Published by Simon Barrow, on 15/09/2011
It”s not often that two brief conversations with a CEO give you an immediate insight into the heart of an Employer Brand.
Both my brief meetings with Rupert Murdoch twice were conversations to remember. A good start for any insights into the News International employee experience.
The first was just after he had bought the Times in 1981 at a lunch he gave for six ad agency CEOs including Ogilvy, WCRS, Allen Brady and Marsh, TBWA, McCanns and me representing Ayer Barker. Murdoch did not say much and watched the typical barbed banter of competitors supposedly off duty (but not really). I was seated two down from our host at an oblong table and to get him talking I asked him how much of his money was now invested in the UK. He replied ‘just over 55%’. I then said ‘Mr Murdoch you could invest anywhere why such a big percentage here?’ He replied ‘Most places you have to work hard and be very smart – in this country all you have to do is work hard!’. We all laughed but he meant it and it confirmed his role as the outsider, the restless challenger and the change agent with an anti establishment view of the UK. The move to Wapping and the breaking of the newspaper unions was yet to come.
Twelve years later I met him again. People in Business was up and running and I was in the canteen at Wapping as the guest of Les Hinton. I was telling him about the trip I had just had round the Nissan plant near Sunderland and the productivity of the local work force in crisp blue overalls. Geordies welded together as a company team in a way they never were as riveters, coal miners or in the other lost occupations of the north east. It was not the new plant, Linwood and Ryton had that too, it was Nissan’s focus, innovation and certainty that created an EB which those other new UK plants never had. At this point Murdoch downloadfreegames ambled up with his tray and asked if he could join us.
I reminded him of what he said at the post Times lunch to which he replied ‘that was a long time ago’. Les then asked me to finish the Nissan story and I said that it was then the fastest automotive production line in Europe. I had asked my guide there what the average age on the line was and she told me ’27 but we want to get it down to 24’. At this point Murdoch said to Hinton ‘ Get up there and see it’ and asked if I could arrange that which I subsequently did with Peter Wickens the Nissan HRD (and the first employee of Nissan UK)
That was typical Murdoch the opportunist – sounds interesting, may be something for us, act on it fast.
That’s his style when in trouble too. Closing the 168 year old News of the World and losing its 2.7m circulation was an example. He had to make a big move that would surprise everyone .Yet In my view he could have achieved the same impact by firing Rebekah Brooks online casino and kept a profitable paper. As it was she left a few days later but her exit did not then improve his position.
From an EB standpoint, I can see little difference between News International and Rupert Murdoch himself. Relentless energy and opportunism, not much in the way of direction and vision. The perpetual outsider and challenger with no need to be liked. Yet News has many outstanding executives and journalists and inspires great loyalty not only to the group but to some great papers which have benefited from its ownership.
Michael Woolff captures the essence of Murdoch in his brilliant book ‘The man who owns the news’ – consider these observations. Woolff may not have gathered them from an EB standpoint but in the search for an EB which is distinctive and compelling for the right audience these are hard to beat:
-the elite at News Corp must prove they have shed any hint of elitism or even a desire for respectability.
-Rejection of the idea of a higher calling in journalism. It’s about competition and winning
-when he’s not there he’s there as palpable absence. You never know when you’re on his mind
-to work for him is to do his bidding, to follow his line
-every second working for Murdoch is a second spent thinking about what Murdoch wants. He inhabits you.
The hacking story has become a global one and probably and has more to run. However, put that to one side and consider the implications of the 80 yr old Murdoch’s eventual exit. News International has powerful media properties and will become like other major companies in the sector. As the Economist says this week ‘The suits are firmly in control’ though it also believes that its feistiness will continue. Somehow I doubt that since suits are seldom feisty and unpredictable in the way Murdoch is.
Describing News’s EB point of difference a decade from now will be harder work and I suspect many of the current employees will miss the management style they have lived with for so long. This blog was prompted by just two short conversations but think what tales News International people will have to tell – and I think you will find that most of them will be positive.
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