Aman who used to run the Tea Council being asked to take over Channel 4? That's about as likely as dried noodles becoming sexy. The controversial station that began as an arty enclave and has slid downmarket but up the ratings with the likes of Big Brother has always been managed by television grandees. So it was a huge surprise last week when Andy Duncan - who doubled the turnover of the SuperNoodles brand with an advertising campaign aimed at the young, fashionable and hungry - was hired as the new chief executive of Channel 4.
He is the first holder of that office not to have a distinguished track record in programme making: previous incumbents have included Jeremy Isaacs, Michael Grade and the new director-general of the BBC, Mark Thompson. Andy - it's never Andrew - Duncan is joining from the BBC, where he has been director of marketing and lately lauded for the success of the Freeview digital service. But before moving into television three years ago he was a senior marketer for Unilever, managing its foods and beverages division.
In his time at the company he marketed Flora, Olivio, I Can't Believe It's Not Butter and PG Tips. But when he joined the corporation he told BBC colleagues he was most proud of his work for mushy peas and SuperNoodles. He even received an industry award for the noodle campaigns, after taking the brand to an unprecedented turnover of £40m.
Ordinarily, achievements in the advertising breaks would escape the notice of television bosses - but the chairman of Channel 4, appointed in January, is the former Pizza Express entrepreneur Luke Johnson.
Educated at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, where he gained a BSc in management sciences, Mr Duncan is studiedly anti-corporate in the way of some modern managers. He'll often start a meeting by "opening up" with a personal anecdote - someone in his team recalls him relating a tale about his daughter's hamster - before getting down to business.
He famously refuses to wear suits at the BBC, eliciting complaints from some of the stuffier members of the executive committee. Only once since he joined the corporation in summer 2001 has Mr Duncan been spotted in formal garb, when dressed for a black-tie dinner. The rest of the time he has stuck to his trademark jeans and sweatshirts. One BBC insider says: "It's his way of saying you don't have to have a traditional management style to be successful."
Unusually for the BBC, Mr Duncan also shunned consultants, preferring to use the "good people" he felt he already had working for him and encouraging them to roll their sleeves up and get on with things. Likewise, he favours face-to-face contact rather than the endless emails that can dominate internal communication in a large organisation.
Some colleagues who worked with Mr Duncan during his 17-year career at Unilever, where he climbed from management trainee to head of a European division worth €2bn, reckon he was the best manager they ever had. The retiring Unilever chairman Niall FitzGerald was among several high-profile business leaders, including former BBC director-general Greg Dyke, to heap praise on Mr Duncan this week. "He's good with people, he leads teams well and he has a very open and informal style," said Mr FitzGerald.
But, as with the suits, Mr Duncan can display a degree of inflexibility in the single-minded manner in which he tackles a task. "He'll say come and talk to me about anything, but I think that's a style," says one BBC insider. Another is more positive, before suggesting Mr Duncan's innate enthusiasm for his job can make him very hands on. "He's very good at letting people get on with things where he knows he doesn't have strong expertise. But sometimes he gets so excited about something you have to tell him to calm down."
Mr Duncan has clashed with other senior directors at the BBC who didn't always agree with his marketing priorities. The news division particularly felt it didn't benefit from Mr Duncan's innovative approach. Greg Dyke calls him "a great leader of people" but a former colleague says: "He doesn't waste his time with people, feeling there'll always be some who don't agree with him. He's difficult to argue against and although he's inclusive he is always very sure of what he wants to do."
Mr Dyke hired Mr Duncan into television from the world of consumer goods because he was a "heavyweight with no baggage", according to one executive who was close to the process. Mr Dyke had once been sceptical of the value of marketing in TV but had latterly become convinced that promotion was crucial to attracting viewers in homes that might have more than 200 channels on offer.
Mr Duncan's achievements in the three years he has been running the BBC's marketing, communications and audience research division are impressive. He streamlined a piecemeal approach to promotion by prioritising 12 major, monthly campaigns a year alongside 40 less expensive efforts. Every department within the BBC has to pitch to become one of the top 12 or top 40 priorities - an approach that has set departments against each other but won the ultimate backing of the BBC governors and senior management.
Mr Duncan has also been the BBC's main cheerleader for Freeview, the BBC-backed digital terrestrial TV service launched two years ago to fill the gap left by defunct ITV Digital. The service, which offers more than 20 extra TV channels for the one-off cost of a set-top box, has been a phenomenal success and is now more widely distributed than cable TV.
As part of Freeview Mr Duncan helped launch a number of new BBC channels, including BBC 3, BBC 4 and CBeebies, plus digital radio stations such as 6 Music and 5 Live Sports Extra.
But sceptics - and there are a few - point out that Mr Duncan has simply applied good marketing practice to what was a chaotic and often unrecognised process in the BBC. "He pushed the right buttons at the right time," says a former BBC colleague.
Mr Duncan's role in improving the BBC's branding was recognised in 2003 when he was named marketer of the year. It's debatable how willingly he takes the credit for what others say is a team effort. He admits to having a competitive streak and is a tennis and golf player but claims to prefer team sports such as football and hockey.
Before his surprise appointment last week, rumours were circulating in the BBC marketing department that Mr Duncan was taking a senior job at ITV. These appear to have been fuelled by speculation that Mr Duncan wouldn't necessarily gel with new DG Mark Thompson (whose old job he has now taken). However, Mr Thompson kept Mr Duncan on his senior team when he cut back the BBC's executive committee two weeks ago.
At Channel 4 Mr Duncan is likely to make a mark quickly and decisively. Sources close to him suggest a move to improve C4's positioning in multichannel TV, rather than any structural merger, will be an early focus.
According to one biography, Mr Duncan enjoys 1950s rock'n'roll and describes himself as a committed Christian. A BBC colleague reckons he has an evangelical passion for his religion, but admits he has never paraded his faith in the office. Mr Duncan is a family man, with two adopted daughters, whose home life is said to be extremely important to him. BBC staff say he has always insisted on the importance of a healthy work/life balance, and part of the reason he wanted to leave Unilever was to give up extensive European travel. But he remains unquestionably committed to his job and puts in long hours when he needs to. Doubtless last week wasn't a great one for work/life balance and it will come under greater strain as he takes on a hugely prominent job in an industry where the rivalry is hotter than the water you boil to make SuperNoodles.Reuse content