Julian Douglas: 'People are ripe for change, there's a lot of pent-up energy'

VCCP’s vice-chairman is a proud Manc with a passion for football and a penchant for karaoke. The “amazing all-rounder” is focusing his IPA presidency on helping advertising get its confidence back as society starts to adjust to post-Covid life.

Karaoke and football. It’s the passion pairing that has shaped some of the twists and turns of Julian Douglas’ career, which entered a new chapter last month when he took up the presidency of the IPA.

The industry almost lost the VCCP vice-chairman and international chief executive, more commonly known as Dougie, to the world of the song booth. 

Back in the early noughties, when he worked at Bartle Bogle Hegarty with his planner buddy Jonny Shaw (now VCCP’s chief strategy officer in New York), the duo were karaoke-mad and ducked into Karaoke Box on Frith Street a couple of times a week with clients and colleagues alike. 

He and Shaw moved from BBH to Grey London during the notorious Garry Lace era (others to do the same in this period included Dylan Williams, now the chief strategy officer at Droga5, Nicola Mendelsohn, currently the EMEA vice-president of Facebook, and Chris Hirst, now the global chief executive of Havas Creative). 

It was around this time that Douglas and Shaw began to have the idea that a night out singing karaoke could be so much better. The pair began working on a business plan for Lucky Voice, a high-end karaoke experience, and went on to secure a £1m investment from the Lastminute founder, Martha Lane-Fox.

But Douglas’ dual career suffered a setback when at his next agency, TBWA\London, he was fired by his boss, Matt Shepherd-Smith, who said Douglas was “more interested in my own business than my clients’ business”. So in 2005 he turned his back on advertising and dedicated his time to Lucky Voice.

Looking back now, he finds this a remarkable example of how attitudes change. “He saw me having got a million-pound investment for a business in Soho as a distraction. Today if you don’t have a side hustle, you’re not a complete person,” Douglas muses.

But just a year later, adland came calling, thanks to Douglas’ love of Manchester City Football Club. While he was raised in Salford – commonly held to be a “reds” stronghold – he is a blue through and through after deciding at a young age to rebel against his brother, a Manchester United fan.

“Chris Hirst [then Grey managing director] called me up and said, ‘I never thought I’d say this, Dougie, but we want you back, we’ve just won the Man City account and nobody here in the agency likes football, let alone City, so do you want to do a day a week?’”

So his “second coming” started off as one day a week, which soon became two, then three, then four until he was full time again and seeing advertising with fresh eyes and a new enthusiasm. 

The fun part of Lucky Voice, he says, had been coming up with the brand and creating something tangible. Once this part was done, it was mainly about poring over spreadsheets – so returning to a business where you could “knock ideas around” was a hugely satisfying move for him. 

While club loyalties are mostly lifelong – Douglas jokes that he is trying to keep his Twitter presence dedicated exclusively to the beautiful game, despite the IPA beginning to include his handle in its messaging – his love of karaoke is similarly undiminished by the passage of time.

Douglas now has just a small share in Lucky Voice with no part in the day-to-day running but, up until just before the pandemic hit, he was still cranking out a karaoke session a couple of times a month.

Back to Manchester

While he’s honed his cocktail-making skills over the past year (signature serves are a Negroni and an Old Fashioned) he is over working from home in Dalston, east London, in the house he shares with his wife, Jane (head of new business and marketing at Ogilvy), and their daughter, Maya, six. 

The 44-year-old, who was one of those to sneak in a trip to the Cheltenham Festival just before the first lockdown, was pleased to have a legitimate business reason to go back to Manchester, where he recorded his inaugural address as IPA president at the city’s Science and Industry Museum. 

Douglas says the city has “got such a spirit and has always been a core part of my identity”, which is something he puts down to his “mixed upbringing”.

“My dad’s from Jamaica, my mum’s from Ireland. There’s always been lots of different viewpoints in my family. And I’ve been very lucky – privileged – to grow up with that sort of background. But equally, for me, I became a very proud Manc, especially once I left Manchester,” he says. 

