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."

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