Monday Interview: Sites set on a roller-poster success story

The boss of More O'Ferrall talks to Mathew Horsman about his enthusiasm for selling the great outdoors
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The Independent Online
Next to television, radio, and even dear old newspapers, the outdoor advertising market strikes most outsiders as, well, dull and old-fashioned. Its image of man on a ladder with paste and brush hardly inspires the breathlessness with which media-mad investors pant hungrily over the likes of the Internet or satellite television.

Perhaps they have not met Roger Parry, 43, the ex-journalist chief executive of leading outdoor advert company More O'Ferrall, and a compelling preacher of the attractions of bus shelters and billboards.

Coming away from an encounter with Mr Parry, one is suddenly struck by how many adverts there are in the street - on buildings, on billboards and, More O'Ferrall's specialism, on bus shelters. "Outdoors sells," Mr Parry sums up, in the epitome of the soundbite.

The company has 30,000 of its trademark Adshel shelters installed, and has plans to expand further in the UK, Ireland, Europe and further overseas, where it is eyeing fast-growing markets such as Thailand and Malaysia. "A lot of our growth will come from outside the UK," Mr Parry says, revealing a target of pounds 100m in sales, up from last year's pounds 87m.

Certainly Mr Parry has given investors something to be cheerful about since he formally became chief executive in February. The shares have roared ahead from the 470p level to more than 660p, fuelled by a strong recovery in the company's financial performance and the prospects of further growth.

The City credits Mr Parry with having awakened the rather staid company, which for years had a reputation that even insiders conceded as sleepy, even if it had a stellar portfolio of sites and lucrative contracts with transport authorities and local councils.

The changes he has wrought have been subtle. A revamped office environment, reducing the palatial dimensions of his predecessor's extensive lair, is perhaps the most obvious alteration. Mr Parry has also had an Adshel- festooned shelter installed on the ground floor, "to tell visitors and to remind staff exactly what it is we do", he says. Under Russell Gore- Andrews, his somewhat stolid predecessor, "there was no sign that we were an outdoor advertising company."

He has also hastened the development of a new computer system to track and monitor sites. "We can now tell clients how many sites nationwide are within 50 feet of a NatWest bank branch, for example, or how to reach young people by advertising outside clubs and cinemas." More O'Ferrall has also pioneered the use of bar codes on sites, as a way of keeping tabs on poster campaigns.

Such changes have started to give media buyers more confidence in the poster business. Mr Parry expects that forecasts of reasonably good consumer spending growth, coupled with outdoor advertising's more dynamic reputation among advertisers and agencies, will drive the business in the future.

He is nearly messianic on outdoor's attractions. "We need to show advertisers that we can be as effective as television," he says. Outdoor campaigns are perfect, he claims, for reaching a mass audience for new product launches. But more targeted campaigns can also be accommodated, through careful selection of sites.

To the likely relief of environmentalists, he is dead against relaxed rules about outdoor advertising in the countryside, which the Government is contemplating. "The last thing we want is an uncontrolled proliferation of outdoor sites," he says. "It devalues the medium."

Mr Parry was a credible, if not completely predictable candidate for the top job. A graduate of Bristol University, he spent a summer working as personal assistant to Charles and Maurice Saatchi, his first taste of advertising, before completing his studies at Oxford. A career in journalism saw him specialise in business, a grounding that stiffened an already strong entrepreneurial bent. In 1982, while still a working journalist, he helped launch an unsuccessful bid for the LBC radio franchise in London.

Two years later, he tried to convince the Government to sell British Rail's Slough-to-Windsor line to a consortium he helped fashion. Speaking recently at his Golden Square offices in Soho, next door to the new, lavish Saatchi brothers' headquarters, he concedes that his rail privatisation bid came "10 years too early".

Like so many other soon-to-be corporate executives, Mr Parry used a stint at a management consultancy, McKinsey, as the bridge to the business world, joining advertising company WCRS (later Aegis) after four years as a consultant. The City got to know him as the calming public face of Aegis in the UK, at the time when the French-owned group was fumbling badly.

He spent a critical three years in the early 1990s convincing City investors that Aegis could survive, despite the nearly disastrous acquisition binge that ended several careers in 1992.

"One of the lessons of Aegis was that focus brought success," Mr Parry says. "The original company was a super- market which we decided needed to focus on being solely a media buyer, with the goal of becoming Europe's leader." He went on to concentrate on radio, the country's fastest-growing advertising medium, and was part of the group that successfully bid for the LBC franchise in 1993.

Mr Parry and his partners sold out to Reuters, although he has maintained his interest through a non-executive directorship at Golden Rose, owners of the Jazz FM station.

Head-hunted in 1995, he says he immediately saw the need for focus at More O'Ferrall. While other companies might look to diversify into other media, Mr Parry says he will stay with what the company does best. "We don't need to be some full-service company. If shareholders want to invest in other media, they can do it. They don't need me to do it for them."

So Mr Parry will stick to the more prosaic task of growing the outdoor business, organically and through acquisition. He puts a big emphasis on research and responsiveness to clients, and is eager to trial new formats such as flat-screen TVs in bus shelters.

His enthusiasm shows. But does he miss journalism? "Sure, I miss the adrenalin and the risk - having to get it finished by 9pm. I also miss the level of access: we could and did talk directly to people in industry."

Now that he is one of those people in industry, he seems content to stay where he is. Ten years ago, he said he wanted to be the chief executive of a plc by the time he was 40. Having just about done it (he was 42 when appointed), he says "this is all fantastic fun. If it goes wrong, I'll have only myself to blame."

The only goal these days is to get it right. "We just aim to be the best outdoor advertising company in the world."