Dial M... for Millar

Grant Millar, head of media at BT says the job is all about getting people to connect. Deborah Bonello joins up the dots on what has so far been a stellar career

Grant Millar, head of media at BT, does not, on first impression, strike you as the ambitious go-getter type.

The marketer, who sits on one of the biggest media budgets in the UK and oversees an agency roster of five-plus agencies, claims to lack the pithy gab of some of his predecessors, but his measured manner and precise delivery make him a regular at media conferences around the UK and the rest of the world.

Ironically, for a man who specialises in overseeing strategy for one of the UK’s best known brands, Millar has not always taken such a long-term view of his own future.

When pressed on what he wanted to be when he grew up, he looks rather blank and although he defines himself as creative – running the film club at university and occasionally playing in a band – he lacked a distinct direction until some of his “gobby media mates” introduced him to the game.

But, despite first impressions to the contrary, words like “passionate, driven, challenging and fiercely intelligent” come up when people who work with Grant Millar are asked to describe him.

Paul Longhurst, managing director of The Allmond Partnership, one of BT’s agencies, says: “Grant’s not a guy who’s easily pigeon holed. He’s a lively operator – sometimes stressed and frustrated, other times passionate about the industry – rarely both together.

Grant’s a thinker. He takes business extremely seriously, but is also fun to work with.

“Agencies talk about their clients as either good or bad. I have yet to hear an agency describe a client as somewhere between the two. Grant’s a good client because he genuinely treats agencies as partners and not suppliers.

He’s carrot – not stick.

“Some would see a weakness in Grant in that he’s too nice. He’s sensitive and takes problems to heart. Others would see this as an enormous strength.”

It all started 10 years ago, when, in his own words, Millar “fell into a job” at Haymarket, selling advertising for the Auto Car title: “It was a really good place to start out – it gave you a business head,” he says. “It made you really think very carefully about what you were doing, but it was also good fun – there was a good atmosphere down there. But it was also extraordinarily repetitive.

“I remember Christine Walker saying – there was an interview with her in Media Week when I had been at Haymarket for about six months – that she worked at Haymarket and it was the most boring job she’d done in her life, that she couldn’t recommend it to anyone. So for me, it was time to think about moving on.”

But it wasn’t all bad.

“Selling to car dealers teaches you two things; you learn to swear really well and you learn to accept rejection. Big time. But the other thing is, you really learn how to make a strong case, because they demand it,” Millar recalls.

During his time at Haymarket, Millar decided that he wanted to work in an agency and it is here that you see signs of that famous ambition: “I never really looked back,” he says.

“I brought out the old TGI books, dusted them off and started doing my own analysis, trying to understand better how we could appeal to different types of audiences. And I just got the bug. I started talking more and more to agency people. In the space of my first nine months I was resolute that I’d go to a media agency.

Explosion of potential

“I had a developing passion for media that I didn’t really know about then, but as soon as I was in an agency environment, it exploded. I really knew that I’d found absolutely the right place and coming to work wasn’t a chore, it was a real pleasure.”

After three years at Mediavest, Millar got the call from BT and never looked back. He was initially taken on as a media strategist and then promoted to the new role of head of media at the end of 2002.

He describes his thinking when he arrived: “We’re all about planning and deciding brand communications for our clients, but we’re all kind of our own branded properties in a way aren’t we? So I think for an epiphany moment I applied that thinking to myself and thought well, what can you do that will genuinely differentiate you?” Iain Jacob, chief executive of Starcom Mediavest, another of BT’s roster agencies, says about Millar: “He definitely understands media in detail but gets the broader picture and the role of communications for business and the real power of getting the thinking and delivery right.”

By all accounts, Millar is meticulous in his pitches and he himself says that Starcom Mediavest stood out a mile when pitching for its share of BT’s business – press, ethnic media and international media.

Jacob remembers it well, even though it was 18 months ago.

“It was very clear that they wanted something that went way beyond the confines of media. He wanted a person at the table with BT who was clear and directional in their thinking,” he says.

“Very challenging” were other words Jacob used to describe the process.

Millar is very clear on his approach to media strategy and, crucially, the idea of media neutrality: “You should be able to plan across any form of media, through the line and beyond, across, in our case, BT vans, what our customer service people say to customers, promotions and so on, without any restriction. It’s very rare for any agency or media owner to have a capability for planning on that wide a basis, but that’s the challenge.”

Pulling the purse strings

Millar is currently presiding over a £26m advertising campaign for BT, which is aiming to reposition the telecoms brand as a provider of networking solutions by targeting big businesses.

Prior to that, BT was engaged in a war caused by the changes made to the UK’s telephone directory enquiries services.

The advertising for The Number has been much praised in the press for its creativity and went head to head with BT’s advertising for its own directories service 118 – 500, which put a sticky note at the centre of its creative idea.

Millar is complimentary about the advertising for 118118, but says that Naked et al spent more than three times as much as BT on the advertising for that service.

“I don’t think anybody’s won it,” says Millar. “If you drew a line in the first year and asked who won then you’d have to say 118 118 drove more awareness, but then they paid for it, because they spent three times as much as we did.

“It’s a marathon not a sprint,” he adds sagely.

And what about his own marathon – his career? What could be next? “I came in and thought they’d probably hate me, I’d probably survive six months, they’d kick me out, I’d be swearing, running around shouting, being very emotional, being very media and it was a real culture shock to me and the people around me when I arrived. I was a lot younger than most people when I first came in but that’s all changed now,” says Millar.

“I didn’t mean to be here for more than two years and I’ve been here six. I think the reason for that is that it’s felt like two years.

Things happen at such an unbelievable rate.”

Millar also gets something a little more heartfelt out of the job: “How nice is it to work in an industry where the fundamental product you’re selling is socially positive? Now that might make me sound like a corporate Stepford wife and, obviously, we’ve got to make money, but actually what we’re really about is getting people to connect, social engagement, social intercourse – it’s fantastic,” he says.

Next destination? Definitely unknown.

Career path

Grant Millar

2004 Head of planning & media, BT

2002 Head of media, BT

1998 Media strategist, BT

1995 Media planner, Mediavest

1994 Sales executive, Haymarket Publishing

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