PROFILE: Clarke's passion set free - Al Clarke, head of communications, Maranello Concessionaires

After just two weeks as the head of communications at Ferrari and Maserati's UK distributor Maranello Concessionaires, Al Clarke is so passionate about his brands that you have to wonder whether he's a car nut in his dream job, or a professional communicator enjoying a fresh bone.

Clarke launches into a spiel about the mythical status of Italian cars: it is hard to believe he spent the last seven years as head of comms at the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) promoting the whole industry.

Instead of discussing horsepower and top speeds, at SMMT he spoke of the impact of currency exchange on prices and the importance of the industry to the British economy.

'Your perception of the motor industry might be of car launches, driving nice cars and talking about them,' says Clarke. 'Not in the corporate world. You rarely see a car, or even touch one.

'My job was very much about ensuring that the value of the industry was known, and that legislators understood this and were able to frame legislation that was supportive of the industry.'

Now the former BBC radio journalist is quite literally in the driver's seat, having spent the previous day in Italy being taught how to drive a Maserati by former F1 driver Ivan Capelli.

Clarke revels in the opportunity to represent such loved brands. He says the challenge will be to recreate the experience and emotion that goes with the brand. 'If you could take each potential customer to the factory, I think you'd sell every car.'

This passion is imbued in the company, he says, relating his first meetings in Italy where business would be book-ended by passionate discussions about cars. While it employs modern ways of working, everything starts with passion. It is rather ironic, then, that Clarke's own mode of transport is an archetypally reliable Volvo V70.

Clarke's love of cars has not always extended to technical expertise.

He recalls, at the age of 14, stripping down the carburettor of his father's car on the morning of a trip, dropping a screw inside it and causing it to seize up.

'I wanted to be a mechanic. At 16 I wanted to chuck in school and get an apprenticeship. I was talked out of it and studied engineering, but decided that wasn't for me and joined the BBC.

'Rather than do all the drawings and technical stuff, I wanted to talk about things,' Clarke explains. 'Guys there spoke a different language, about black boxes and widgets and who knows what, but there was a student radio station.'

Ten years as a BBC journalist and regional radio presenter told him he'd 'never be John Humphries'. But he retained a passion for communicating: 'All that matters in communications is sensitivity. It's being able to perceive how you're being received. There are a lot of people who can talk and network well, but that doesn't count for jack.'

Paul Everitt, a colleague at SMMT, says there is a directness to Clarke's probing and a clarity about his objectives that Everitt attributes to Clarke's journalistic background.

Clarke paints a picture of patience and long-term influence. 'In communications you don't get a day when it's black and a day when it's white.'

He takes particular pride in bringing the Government around from what he calls an anti-car stance, when it came to power in 1997 by creating ongoing dialogue in order to explain the position of the industry.

'Their objective was to restrict the use of vehicles and force more requirements and regulations on the industry. It came from well-meaning intentions, but a lack of understanding.' By 2001, government policy began to soften.

Similarly, at Maranello the challenge will not be to drum up publicity, but to have the brands portrayed in the appropriate context.

'In the mass market, there is a struggle to find product differentiation,' he says, 'but with Ferrari and Maserati the differentiation is the brand.'

Clarke's biggest project at SMMT came when the British International Motor Show came under his direction in 2002. He took the £30m event from the brink of closure to the point where manufacturers are now championing it.

Clarke will have to judge the success of its May 2004 relaunch from the Ferrari and Maserati stand adding: 'I have a little bit of inside information and I certainly intend to use it.'

RESUME

1987 Trainee presenter/news reporter, BBC Radio Gloucestershire

1992 Presenter, BBC GLR (London)

1994 Presenter, BBC SCR (Guildford)

1997 Head of communications, Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders

2004 Head of communications, Maranello Concessionaires

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