Peter McCullough: A real wheeler dealer

As the new head of Auto Trader Interactive, Peter McCullough is determined to get to know his customers, right down to tracking their every mouse click.
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The Independent Online

So there you are, happily browsing on the Net for your dream car, whether it's an Aston Martin, a Lotus Elise or an old banger. Little did you realise that one man is watching your every move: Peter McCullough, the new head of Auto Trader Interactive, which operates the UK's biggest motoring website.

So there you are, happily browsing on the Net for your dream car, whether it's an Aston Martin, a Lotus Elise or an old banger. Little did you realise that one man is watching your every move: Peter McCullough, the new head of Auto Trader Interactive, which operates the UK's biggest motoring website.

"I am aiming to know every single car that a customer clicks on," says McCullough, who already sifts 3.5 million site searches a month, and is about to invest in technology which will give him capacity to sort through up to 50 million customer actions and transactions.

"Every time someone does a search, we log it away and we've got millions to analyse. We are looking to tell advertisers how many times their car came up in a shortlist, how many times it was looked up by individuals who didn't make contact. We can then feedback car by car. We're also looking at patterns of behaviour to provide constructive feedback for e-commerce-related activities."

Auto Trader is better known for its 13 regional classified magazines, but the website (www.autotrader.co.uk), which was launched in 1996, now forms the core of a new media business that is rapidly beating the magazines at their own game with 21 million page impressions in one month alone.

McCullough, 43, already pulls in a third of the revenues that the magazines attract and is ambitious to move up the league table, but he concedes that he has had a little help from his friends. "Auto Trader recently launched a £10m marketing campaign, and if we were just a motoring website without the magazines that cost would have crippled us."

McCullough came to sales relatively late. Starting out as a biology teacher, he taught himself to program using a ZX80 computer. "I wrote software to teach my students some of the things I couldn't teach practically, like modelling genetics. That led to my wife saying: 'If you like computers so much why don't you go and work for IBM?' I went in as a systems engineer and used to help the salesmen, which is how I moved into sales."

Working at weekends to complete an MBA at Warwick University over four years, he was spotted by the systems company Kalamazoo, which hired him and later asked him to head up Answer, a software house it had acquired.

"Trying to motivate developers and helpdesk people was completely alien," he recalls. "We used to get into strategy meetings about where a project needed to go, and I could clearly articulate the sales reasons but then would get a barrage of all these technical reasons why it couldn't be done.

"One evening, frustrated, I went away and wrote a program of how it could be done. I came back the next day and threw it at the developers. That led to an opening up and I got a healthy respect. I had written websites of my own which they ribbed me about, but at least I understood."

Before coming to Auto Trader, McCullough was careful to vet the team that ran what is now the Trader Media Group. He bluntly informed them they couldn't survive as a used car site but needed a direct sales force and a relationship with dealers rather than merely taking photos from the magazines. "I was testing them out to see if they were the sorts of visionaries I wanted to work with," he says. "After I had told them all this, they revealed they were playing devil's advocate, and were weeks away from launching a new site."

McCullough has outsourced a redesign of the site to the agency Circle, asking them to produce a navigation method which allows customers to access the page they want with a single click. "We have had a reputation for being reasonably fast and we play with that at our peril. We have evolved more and more functionality and nobody has been brave enough to say: 'Hold on, let's go back'. There's a lot of 'if it's not broke, don't fix it', but sooner or later you have to challenge your designs."

He plans to split the site into four main channels - cars, bikes, commercial vehicles, leisure vehicles - and to personalise and improve the quality of information by adding all possible details to adverts. "We want to start preparing that ground because ultimately our market is about owning the end customer, about putting the vehicles they want in front of them and getting a response."

And at the advertisers' end, he is not content simply to source vehicles and sell banner ads. "We are starting to say: 'We will put your cars up for nothing but when we pass on a sales lead we want some money'. With one dealer group we are going a stage further and saying :'We won't charge you for the sales leads but we will charge you if you sell the car'. Ultimately, I think that's where the market will go because it's very compelling, but it will take 12 to 36 months. You need quality photos and a big audience."

Last November, McCullough launched a digital television operation and was "staggered" by the number of users - 15 per cent of Auto Trader's total traffic. He anticipates TV will overtake the Net, but is less hopeful about Wireless Application Protocol. "You can't get a decent photo on there and it's difficult to use, but if we are not there offering a service we won't be on the major portals."

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