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.

John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing

Other places that have held independence referendums
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding
musicThe singer said 'the last thing I want to do is degrade'

footballThe latest scores and Twitter updates from tonight’s games, featuring Bayern Munich vs Man City and Chelsea vs Schalke
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
newsThe 'extremely dangerous' attempt to avoid being impounded has been heavily criticised
peopleThe Times of India said actress should treat it as a 'compliment'
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

It scooped up an unprecedented 11 Academy Awards when it was first remade in 1959


Watch this commuter wage a one-man war against the Circle Line
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
lifeShould we feel guilty about keeping cats inside?
Life and Style

Olympic diver has made his modelling debut for Adidas

Arts and Entertainment
Toby Jones (left) and Mackenzie Crook in BBC4’s new comedy The Detectorists
tvMackenzie Crook's 'Detectorists' makes the hobby look 'dysfunctional', they say
Arts and Entertainment
Maxine Peake plays Hamlet at Manchester's Royal Exchange
theatreReview: Maxine Peake brings emotional ferocity to Shakespeare's starring part
10 best table lamps
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Trainee Recruitment Consultant Birmingham

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Comission: SThree: The SThree group is a world lea...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Real Staffing

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Real Staffing are currently lo...

Recruitment Consultant - Soho - IT, Pharma, Public Sector

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35,000 first year: SThree: The SThree group i...

Sales Executive

£20 - 24k (Uncapped Commission - £35k Year 1 OTE): Guru Careers: We are seekin...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week