We live in cynical times. In fact, according to research undertaken at the London School of Economics, levels of cynicism in Britain are currently at an all-time high. Once symbolising the robustness of our democracy, this collective detachment is now one of the biggest threats it faces. And if you don’t believe this then, well – there you go.
And in this age of unprecedented cynicism, most of us can agree that there is nothing worse than cliché. Cliché makes us recoil: we’ve heard it all before, and we don’t want to hear it again. Yet despite all of this, when David Miller, one of the most successful advertising men of the ’80s tells me that that “nothing is impossible,” something strange happens: I actually believe him.
Born and raised in Yorkshire, Miller was the first of his family to attend university, studying History at York. After graduating he was employed as the brand manager for Marmite. From here he quickly rose to the top of the advertising industry during the ‘80s, working as a director at both Saatchi & Saatchi and Young & Rubicam before becoming Chairman at Ogilvy & Mather. In 1997 Miller left Ogilvy to set up his own agency, Miller Bainbridge, which he sold in 2008.
From tea and chocolate to vodka and nuclear fuel, Miller has sold almost everything, although he pointedly tells me how he has “never done cigarettes” (or for that matter, taken cocaine). He has also managed nine-figure accounts for the likes of Toyota and Ford, and was in the room when the name Vodafone was first coined. Yet out of all the campaigns he has run throughout his career, he has no favourites. “One of the only things that really turned me on was the adrenaline of working with really big numbers,” he tells me. This included winning the pitch for the British Gas privatisation while at Young & Rubicam in 1986 – a deal worth over £6bn.
Since this was only the second deal of its kind since the privatisation of BT in ’84, the biggest challenge was being forced to pitch to civil servants for the first time; second-guessing what motivated them was key to securing the deal. “We spent an hour discussing what the psychological driver for these people was,” he says, “and we decided that it wasn’t success.”
Instead, Miller’s team took a risk on an entirely different assumption. Their three rivals, which included his former employers Saatchi & Saatchi, all proposed marketing campaigns that would cost £20m; Miller, on the other hand, provided the Government with a quote for £47m.
“This was going to raise £6.5bn,” he explains, “and so how much money we spent delivering that really didn’t matter that much. What mattered was certainty. The avoidance of failure. Because that’s what we figured out civil servants were driven by. They’re not driven by success particularly, they’re driven by fear of failure.”
Within minutes of leaving the room he knew that the pitch had been successful, although not through any official reasons. “We had our own Deep Throat [or mole] on the group in the room” Miller tells me casually, before quickly stopping himself, one of his large hands rising to his mouth. “This is probably something I shouldn’t mention…although it should be ok, it’s been twenty-five years now.”
Miller’s honesty on such topics is at first disarming, but it soon becomes clear that this is part of who he is, and that so far, it has worked for him just fine. “Directness and honesty works” he tells me, “and I’ve been proving it for 25 years.”
On his time at Saatchi & Saatchi, Miller is just as open, although notably more wistful. “The rewards were stupendous,” he says. “We earned stupid amounts of money, drove around in Porsches and Ferraris, and got paid bonuses in Krugerrands [gold South African coins] to avoid National Insurance contributions. It’s a lot more sensible now, and a lot less fun.”
However, not all of Miller’s memories of the advertising industry are necessarily rose-tinted. Having recently attended a reunion at Saatchi’s, he describes how he was struck at how “frothy” everything was. When referring to his time spent running the Ford business across Europe, he also explains how wrong it is to make assumptions about companies based on their size. “You automatically think that the closer you get to pedigree companies the more you’ll be impressed,” he says. “The truth is almost always the reverse. The closer you get to them the more you realize how incompetent and stupid they are.”
It also becomes evident in talking to him that there was a considerable price to pay for being at the top of the industry. “I had my first son when I joined Saatchi. If you talk to my kids they will all say that they didn’t see that much of me up until about ten.”
After separating from his wife of several decades (it was “a largely happy marriage,” he tells me), and teaching pro bono in Africa for a year, in 2010 Miller relocated to Devon, and currently works as the head of marketing at the University of Exeter. He has been labelled (albeit by himself) as a “Mad Man in Higher Education”, and it’s easy to see why. Although his job at Exeter is likely to be his last before he retires, he shows little sign of slowing down. Since his arrival he has drawn on his wealth of experience in the private sector to adapt the University to the competitive market that has emerged ever since tuition fees tripled for students (or as he insists on calling them, “customers”).
When asked about what this involves, Miller recounts an incident from a conference he spoke at last year. Having delivered his speech, a member of the audience challenged him over the role of marketing in universities, asking him what it was that he actually did. “My role is to steal your AABs,” he answered, before moving onto the next question.
Miller prides himself on his own brand of Yorkshire honesty, describing how the worst advice he has ever received was that he needed to be “more devious”. “If deviousness is required, then I’m not interested,” he tells me. And for this reason it’s clear that it was at Saatchi’s where Miller felt most at home. “It was wonderfully apolitical,” he rues, “we didn’t stab each other in the back, we stabbed each other in the chest.”
Photos: Alexandros Mastroyiannis