Profile: Mike Love

By Marc Wright

Mike Love is someone well known in the industry, but whenever his name comes up in conversation there is almost always a row about who actually he works for. You see, most Communication Directors tend to be satisfied with getting the top job at one major household name.  But Mike Love has climbed to the heights of not just McDonald’s, but also Microsoft and today he is the Corporate Communications Director for BT Global Services.

But I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised.  When he was a Tory constituency agent, he didn’t do the job for any old backbencher – no; Mike Love was the agent to Britain’s most famous living Prime Minister.

So when I met Mike at BT’s London HQ I was expecting a larger than life figure – the Simon Callow of corporate communications, perhaps. Yet I found Love to be a modest and unassuming figure although clearly passionate about his job.  His dedication to employee engagement goes back to his roots. Love is a Londoner by background and his father was a lifer with M&S, ending up running one of their distribution centres.

“He was hugely proud of the company although the word brand never passed his lips. I remember him talking about board directors coming down to his store and rolling up their sleeves, serving customers and testing the oranges.  They were living the brand. I know it’s a pat phrase but M&S have been doing just that for 150 years.”

Another formative influence was an elder brother who was a senior civil servant – and that connection sparked Love’s early interest in politics.  After a short spell marketing oil at Shell he was recruited by the Conservative Party to be political agent to Sir Hugh Rossi, the Northern Ireland Minister.  Other appointments followed but he hit the big time when he was appointed agent to a certain Margaret Thatcher.  She interviewed him and he got the job.

“Being an agent was fantastic experience.  I learnt my trade in PR during those years.  It was only after I left the job that I understood that it was all basically communications work; it was my baptism by fire.  But to become Thatcher’s agent was a dream position for me. I learnt a tremendous amount being around her and it was a privilege to have that access and that experience.”

Politics also introduced Love to the importance of technology in winning hearts and minds.  He was an early adopter of telephone canvassing setting up what we would now describe as a call centre, and was one of the first users of computers to campaign in elections.

This was also the height of the IRA’s bombing campaigns in London and Love used to start every day with his daughter checking their car for bombs before driving her to primary school.  In fact he narrowly missed being a casualty on the 12th October 1984 when his pregnant wife insisted on leaving the Grand Hotel in Brighton 30 minutes before it was bombed by the IRA.

Less is more

Working for Margaret Thatcher gave Love an essential lesson for any communicator; keep it brief.

“I had prepared a briefing for her for an event that went horribly wrong.  She complained to me that the crucial information she wanted wasn’t in my briefing to her.  I told her that it was in her briefing on Page 2. ‘Page 2!  What’s Page 2?  If I need to say it, you need to put it on Page 1,’ she said.

After that I only ever gave her a single A4 page briefing. When you are dealing with busy people you have to work in a way that’s appropriate to them.  Some CEOs want to read all the background.  Others want 5 bullet points.”

Would you like fries with that?

Despite the high profile nature of working for Thatcher, of all his jobs Love returns to McDonald’s time and time again in our interview as the most formative time of his professional career. Possibly because his first few weeks were spent cooking burgers.

“I was standing in Brent Cross McDonald’s in a crew uniform serving customers  thinking this time last year I was working for the Prime Minister, but that was the best experience I’ve ever had and not a day goes by when I do not draw on it.  It taught me the importance for a comms professional to understand the business you are in and to personally experience how a customer-facing company works.”

When Love was appointed McDonald’s Head of UK Communications it was one of the few senior roles to be appointed from outside the company.  From 1994 he was 10 years with McDonald’s during its period of huge growth outside the US.  With growth came a higher profile and an in-tray full of reputation issues; not the least of which was obesity and the challenges from “Fast Food Nation” and “Supersize Me”. He was also voted PR Week PR Professional of the Year following his leadership of McDonald’s through the BSE crisis.

“We had some big changes during that time.  The Comms teams played a significant part in driving the changes underpinning  business success with consumer trust.  One of my mentors was Al Golin of Golin Harris. He had been McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc’s first appointment as PR consultant, appointed before any advertising agency.

Al had developed the concept of a Trust Bank for McDonald’s. Put simply, this taught the company that to be able to draw on the Trust Bank in tough times, it had to pay-in trust earned during good times.  And trust of course starts at home – inside the company.

“Internal Communications is absolutely crucial.  I learnt the importance of inside-out comms with the Conservatives working in a voluntary organisation where the “product” is a shared belief in a policy. If your own workers and supporters don’t believe, what chance is there of convincing anyone else? This was equally true at McDonald’s.  Internal and external are two sides of the same coin, you can’t achieve one without the other.