But the decision to deliver the speech from the city went beyond the personal. It was a symbolic move to show that there is talent, creativity and innovation all around the UK – a fact brought into sharp focus during the coronavirus crisis as geographic boundaries have blurred in the age of the Zoom call.  

In the speech, Douglas characterised Manchester as a place “that finds renewal and reinvention in turbulence and trouble” and made progress in “leaps and not increments”, pointing out that it was the birthplace of the women’s suffrage movement, the NHS and the UK’s first public library, all big, bold ideas in their differing ways.

This is the spirit he is trying to harness for his IPA presidency with the 10X: Accelerate Opportunity agenda, based on the power of the multiplier effect (“10 times sooner, 10 times bigger, 10 times bolder”). Douglas believes that while society is coming to terms with post-pandemic life, it is time to capitalise on this moment and shift up a gear. He reasons that no-one would have thought possible the rapid changes that occurred over the past year – whether that’s mass digital adoption enabling homeworking or the creation and rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine – so why not attempt to ride this momentum?

He unveiled several key initiatives, aimed both inwards to the industry and outwards to wider society. These include a new effectiveness accreditation scheme, a “think tank” project fronted by Rory Sutherland, Ogilvy vice-chairman, and a drive to collaborate with the gaming sector (see box). He also plans a trade mission to India next year.

At the heart of this is a desire to see advertising get its confidence back. Douglas is dismayed that, over the years, the ad industry has been buffeted by headwinds – be that shrinking budgets or in-housing and the rise of the consultancies.

“There’s a big need for the industry to remember what we are brilliant at,” he says, namely the ability to come up with creative solutions to challenges.

In many ways, becoming IPA president was the natural next move for Douglas, who started out as a graduate at WCRS before his stints at BBH, Grey and TBWA\London. His entry into the industry was intentional (“I’m not one of these people who fell into advertising”). Douglas already had a job as a derivatives trader lined up before he graduated from Oxford University but changed his mind when he saw “Yuppie”, the 1995 Audi A4 ad by BBH, directed by acclaimed director Frank Budgen. The film features a City boy taking a test drive and convinced Douglas that he actually didn’t want to be the ad’s odious protagonist, he wanted to be the person making the ad. That he ended up at the agency on the Audi account a few years later is the stuff of dreams. 

Douglas’ involvement with the IPA so far augurs well for someone with an agenda based on thinking big. In his recent role as the chair of its talent leadership group, he devised Advertising Unlocked, a scheme that invites agencies across the UK to open their doors for one day a year to young people wanting to learn more about a career in advertising. It has been running since 2017 and, in that time, more than 5,000 students have taken part. 

He admits to having a penchant for pulling together and collaborating through clubs and societies. “I do believe that organisations are useful for making stuff happen,” Douglas comments. “It’s very hard to do things of real importance acting totally on your own. You need a coalition to shift the needle on any meaningful measure.”

Life at VCCP

He has been at VCCP since 2008 and it now operates out of Madrid, New York, Singapore, Sydney, Prague, San Francisco and Shanghai. In February, he took up the position of international chief executive to add to his vice-chairmanship. This was part of a mini reshuffle in which Stephanie Brimacombe, already the global chief marketing officer of the agency and managing director of parent Chime, added another string to her bow by becoming chief executive of its European offices outside London. 

Landing a place on Shell’s global roster in 2018 – one of the factors cited for his Campaign Account Person of the Year accolade that year – has driven the agency’s international footprint growth and created a need for his new role, says Douglas, who now runs the account.

“We’re the minimum-viable-size network you can be to service a truly global piece of business. Historically, we’ve had pieces of business at VCCP where you make it in one office then you pump it out to EMEA or globally. It’s quite something else to truly co-create work across three or four different sites. That takes an operating system that can handle that and it takes a certain mindset and culture.”

Having undertaken this task for Shell, Douglas was the obvious choice to take up the mantle of shaping the agency’s international offering. 

