GEOFFREY KENT was one of the first advertising men to rise to the top of a major UK company. He joined Imperial Tobacco as advertising manager of John Player at the age of 38. He rose to chairman and chief executive of what had become Imperial Group, but it proved too late, and at the age of 64 he saw it taken over and broken up by Hanson.
Advertising has always been the battle-ground of the cigarette wars, and Kent started in the business at Colman, Prentis & Varley, one of the most creative of post-war advertising agencies. Successfully crossing to the client's side, he learnt his marketing in such good schools as Johnson and Johnson before arriving at the Victorian offices of John Player, where the original portrait of the sailor and the lifebelt still gazed down at visitors.
He had been brought in to transform an ancient brand, and in so doing helped to transform an ancient company. Always an accurate judge of advertising, he demanded the highest standards in both concept and execution. Starting with one assistant, he put together a state-of-the-art marketing department of a kind then rare in the UK. His greatest triumph was the launch of Players No 6 which rapidly became the country's best-selling cigarette.
Another success was to prove more controversial. He was the first to see the possibilities offered by the large-scale sponsorship of sport. His support of Colin Chapman's Team Lotus led to the transformation of motor racing. It made the black and gold JPS cars familiar on the motor-racing circuits of the world, and later on its television screens. But it played its part in the current dominance of the British motor-racing industry and British drivers. Nigel Mansell was one of many to drive for JPS Team Lotus.
Kent's last years at John Player as chairman were particularly happy, as he presided over what in many ways was his own creation. Moved to take over Courage, Imperial's diversification into brewing, he found himself once more faced with the task of transforming an ancient organisation. Again he brought in new talent from outside the industry and in three years had things moving in the direction he had planned.
It was then that he took over as chairman of the whole Imperial Group, which now spanned tobacco, brewing and food with modest central control. The task that faced him was immense but Philip Morris in the US had shown that it was not impossible. Unfortunately time was against him, as was the US wing of the group, the ill-fated Howard Johnson chain. Predators were circling and Hanson's takeover succeeded.
The organisation which he had served no longer exists. But many of the brands he built survive. He might well have retired but he started all over again. Already a director of Lloyds Bank, he took on a number of directorships in the Nottingham area and in 1989 became the happily active chairman of Mansfield Brewery.
His main outside interest was flying. He had gone to France with the RAF in 1940 and after an adventurous return journey he served in coastal command for the rest of the war. He never lost his enthusiasm for the air and his many peacetime adventures in single-engined aircraft culminated in his taking delivery of his own Mooney in the US and heading for home single-handed across the Atlantic. As in so much of his life, he reached his objective.
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