The New Statesman Interview - Chris Powell

Sir Charles advised Thatcher, Jonathan advises Blair; now a third brother will launch a re-branded B

The trouble with his family, Chris Powell says, is that none of them has ever really done anything. "We are all just whisperers in ears, aren't we?" he complains. This homegrown indictment of the Powell brothers as a triumvirate of underachievers is curious.

Sir Charles, the oldest, was Margaret Thatcher's private secretary and, in his new capacity as head of the China British Business Council, a companion to Tony Blair on his recent trip to China. Jonathan, the youngest, is Blair's chief of staff. Chris alone side-stepped a role he describes, rather bluntly, as "royal handbag carrier". He is Blair's adman - the Labour equivalent of Tim Bell or Maurice Saatchi (comparisons he loathes) - and the chief executive of BMP DDB, one of the country's largest and most award-littered advertising agencies.

In general, the Powells are lumped together as "the most powerful political family in Britain". In Chris Powell's small office, overlooking the rump of Paddington station, no such illusions apply. "Charlie and Jonathan are civil servants. We're all just advisers to others. My company was started by someone else. I was never the entrepreneur." This all-round deprecation suggests no family dissent, for he is fond of his brothers, with whom he discusses football, the weather and their children, but never politics.

He is, however, currently consumed by the disaster of Britain's image and productivity: a malaise for which even the work-driven Powell clan must take some blame. Four years ago Powell did a global survey on how the nation is perceived. Its findings - good on arts and pop music - were outlined and embroidered in a Demos report partly responsible for spawning the Cool Britannia tag Powell abhors. "It denoted silliness and all that; most unhelpful."

Powell has now repeated his study to see whether the Blair government and post-Diana grief have altered the world's perception. Despite some evidence that new Labour and exported sorrow have met with approval, the overall results were bleak.

"Everyone still thinks the British are grand and proud and starchy and cold; though 'creative' has come up a bit and 'boring' has gone down." And that is the good news. According to Powell's results, British products are viewed with near derision. "For consumer durables and computer software, we are seen as the worst in the world. Our reputation lags even the reality. The reality isn't brilliant, but the reputation is much worse. The tendency in Britain is to make what we make and see if we can't flog it to someone. There's an arrogance; a lack of orientation deep in the country to make what people want at the prices they will pay."

So Powell has a scheme. He has touted his results round companies from Marks and Spencer to Tesco to British Airways, suggesting that they fund a joint venture to raise awareness abroad and standards at home. The brand marque he suggests is Creative Britain, as applied to commerce rather than the arts. The scheme would be business funded, operate through the CBI or the Marketing Council and have the "godfatherly" blessing of the DTI.

And has he discussed this with Peter Mandelson, a long-time colleague and admirer of Powell, or with Tony Blair? "Oh no," he says, abashed that he should be thought of as so presumptuous. "This is just a hobby of mine."

What he really means is that the link between Chris Powell and the government is so close as to render explanations unnecessary. As for the notion that the Powell crusade to rebrand Britain is a dabbler's pastime, that is negated by my being here at all.

Chris Powell is 54; boyish, engaging, one of the most successful advertising gurus of his generation and Labour's publicity king for the best part of 20 years. Throughout that time he has remained so press-phobic that his office used to refuse to hand out biographical material to journalists. This is the first interview he has given, outside trade publications. He looks at me as if he is afraid that I may bite.

Powell's campaigns range from work for Unison, the TUC and Amnesty International to Volkswagen, Felix catfood, PG Tips and Gary Lineker's endorsement of Walker's crisps. "But the core is just beer and crisps," he says, modestly. "There is no need to give us a plug."

On the political front, he claims to operate only on the margins. But he was the host for the famous meeting to plan the abolition of Clause Four, held in great secrecy and without the knowledge of a subsequently furious John Prescott in Powell's New Forest home. "My brother Jonathan was looking for a venue. I was there, but in a very peripheral capacity." Handing out the tea and biscuits, perhaps? "Yeah, and pads and pencils."

Underplaying his power and influence comes easily to Powell, whose background status was emphasised early in life. The second son of an air vice-marshal and his wife - both staunch Conservatives - he was expected to follow Charles to King's School, Canterbury, and on to Oxford University.

