Profile: Rod Banner, chairman and CEO, Banner Corporation - Twenty years and counting

Rod Banner used to make unusual sandwiches with fashion emperor Paul Smith. In the early 1980s, both started businesses in Covent Garden and would run into each other in a local cafe. Smith was big on salami then, and flogged Banner his unwanted jackets. Banner says client meetings weren't possible at his own office - 'a fifth-floor walk-up garret' - as people were too puffed to speak by the time they got up there. And the place was a tip, with old sofas smelling of roll-ups anyway.

As Banner Corporation celebrates its 20th anniversary this week, at its Chelsea Harbour premises, it is hard to imagine such humble beginnings. Across the river, Battersea heliport's glamorous activity is in full swing and a gardener is spraying weedkiller on microscopic lines of grass between flagstones. 'That probably explains the service charges,' grins Banner.

He's witty company, with the look of a careworn Buffy the Vampire Slayer's mentor Anthony Head. The firm began as a technology marcoms specialist, with a bias towards Banner's own advertising background, and retains Cisco Systems, Sony and Adobe as clients.

Interestingly, his attitude to PR remains much the same as it was then: 'Most advertisers thought of PR as a black art, and PR people to some extent encourage that. There is something in PR people in that they think about the ramifications of every word that leaves their mouth. Ad people are probably the opposite in that they tend to brainstorm in everyday conversation.'

Nonetheless, Banner expanded into PR nine years ago. 'Just because I didn't understand it didn't mean that I didn't recognise it as a vital part of the mix,' he says. Early on, Banner established a network of country specialists with European experience, fulfilling his vision of integrated marketing, which has continued to this day. The same things rile him now as when he struck out on his own. 'Agency politics still drives me crackers. I'm aware of it affecting us through the agencies we work with. I get irritated by apathy and agitated that bad technology wins.'

Yet a lot has changed since for Banner's clients. 'Buying technology used to be a risk for the buyer,' he says. 'Since the death of dotcommunism, that risk is being pushed back to the vendor. They are saying: "These are the three things I need your product to solve and I want it next Tuesday at the lowest price".'

PR also faces challenges, he says: 'I think PR has been completely devastated by the rise of the internet, because our clients are US-centred. Now when the CEO has an idea, he talks to his local PR people. Within 30 minutes of it being on the company website and the US press being briefed, it's everywhere.

'European agencies don't have the role they used to, as that role doesn't exist. Deliverables in PR are fairly commoditised. People pay for the thinking.'

Asked about his biggest mistake, Banner laughs and shifts in his seat: 'Look, we embraced the technology industry. We wanted to believe it would last forever, "the long boom". We should have said: "how do we scale back?"'

But in the late 1990s, virtually no one did. Banner had to slash the firm's headcount of 134 people by more than half as the market disintegrated.

'We went through a period of grief,' he says quietly. 'I didn't enjoy making people redundant.' The company is recruiting again, but 2001 has obviously left scars.

He points to admen such as the late David Ogilvy as inspiration, and his ultimate WPP boss Sir Martin Sorrell. Former Financial Dynamics CEO and M Communications co-founder Nick Miles says of Banner: 'He's a whizz-kid with an old fart's exterior. He's the classic proprietor manager who thinks of his company all the time, but overlays it with an easygoing manner. He's not too funky, but not a stuffed shirt either.'

Banner says he will still be in charge three years hence. He still rides an electric scooter and enjoys everything from mountain boarding to changing office lightbulbs. He has attempted to write a novel three times and says he likes being challenged. 'I'd respect any team member who'd tell a client his product is pants - but only if they're informed and intelligent. I'm not asking for a Stepford Wives approach. It's not a hierarchical firm.'

It is hard to imagine many chairmen or CEOs oiling an account manager's bike, but Banner did. 'It needed doing,' he explains with impeccable logic.

RESUME

1972: Management trainee, GKN

1976: Account executive, McBride Partnership

1979: Account manager, McCanns

1984: Founder, Banner Corporation

2004: Chairman and CEO, Banner Corporation

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