Marketing: Millwall's image makers run riot

Can a former governor of the BBC, a film industry bigwig, and a clutch of other media folk transform the reputation of English football's most notorious club? By Raymond Snoddy

Old reputations die hard. The driver who arrives to take me to Millwall Football Club to meet the new bosses and see the Lions play Brentford is a former boxing champion, ex-Marine commando and qualified bodyguard.

It's nice to know the car hire firm has my safety at interest.

"I always get the Millwall-style jobs," says Roy "The Boy" Snell, sat behind the wheel of his reinforced BMW. He once had "that nice young man" Dennis Wise, the former Lions manager, in the back of his cab.

In fact Snell doesn't follow football but his presence reflects the fearsome and lingering reputation of Old Millwall - with its shadows of violence and racism and fans who defiantly sing "No one likes us - we don't care".

This season, though, the club is being run by a couple of media types who are working to transform its image. At the helm is Heather Rabbatts, a barrister on the board of the Bank of England and a former governor of the BBC. Her club chairman Stewart Till, a Millwall fan since the age of eight, is chairman of the UK Film Council and chairman and chief executive of United International Pictures.

The plan is to use feature film-style advertising to encapsulate the "realness" of the Millwall experience, enticing not just the lapsed fans back but new inhabitants from local luxury apartment blocks and the towers of Canary Wharf.

Rabbatts hopes "investors, people in the City" will soon be saying: "I've seen that campaign. That's quite interesting." She says: "It's about getting a different conversation going around that Millwalll is a different place to what you expect."

She says she hopes Millwall-supporting cab drivers will be inspired to "sell" Millwall to their City passengers, including "some of my colleagues in the Bank of England who say 'I've just noticed this poster'."

The last trouble at Millwall was four years ago, a full-blown riot that injured 50 police officers and several horses.

This season New Millwall has launched a marketing and advertising campaign to attract fans. It has been accused of trying to foster "a family-friendly" image at The New Denbut Stewart Till, sitting in the directors' lounge before last week's game against Brentford, says this is too simplistic.

"The marketing doesn't say 'bring your family to Millwall'. It doesn't say 'come and have a free teddy bear'. It says 'home of real football, real talent, real passion'," he says.

Across the lounge from Till is the former director-general of the BBC, Greg Dyke, who is now the Brentford chairman.

It's a battle of the media luvvies, the intensity of which is heightened by the fact that Millwall are one off the bottom of League One, after relegation last season. Days earlier Till sacked manager Nigel Spackman, after only 12 weeks in the job, "by mutual consent", following five losses in a row.

Against this background, the Millwall marketing campaign has launched poster advertisements with atmospheric black and white images of players Lenny Pidgeley, Darren Byfield and Filipe Morais produced by Empire Design, better known for film posters and trailers.

Till believes the campaign, designed to reposition Millwall "in terms of profile and reputation", is working. Recent home attendances were better than they would otherwise have been given the results.

Rod Liddle, splenetic columnist, former editor of the Radio 4 Today programme and "fanatical" Millwall fan, believes it would be a mistake to try to turn Millwall into "a sort of cut-price Charlton", referring to Charlton Athletic, the family-oriented club across south London.

"What you don't want to do is to replace the image of Millwall, which is one of hostility, pride and belligerence. Frankly, your fellow supporters do not give a flying fuck for anyone else in the league or any sort of political correctness," says Liddle, arguing that the club's branding should "make us iconoclastic - we are iconoclastic."

Another Millwall fan, Ben Preston, deputy editor of The Times, approves of what Till and Rabbatts are trying to do. "The ad campaign won't make Millwall Cameron-fashionable but it's clever because it amplifies a truth - Millwall is raw and raucous, football as it should be, passionate without a prawn sandwich in sight," he says.

He recently took a friend's 10-year-old son to his first game - and he was "utterly spellbound" by the crowd, the noise and the swearing. "If only the team was as captivating," notes Preston.

Against Brentford they are - at least for considerable periods. Unlucky to go one-down, Millwall stick at it and midfielder Alan Dunne equalises. Till jumps to his feet, both arms in the air. As Millwall hit the bar and then have an effort cleared off the line it is Dyke's turn to go quiet.

The home fans, perhaps oblivious to the rebranding attempts, sing "No one likes us - we don't care" and Till rolls his eyes.

In injury time Brentford miss a sitter and Millwall earn a deserved point in front of a crowd of 7,600. "Encouraging" is the directors' verdict, and they say the passion was definitely there.

Rabbatts, who became interested in football through her husband, Mike Lee, who has worked for the Premiership and Uefa, is now Millwall's executive deputy chairman and effectively chief executive. She was hired because she knew not only about media and talent but about regeneration. Millwall has a big regeneration plan.

"Football is compelling, the most talked about topic, the national conversation," says Rabbatts, who believes that, compared with turning round Lambeth Council, running Millwall is easy. She says she has found the fans very welcoming.

Rabbatts, who sits on the Film Council board, was asked if she knew anyone who could become club chairman - and she turned to Till. They hope to consolidate Millwall's position in the league and then push for promotion, one day to the Premiership.

Plans for the area around the ground include a sports city and hotel, commercial premises and housing in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics. "But the one thing we are not trying to do is become a corporate club. It's all about maintaining the maverick, passionate spirit," Rabbatts says.

Phil Hall, the former editor of the News of the World who handles Millwall's PR, believes the challenge is enormous because Millwall reflects old and new south-east London. Canary Wharf is just over the stands.

"The challenge for them is to bring Millwall down the road and join it up with London Bridge and make it the most glamorous club in south London. It is doable," says Hall.

So what does Dyke make of Millwall's initiative? "I think that the idea that football should start marketing itself makes sense, yes. It's the most unsophisticated business in the world. But in the end it's about whether you win or not."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
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 Media

Savvy Media Ltd: Media Sales executive - Crawley

£25k + commission + benefits: Savvy Media Ltd: Find a job you love and never h...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Printing Trainee / Computer Graphics

£8000 - £13000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have an interest in compu...

Recruitment Genius: Content / Copy Writer

£18000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has bec...

Reach Volunteering: Trustee with experience in science communication

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: The Society for Expe...

Day In a Page

In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

The young are the new poor

Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

Greens on the march

‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

Through the stories of his accusers
Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

The Meaning of Mongol

Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible