You can tell a lot about a man by the company he keeps. What you
can tell about Derek Draper is that he has changed.
The former lobbyist and New Labour spin doctor is seven days into his
new existence as a partner in Farm, the brand communications company he
has set up with two ex-Partners BDDH directors, Robert Smith and Paul
When I arrive, he is squabbling with his new associates about the merits
of ballet over football, and champagne over lager. The trappings of the
New Labour glitterati may be hard to shake off, but his playful goading
is very different from the Draper I remember; when I last encountered
him 11 years ago, from the opposite side of a Manchester University
Labour Club meeting, he was a cocksure, politically pugnacious youth in
the formative stages of a rollercoaster career.
That career now appears to be on the up again, having troughed last year
with his resignation from GPC Market Access, the lobbying firm at which
he was alleged to have made improper boasts about his access to the
government inner circle.
The day I meet him is Draper’s 32nd birthday, and as he pads about
Farm’s central London offices in shorts and a floppy shirt, he is
relaxed yet at enormous pains to point out that this is a start as fresh
as the paint on the walls. The guests that turn up in a few hours will
be friends and a few colleagues; two years ago they would have been the
hand-picked selection of a consummate networker.
The work that Draper hopes will come through the door soon after will be
equally far removed from the ’endless whirl of self-regarding and
pompous activity’ that dumped him into two bouts of depression.
’I took the decision to change my life,’ he says. ’I’m anxious not to
come across as someone who knows loads about the advertising business.
The Draper image is big-headed and boastful, and I’m trying to point out
that’s not the case.’
Instead, he puts himself firmly in the role of ’advertising trainee’ and
pushes the professionalism and experience of his fellow partners at
every turn. Jeffrey, formerly strategic planning director at Partners
BDDH, and Smith, its former new business director, have worked with
clients including Microsoft, British Gas, Harley-Davidson and IKEA.
Their notion is that Farm will be a project-only branding community,
working with clients’ positioning and then managing media-neutral
executions by drawing on freelance creative resources as and when they
Draper goes unusually quiet when his partners start using such
vernacular, but perks up like an A-grade schoolboy when Jeffrey applauds
his definition of strategic planning - the role he aspires to - as
’finding out everything there is to know about a brand and its markets,
and trying to come up with the essential message that the brand should
be putting across’.
What he is keen to reverse are reports that he will simply be the
organisation’s PR man. ’The media agenda is so far removed from reality.
I understand that and I know how to get a story, but I don’t find it
fulfilling,’ he says.
’I don’t feel the same about advertising. If you understand a brand and
come up with a way of putting that across, it has to be based on
substance for it to succeed long term.’
This is Draper the image-maker back in full flow. When he compares,
either incisively or unwittingly, the packaging of pre-election New
Labour to a premium lager, it becomes clear that he is all too aware of
the power of modern-day branding.
’The audience New Labour was trying to convince is the same audience
beer and soap brands are trying to convince - and probably as
disinterested in listening to a beer commercial as to a party political
broadcast. It’s got to grab your attention.
’In political communications you come up with the message and then in
some cases assign an ad agency; in others you might get a newspaper type
like Alastair Campbell to come up with a real soundbite. But the
creativity comes as much from the analysis, thinking and developing of
Draper clearly believes that his history of spin and soundbites will
serve him well in his new career, but plays the part of advertising
virgin reasonably convincingly: ’Until last week I had no idea what FMCG
But when you’re Draper it can be hard to be humble. The two Peters -
Mandelson and York - have apparently already told him they can ’see him
doing advertising’ and that ’he’ll be wonderful’.
His run-in with The Observer, the newspaper that exposed ’Lobbygate’,
also appears to be over. Though he maintains that he did nothing corrupt
as a lobbyist, he regrets the political damage it caused, and is
delighted that the paper has now invited ’a reformed’ Draper to write a
’People thought that I was only interested in making money out of
politics, which is not true. If I do anything political it’s because I
believe in it; if I make money out of selling shampoo it’s because I’m
good at it. There’s not that blurring of things, which there was for a
Aide to Peter Mandelson
Adviser to the Rory Bremner show
Partner, Prima Europe; then director, GPC Market Access
This article was first published on Marketing