PD James Thompson onslaught kills off BBC private sector marketing experiment

Spare a thought for BBC director of marketing, communications and audience Sharon Baylay, who leaves next year – and not entirely of her own volition.

The axing of her position is a monument to the ineptitude of director-general Mark Thompson in front of a microphone. It was preordained from the moment that he allowed himself to be kebabed on the skewer of a little old lady’s forensic interviewing technique.

Cast your mind back to December 31st, 2009. PD James, the little old lady in question, was guest-editing the Today programme. I don’t know whether Thompson had a premonition he was going to be that morning’s toast. He certainly acted like a fox lamped by headlights when the crimewriter and former BBC governor moved in for the kill.

In her cross-wires were the 37-plus BBC employees who – inexplicably in her view – earned more than the prime minister. Thompson attempted to bat it off by justifying the salary of then BBC1 controller Jay Hunt, with her £1bn budget. But James was having none of this. She was not talking of Hunt and her kind, she said. Who were all these over-salaried bureaucrats with not a shred of creativity in their make-up? And in particular, this clan of clones with marketing and communications in their title, paid for by the taxpayer? Why, the litany is endless: there’s a director of marketing, communications and audiences on £300,000, and a director of communications on £225,000 – doesn’t he do what the other person’s supposed to do? Then there’s a director of brand and planning, a director of audiences… And so on. It begins to sound like an extract from the script of Yes Minister, only it’s for real.

At first sight, Baylay seems an identikit fit for an “over-salaried” bureaucrat. Her basic salary is £310,000 and her pedigree is not the BBC but Microsoft, where for 15 years she played a competent but fairly faceless role in a number of managerial positions, culminating in general manager of online services. But that’s to look at the appointment, which happened in May 2009, in the wrong light.

Baylay is less a techno-mandarin than the last of series of expensive imports from the private sector who have swelled the power and importance of the marketing function within the BBC. The first marketing director in any meaningful sense was Sue Farr, who had a background weighted more towards advertising than brand management. But that was no bad thing: in those days marketing, which was much more lowly in the BBC hierarchy than it is today, was largely about on-air ads, such as Perfect Day. Farr had another, unofficial, role. She was the publicly acceptable face of director-general John Birt, a skilful if robotic strategist and not someone you’d particularly want to invite to dinner.

Farr came a cropper with the advent of Greg Dyke as Birt’s successor in 2000. Dyke, probably the most successful and certainly the most popular d-g in recent times, suffered from no such interpersonal skill inhibitions as his predecessor. He wanted a “real” marketer who would oversee not only the BBC’s content and PR operations, but be at the heart of its audience research as well. And he eventually alighted on Andy Duncan, with his classic fmcg background at Unilever.

The early success of Duncan, reflected in the take-off of Freeview and his subsequent promotion to chief executive of Channel 4, set a precedent. It was reinforced by his successor, Tim Davie – once again equipped with impeccable fmcg credentials, this time Pepsi-bred. The difference between Davie – who moved on to become the BBC’s director of audio and music – and his successor Baylay really amounts to sector emphasis. At a time when media is ever more interactive and internet-driven, it made sense to appoint someone steeped in digital experience. And where better to look than Microsoft, which had been closely involved with the BBC in the development of the iPlayer?

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