“It is part of the culture in McDonald’s that people are the most important part of the business,  because the vast majority of the senior team used to work in the restaurants; it’s their total focus.  All my meetings with senior executives would happen inside restaurants. Even the global CEO would do a stint in every restaurant he visited.”

Meaty challenges

Love’s UK role expanded as he created a corporate affairs function including government relations and CSR. He left the UK operation having led an in-house team of twenty-three and a significant number of consultancies including Luther Pendragon, Bell Pottinger and the Red Consultancy. He was promoted to a new role as corporate affairs vice president for Europe.

“Sometimes, it seemed as though I spent most of my time working from airports around the world as the McDonald’s operation grew.  Often issues which new territories encountered had struck first in the UK, so we built on our experience, although in other cases hot issues grew elsewhere as with anti-globalisation in France for example where the local McDonald’s team addressed local issues with solutions that were taken globally by the leadership in the US. The French company at the time used a strap line ‘Born in the USA. Made in France’ which said it all”.

“From politics to McDonald’s was not as much as jump as I thought it might be because people in the company felt as strongly about McDonald’s as people in politics feel about their cause.  I joined a special company at an interesting time.  For instance we made the decision to move to free range eggs following the criticism about battery egg production. The criticism was based not just on perception but on a reality. The management felt that the practice was cruel and decided to change the reality.  But at the time there were not enough free range eggs in the whole of Europe just to satisfy the needs of McDonald’s UK.  It took us 5 years to create a new supply chain, but we did it.”

From Big Macs to software giants

Love is attracted to Marmite brands – the kind you either love or hate – and after Thatcher and McDonald’s he went to Microsoft as Comms Director for EMEA.  It was a big job with a wide remit and a quite different internal audience.

“IT pros and developers are a highly intelligent, articulate, tech-savvy bunch.  They are bright, young and enjoy a fast moving business culture with seamless communications connected 24/7.

“A fundamental part of my job was to co-ordinate activities from different 20 business groups.  Each one had become increasingly autonomous in the way it communicated, they were quite siloed.  The challenge was to tell one Microsoft story by creating a master narrative framework for storytelling that met the needs of each geography and product group, but still made sense as part of the whole. If for example, you needed to talk about a product in the Home Entertainment Division like xBox360  stories were developed about the functionality of the gaming product, but also how a game becomes part of a consumer’s life, and its significance in society.  The challenge was to take elements of that story and weave it into a one Microsoft story that addressed diverse product and serve areas such as big enterprise server systems and online communications.”

“We needed to integrate comms internally and externally and internationally across cultural differences and understand better how reputation works in different national cultures and to have consistent and relevant messages for an individual who might simultaneously be a regulatory decision-maker, an IT specialist, a home or business user of MS software or the parent of kids who are gaming. The point is that every touch counts.”

Communicating at BT

When Microsoft moved his job to Paris Love chose to stay in the UK and take on his latest role at BT.  He was hired as part of a new executive team created to launch a new part of BT dedicated to systems integration expertise and the six sigma management of large scale, complex and high value integrated IT programmes including BT’s contracts as a service provider for the NHS National Programme for IT, the biggest civilian IT project in the world.

Then he was offered Corporate Comms Director for BT Global Services – a real hot seat concerned with a major business turnaround challenge.  In April the City was shocked by BT taking a £1.3bn charge against its fourth-quarter earnings largely because of serious difficulties with BT Global Services where Love is now part of the transformation and communications team supporting the turnaround of the performance.

“We’ve gone through a significant amount of reviewing how contracts were managed during a period of rapid growth.  We now have to make that growth both profitable and sustainable.”

Despite the dire financial performance Love is upbeat about his role.

“All the roles I have had have been about change. In politics I worked for a Party that changed the way we live and work against the international backdrop of the fall of Communism.  McDonald’s evolved from an American company with international operations to become a genuinely global brand.  Microsoft underwent dramatic change as it started to move from reliance on a proprietary software licensing model towards interoperability and online services.

“At BT the major change is about taking a successful growth story and making it sustainable. The change is what makes it exciting.  People care and have strong emotions about BT’s rich heritage.  It is part of the fabric of our lives; it’s a company and brand we all grew up with in the UK.  But globally, it is a new company with a new story.”

“For me the most important challenge is how you create meaningful and audience-relevant conversations.  In a basic way, to think about how a message is best received not how it is sent and understanding that every touch with a company and its brand counts.”

It’s a steep challenge that Love has taken on, but it puts him right in the centre of the new world of global, online and Web 2.0 communications.  It might take all of his political guile, but if anyone can help BT communicate amid such technological, commercial and social change it’s this experienced and shrewd communicator.