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

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
AKB48 perform during one of their daily concerts at Tokyo’s Akihabara theatre
musicJapan's AKB48 are one of the world’s most-successful pop acts
News
Ian Thorpe has thanked his supporters after the athlete said in an interview that he is gay
people
News
The headstone of jazz great Miles Davis at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York
news
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll has brought out his female alter-ego Agnes Brown for Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie
filmComedy holds its place at top of the UK box office
News
newsBear sweltering in zoo that reaches temperatures of 40 degrees
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Kathy Willis will showcase plants from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
radioPlants: From Roots to Riches has been two years in the making
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
TV The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
Arts and Entertainment
Eminem's daughter Hailie has graduated from high school
music
Arts and Entertainment
Original Netflix series such as Orange Is The New Black are to benefit from a 'substantial' increase in investment
TVHoax announcement had caused outrage
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

News
One Direction star Harry Styles who says he has no plans to follow his pal Cara Delevingne down the catwalk.
peopleManagement confirms rumours singer is going it alone are false
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows, Network Security)

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows...

Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Directory, ITIL, Reuter)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Dire...

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?