Adman Bill Muirhead is living the dream twice over
He has been at the top of UK advertising for four decades but is still batting for his beloved old home, South Australia
Thursday 05 December 2013
Bill Muirhead has not one but two dream jobs. The dapper Australian-born Mad Man has been at the top of UK advertising for four decades as one of the earliest recruits at Maurice and Charles Saatchi’s advertising agency – he is still an executive director on the board of M&C Saatchi.
Mr Muirhead has had a second string to his bow since 2007, as he is the Agent General for South Australia in London. It means he serves as an official cheerleader for his home state, where he grew up knowing grand media families like the Murdochs. The job even comes with a diplomatic passport.
we meet at the Australia Centre in London, where he has managed to bring an ad man’s eye to the offices, which have been given a makeover with brightly coloured sofas and retro Sixties-style furniture.
“I thought it would be nice to give something back,” says Mr Muirhead, a well-preserved 67-year-old, explaining why he agreed to take the role after the premier of South Australia approached him.
Being a Soho ad man, he has a knack for mischief. Earlier this year, when there was the scandal about horsemeat being used in British burgers, he caused a diplomatic kerfuffle when he told Australians: “Until UK authorities are able to ensure integrity of supply, you may wish to restrict consumption... to guaranteed Australian-only sources.”
Mr Muirhead came up with a more media-friendly stunt two years ago – a competition aimed at young Britons who wanted to work in Australia. Jobs included being a “kangaroo poo” harvester and a beer taster in a brewery. His job doesn’t just involve glad-handing and talking about the latest Ashes Test in Adelaide this week, although he offers a bottle of tasty Coopers Brewery Original Pale Ale and a delightful Shaw and Smith sauvignon blanc from the Adelaide Hills.
He explains, with surprising earnestness, how he is banging the drum for foreign investment in everything from defence to mining. FTSE 100 firms BAE Systems and BHP Billiton have big operations in South Australia. Business with China may be booming but the UK and Europe are worth roughly 50 per cent of trade for South Australia, despite the soaring Aussie dollar after 22 years of economic growth.
He wants to support his home state over rivals such as New South Wales and Queensland. “Although we’re all part of the whole, we do compete with each other,” he says, conceding South Australia has suffered an “identity problem” as some outsiders knew little about it.
“I firmly believe awareness creates preference and that should equal a sale,” says Mr Muirhead, explaining how he has tackled the issue like an ad brief. “If no one’s heard of you, you won’t get any preference and you certainly won’t get a sale.” So this year he helped to commission a new logo in the shape of South Australia, with a welcoming door in the centre and the message: “Open The Door To Australia.”
Mr Muirhead came to London in his teens. “When I left, I thought I’d be back soon. But then I met the Saatchi brothers when I was 23.” He fell into advertising because he felt he wasn’t good enough at maths to do architecture and got to know the Saatchis and fellow ad man Tim Bell because “we used to hang out in the same pubs and chase the same girls”.
Those early days of Saatchi & Saatchi were thrilling as it became the toast of adland. One of his first accounts was the Daily Mail, when he would sit in on editorial meetings with David English, the then editor. “It was the real Mad Men days for newspapers too. I always felt with journalism you had an opportunity to influence people more than anything else.”
The golden years, with the celebrated “Labour Isn’t Working” poster for the Tories and work for Silk Cut cigarettes and British Airways, came to a halt in the late Eighties when the Saatchi brothers’ ambitions went too far, culminating in a doomed tilt at buying Midland Bank. New rivals such as WPP, led by former Saatchi finance director Martin Sorrell, were on the rise. “Sometimes I think maybe we were not opportunistic enough,” says Mr Muirhead wistfully.
Charles and Maurice lost control, prompting them to found a breakaway, M&C Saatchi, in 1995 with three other partners: creative director Jeremy Sinclair, cheery chief executive David Kershaw and account man Mr Muirhead.
Despite the five being of equal standing, the self-effacing Australian felt a bit like a spare part – even now, he signs off emails to his fellow partners as “Pete”. That’s a reference to Pete Best, the fifth Beatle.
M&C Saatchi is a small independent, with none of the grandiose ambitions of Saatchi & Saatchi, and yet it is a sweet set-up for the four remaining partners (Charles sold up to spend time with his art collection).
The agency is listed on the stock market and is worth £225m, with each of the four founders owning close to 7 per cent, and the group pays handsome dividends and bonuses.
Only last week, they got a £36m windfall by selling a majority stake in media-buying subsidiary Walker Media to French giant Publicis Groupe.
Some wonder if this could be a prelude to M&C Saatchi merging with Saatchi & Saatchi, which is owned by Publicis. Maurice Saatchi said in 2010 he thought it would happen one day “probably after I’m gone” and it would certainly make sense to end the confusion of having two rival Saatchi agencies. “Wouldn’t that be a lovely dream,” Mr Muirhead muses.
“If I had any regrets about my life it’s that we didn’t do M&C Saatchi any sooner. It has been the happiest period of my life. I love my partners and I think that’s reciprocated.”
As he looks to the wider industry, the quality of traditional press, TV and poster advertising is “a little bit disappointing” these days. But there are “some very creative things being done” in mobile and production, enthuses Mr Muirhead, who has three grown-up sons with wife Jeanne.
With his Aussie hat on, he is busy organising the South Australia Club, a business networking club in London, and he makes clear retirement is not on the agenda at M&C Saatchi.
But what about making way for some of the executives who have spent years, even decades, loyally working underneath the partners? “They’ll just have to wait,” says Mr Muirhead, who is having too much fun to give up two dream jobs.
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