“It’s basically about ensuring we’re fostering that curiosity and that challenger spirit and being cohesive,” he says of the agency, which counts Compare the Market, easyJet and O2 among its longstanding clients.

Over the years Douglas has been one of the driving forces behind VCCP’s phenomenal new-business success. The agency once again topped AAR’s new-business league for advertising and integrated in 2020 by bringing in 43 wins, more than twice as many as the second-placed agency, Uncommon Creative Studio, and 10 more than its 2019 pre-pandemic total. 

When he complains that the pitch system is broken and wastes so much time, it feels a bit rich, given his agency’s reputation as a serial pitcher. “Well, we win most of our pitches,” is his retort.

Douglas was on the team that hauled in PepsiCo’s Walkers (which was previously with Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO) and he now leads the account, which was one of 2020’s most high-profile wins. In a sign of the times, he ponders how strange it is that he has yet to meet any of the crisp brand’s marketers in person.

Eating pizza

Another client that fell under Douglas’ spell was Domino’s, which appointed VCCP to its creative account in 2017, a brief that was later expanded to include lead digital agency status as well. 

Tony Holdway was Domino’s chief marketing officer back then. Recalling the pitch, he says: “I knew Dougie would get the brand and suit the customer. I could see him eating pizza, he had that sort of common touch.” 

Having become acquainted with Douglas over the years, Holdway says the impression was “all genuine, it’s not a facade”.

A free agent after finishing an interim chief marketing officer role at Pret a Manger in January, Holdway praises Douglas as an “amazing all-rounder” able to account handle and smooth over issues brilliantly, be strategic and come up with creative solutions. “He’s slick without being oily or faux in any way. He’s a good bloke,” he concludes.

Mendelsohn, a fellow Mancunian, has known Douglas for about 20 years and can even lay claim to helping him meet his wife by getting them along for a Grey press drinks.

She describes him as “innovative, fresh-thinking, energetic and ambitious”. A former IPA president herself, she says of the role: “It’s one of those jobs with a narrow job description but then it’s up to you what you make of it, based on what your agenda is.” Indeed, Mendelsohn, who was running Karmarama at the time, was headhunted by Facebook during her IPA tenure.

Asked whether much can be achieved in two years, she says that, while it “flies by”, it is enough time to make a difference, before adding: “I would expect that of him.”

After getting a positive reception to his address, Douglas is pumped up and looking forward to pressing ahead with 10X.

“Can you change stuff in two years? One hundred per cent,” he asserts. “Unlike any other incoming president, I’m coming in after a year of the biggest social experiment we’ve ever seen post-war. People are ripe for change, there’s a lot of pent-up energy. 

“But it won’t last forever, so it would be remiss not to capitalise on that. The past 12 months have proven that we can make leaps not just steps... So let’s get on and do it.”

The 10x agenda 

IPA 10X

Douglas launched the IPA Effectiveness Accreditation programme, whereby member agencies will be accredited if they create “processes, environments, attitudes and, ultimately, values that deliver pride in the business results of what we do for our clients and ourselves”. 

He also laid out plans to ramp up the number of executives completing the IPA’s MBA Essentials qualification, run in partnership with the London School of Economics. 

He urged agencies to correct the “glacial progress” made on diversity by using IPA report The Future of Fairness, a roadmap launched in February, to support agencies on their D&I journeys.

Think 10X

Douglas set out his belief that creativity can help alleviate problems from “environmental degradation to societal inequality”.

He revealed plans to create the “IPA 10X think tank”, working with Ogilvy vice-chairman Rory Sutherland “to show the world what advertising’s brightest thinkers are capable of”. In practice, it will be more of a series of hacks to solve a client problem than a continuous think tank.

Tech 10X

A series of partnerships with the “very best” gaming companies is another plan and Epic Games has already signed up.

The IPA will also link up with Facebook in a partnership to advance AR in marketing through a series of educational seminars and practical workshops. 

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