After a turbulent start to the millennium, former Dome marketing boss Sholto Douglas-Home isn't taking things easy. Elen Lewis finds out his next move.
Sholto Douglas-Home has a number of claims to fame. Not only was he conceived at Frank Sinatra's house, Sinatra later became his godfather. He's also the great-nephew of former Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home. More importantly, though, he has just finished one of the toughest, most notorious jobs in marketing ever at the infamous Millennium Dome.
Life didn't get any easier when his contract at the Dome came to an end last December. Douglas-Home accepted a marketing job at Reuters's online diary spin-off Kalends. The day his appointment was announced, his wife gave birth to their second child and he had to field press calls from the hospital.
Douglas-Home had wanted to work in advertising from the age of 12. He thinks this is because his mother was married at the time to Nigel Grandfield, from ad agency McCann Ericsson, who later went on to found branding consultancy Wolf Olins. 'He made a big impression on me,' Sholto recalls.
Douglas-Home didn't want to go to university, so when he did he decided to take a very vocational degree: management studies. On graduation, he joined ad agency Coleman RSCG, working with clients such as BT and Citroen. He was offered his next job at an Australian start-up agency called MoJo when the founder realised Douglas-Home had 'got a bit of lip' and could handle the Aussie culture.
'The headhunter told me the man who ran the agency, Wayne Kingston, was a real cool Australian who wore tight white T-shirts and cowboy boots,' he recalls. 'So I turned up in my jeans for the interview. He asked me what I usually wore. I replied that if he wanted to interview my wardrobe...'
Douglas-Home moved onto a larger agency, Lintas, when MoJo was sold to established US ad network Chiat Day. In 1993 he joined BT as head of consumer advertising, responsible for a £75m marketing budget. During his five-year tenure, he churned out 250 TV ads, including the award-winning 'It's good to talk' campaign. 'I always thought I'd go back to the agency world after two years, but I enjoyed BT so much. Being head of advertising was like being in your own ad agency,' he says.
It was not until the opportunity to head marketing at the Millennium Dome arose at the end of 1997 that Douglas-Home left BT on a secondment. He was attracted to the job because 'it was the chance to be involved in a one-off, very high-profile, very challenging project.'
One key challenge was squeezing the maximum value out of a £15m marketing budget for 16 months. He has gone on record to say he believed it was insufficient. 'At the time I would never have anticipated the destructive and negative media comment,' Douglas-Home says. 'We could never have counteracted that, even with a £100m budget. If the Dome had had the media behind it, we wouldn't have needed a big budget because it would have got free publicity.'
Douglas-Home is remarkably candid about his experiences. 'One of the Dome's biggest problems was that it had to have massive ambitions on the financial side, but it had no fallback position,' he says. 'You always have to have a plan B. We only had 12 months. We would have broken even in year three but never in year one.
'The most difficult time was a two-month period from mid-December to mid-February,' he adds. 'In that time I only had about two days off and we were front page everyday. It was a melting pot of tension, drama and crisis. And I was in the firing line literally every day.'
Was he ever concerned that his career would be irreparably damaged? 'In my heart of hearts I was not concerned about my future career,' he insists. 'Every one of my team has gone on to get a great job which shows the experience of the Dome is valued.'
In fact, he extended his contract last August to the end of the year when it became apparent that his position would be left vacant at a crucial time for the controversial attraction. 'I would never have left,' he explains. 'There's far more credit to stay to the end and see it through, rather than bottle out of a difficult situation.'
After the Dome, Douglas-Home realised he didn't want to return to BT. 'Once you've been through the Dome, you don't want something conventional.' Hence his decision to join Kalends, a Reuters-funded offshoot that specialises in future events and diaries.
The proposition was developed by veteran Reuters employee Dean Ratcliffe and the news agency has funded it into a 45-staff operation. Reuters is clearly taking the online venture very seriously. It has also lured Rupert Miles, formerly of Carlton Interactive, Beeb.com and one-time publisher of Radio Times, onboard.
Kalends' database will offer personalised work and lifestyle-related information and transactions to its customers, who will come from both B2B and B2C markets. Douglas-Home says it wasn't a difficult decision to join Kalends: 'It's a start-up but with the pedigree and backing of Reuters. I wanted something entrepreneurial but without the unnecessary risks of fly-by-night start-ups.'
The only implicit comparisons made with his experiences at the Dome come in an off-the-cuff remark that he's looking forward to working in 'a realistic environment, because everyone blossoms under realistic expectations'.
Is there anything he misses about his own Millennium Experience? 'I miss the drama. I'm itching to have the same drama,' he says, before swiftly adding with a laugh, 'although perhaps not on the same scale.'