Instead he failed his 11-plus and was sent to a less academic choir school in York. "I really struggled in my early teens. I used to walk out of lessons early. I was beaten for it all the time.

"Charles was two years older and more than studious. He was head boy. I would have paled horribly by comparison if I had got into King's with him. I was academically fumbling, and he was absolutely brilliant. Jonathan was 12 years younger than me and not as fast track as Charles. He didn't get a first. But neither did he struggle as I did."

Eventually Chris, a devotee of "Marxism, beer and girls", got a 2:1 degree in politics from the London School of Economics and ended up in advertising after applying to a string of agencies he had seen listed in the Reader's Digest. "That was my well-considered career; completely random."

Unlike Charles, Jonathan, or the fourth Powell brother, Roderick, who runs a water-meter consortium, he was also committed from his schooldays to left-wing politics.

He first worked for Labour in the 1974 general election and was singled out by Peter Mandelson in the 1980s to work (free of charge) to help make the party electable. Others assumed that the resulting slickness of Labour's marketing would secure eventual victory for Neil Kinnock. Powell never did.

"I don't know how close 1992 ever really was. In a way it put presentation in its place. All this idea about spin and hype creating the difference is wrong. They are important, but it's leaders, policies and political events that matter, not smoke and fire."

Dropped by John Smith - never a fan of the Mandelson camp - Powell came back to devise, for Blair, the 1996 election publicity drive, including party political broadcasts featuring the British bulldog and Major and Clarke as Laurel and Hardy.

For all his involvement in the campaign and for all his passion for politics, Powell has no hankering after his brothers' direct involvement. "Do I envy them? It's never crossed my mind. Though chief of staff is a good title. I wouldn't mind that; would you?" he says, half-mockingly.

"But it's all about making the Civil Service machine work. I have a horror of large organisations - too much reading Kafka as a child. You can't have an advertising agency with more than 500 people (he employs 450), whereas government is a great amorphous sponge. I sit on an NHS trust and watch money plopping down and being taken away for no reason you can discern. You sit there, and this deus ex machina keeps operating. All you are is a cog.

"Still, Charles's job must have been particularly fascinating; sitting with a prime minister in her last term, turning her attention to a world stage. It must have been difficult for him after it ended, although Charlie never gave any sign of it. He makes himself very busy. That's a family thing. We all twitch a bit."

Chris Powell is not, on the face of it, a twitcher. Barring one impulsive lurch into politics, when he stood for (and lost) Harrow East on the GLC, he has the unadventurous personal CV of a low-profile advertising tycoon (married, three grown-up children, home in Hammersmith, plays tennis, drives a BMW).

His brothers accompany Blair round the world; not only Jonathan but also Charles - once "completely apolitical", later Thatcher's aide and now, as Powell hints, a possible convert. ("Blair is admired by all sorts of people you wouldn't expect to admire a Labour leader.")

At home the Prime Minister's adman worries that the British profile is so woeful as to make action imperative.

"Branding Britain is an impossibility. It's not baked beans. But you can nudge the way a country is perceived. America has its service industry, Germany its cars, Australia its lager. Britain is famous for almost nothing of commercial use. So you look for clues. Our reputation for creativity is growing, and this country has a disproportionate history of coming up with inventions. That is a quality you could reasonably claim could be found in British products - that they are more creative and state-of-the-art."

Rebranding, as Powell tells the businesses to whom he sells his corporate promotion strategy, is not so difficult. Chile found that it was famous solely for dictators, whereupon it successfully concentrated on re-establishing itself as a purveyor of cheap red wine.

A move from Pinochet to Pinot Noir will not, of course, cut it for Britain. Still, Powell believes that, on many fronts, there are products and services that may rescue us from universal opprobrium. In pharmaceuticals, in financial services, in Dyson vacuum cleaners, he detects innovations waiting to be plugged.

"Other countries that don't have strong reputations are doing something about it. New Zealand is. Ireland is." And we, for all the government initiatives - Panel 2000 at the Foreign Office and Millennium Products at the Department of Culture - are not. As Powell complains: "We don't even like our own stuff."

And so the man who sold Labour to Britain is now intent on selling Britain to the world through the simple-sounding expedient of better products and a better image. "A virtuous circle. That is our grandiose aim," says the first marketeer of Creative Britain. Otherwise known, this time around, as Hot Britannia.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A prejudice as American as apple pie