thing in the world," he says.

So is he up to it? Richard Hytner, the managing director of the ad agency Publicis, who has worked closely with him in the past, says: "He's a class act and, given his background, he's not daunted by anyone or anything." Jeremy Miles, the board account director at BT's ad agency, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, says, "He's very good at avoiding pitfalls", while another source adds: "He's a huge name-dropper and loves mingling with the great and the good, but he's also very sharp and adept at company politics."

This political guile is likely to stand him in good stead. Stephen Bayley, who resigned last year as creative director of the Millennium Dome, says in Labour Camp, his vitriolic account of his days there: "It was not run like the creative business it was intended to be but as a tightly controlled function of government." The politically astute Douglas-Home remains tight- lipped: "I don't want to talk about that." Nor will he be drawn on potential sponsors. "That is the commercial director's area but we are getting close to pounds 120m worth of sponsorship - double the amount ever raised in this country before."

However, he is very keen to talk about how the Dome is perceived abroad. "The international press interest is staggering and there is a realisation that no one else is doing anything on this scale." In a bid to get British newspapers "on side", the New Millennium Experience Company (NMEC) is holding monthly press briefings to present the positive aspects of the project.

Douglas-Home is confident the public can be won over, despite a recent Gallup poll for The Daily Telegraph suggesting that three- quarters of the public have no intention of visiting the Dome and that two-thirds believe it is a waste of money. "There are certain myths that need to be destroyed. One is that the Dome is being built with money that should go to hospitals. As everyone knows, National Lottery money is not used to pay for state-funded initiatives like the National Health. And [other polls say] it's a very small number - less than 20 per cent - who have no intention of coming."

NMEC will run its first campaign this Christmas through the ad agency M&C Saatchi. The ads won't feature the Dome at all but are intended to be inspiring. "We want to communicate that the Millennium is a catalyst for change, not a big party. People haven't quite grasped the fact the new Millennium only comes round once every 40 generations and that we are privileged to be part of it," he says.

The second phase of his marketing strategy will run from January to July and will focus on the national programme of events which will take place to celebrate the Millennium rather than on the Dome. Only in the third phase, when tickets go on sale next October, will the Dome feature in advertising, by which time Douglas-Home may have more idea of what is actually in it. He promises that the Dome will "be like nothing you have ever seen before and nothing you will ever see again" but won't give further details because "we want to keep an element of surprise".

He believes the fever of anticipation that the ad campaign intends to build will bring in more than the target of 12 million people. "There will always be moaners and whingers but I think the British public will embrace it and be proud that we built it," he says.