Lunch with Lord Carter
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Lunch with Lord Carter

It has been two years since Stephen Carter left the UK Government, following a turbulent period that included a stint as Gordon Brown’s strategy chief.

Holmes Report

It has been two years since Lord Stephen Carter left the UK Government, following a turbulent 12-month period that included a stint as prime minister Gordon Brown’s head of strategy. One year later, Carter resurfaced at Franco-American telecoms giant Alcatel-Lucent.

Now based in Paris, Carter is EVP and chief marketing, strategy & communication officer at Alcatel-Lucent, the latest entry on a CV that spans some of the biggest jobs in media and marketing: CEO of JWT and Brunswick, COO at NTL and head of Ofcom.

We are ensconced in a Brussels restaurant after Carter called for the PR industry to overcome its "crisis of confidence", in a speech at the European Communications Summit. The other journalists in attendance, it appears, would rather discuss the finer points of network telecommunications; regardless, Carter offers some interesting perspectives on his time at Brunswick and in government, and on the PR challenges for Alcatel-Lucent and the network industry at large.

You said during your speech that you are not a communications person. Yet you ran Brunswick for two years. You still don’t consider yourself a comms person?

Not really. The reason I was brought in to run Brunswick was largely to “internationalise the business”, diversify, and also re-look at the capital structure of the business. I was brought in, I think, for a combination of reasons: one, because, people thought I had some sympathy with professional service businesses, which I would say I do. And secondly because they wanted somebody from outside who had no history, to be able to do things that it would be harder for practising professionals to do. So, I was a non-practising CEO of the group. Funnily enough, when I came, the view of the partners was ‘we absolutely don’t want you to do any client work at all, because the business needs somebody who gets up in the morning and only thinks about: how do we run, how do we institutionalise knowledge management, how do we expand, which countries should we go into, what do we buy, what do we sell…’

I worked out pretty quickly that it’s quite difficult to be CEO of that sort of business, without doing some form of advisory work. And, not because I was a comms professional but because of all the other things I have done, I did find there were plenty of customers who were quite happy to pay for advice. So I did do a bit of practice, but it wasn’t what I was there to do. And prior to that, I ran three types of businesses, none of which were PR businesses.

What did your experience at Brunswick teach you about PR and business?

Personally, I loved my time at both J Walter Thompson, and whilst much shorter, at Brunswick. It taught me the importance of relationships; that talent matters; how to make successes happen by not seeking the credit; and, the importance of enjoying what you do. Oh, and I met my wife.

What is your biggest communications challenge at Alcatel-Lucent?

Our company has had a communications challenge for the last three or four years since the merger, because the merger was not a triumph, initially. And it has taken much longer for us to begin to demonstrate to the market that putting Alcatel and Lucent as a combined global entity was a coherent strategic move, which is both operationally and technologically more compelling. For a while, we’ve had one of those communication black holes where the default descriptor of Alcatel-Lucent has been ‘the troubled Franco-American merger’. Now that’s beginning to shift partly because we are beginning to demonstrate that we have done or are doing the things that should have been done a while back. We are bringing innovation to market - we just launched another new product this week in the IP service router market. So, now I think our communications challenge is shifting, to being ‘what is your role in a world where data needs are exploding, network configuration and topology is changing, and how does that affect the way in which your businesses grow and develop.’

As an industry, our communications challenge is people don’t understand what we do.

Which people?

You. All of us are much more interested in the end device and the end application. Who really cares about the network configuration or the technology of the network, or how it works, or how it’s optimised or how it’s stored? But, actually, because of cloud, some of these questions are very, very important. I think, politically, communications technology and connectivity has gone from being something that was done in some division or department of state, to being a mainstream political ministry. So, connectivity and the power of network and the convergence between IT and telco, that is a reality that people are very aware of.

Do you have any concerns about the ways advertisers can now target people via mobile, location-based technology?

I’m not by nature a concerned person. I sort of take the view that the glass is half-full rather than worryingly half-empty. I don’t think the role of shouting or branding or display is gone. There’s a role for that, it’s important, and there will always be a role for that. Most of these things are additive. And in the marketing world, I think the addition is that if you are a customer of mine, we can now have an ongoing and very real conversation. And the marketing opportunities associated with that are significant. I think the key shift, which is a bit like the key shift in society, is that we’re now equals or, the consumer is now superior. I think what’s happened over the time period is that power has shifted to the consumer. That requires me as a brand to seek your permission, to be respectful of your culture, background and preferences. The brand that doesn’t demonstrate that, pays a price. It’s broadly a shift for the better.

Why did you leave government?

Because I had finished. I always said I would do it for a specified period of time and then go back to my real life. The Digital Britain project, which is really what I came into government to do, we finished it and that was always going to be the closing point. And the last year of a government is really much more about politics than about policy. And I’m much more about policy than politics.

When you came into Downing Street, you were head of strategy for Gordon Brown. Why move from that role into the parliamentary under-secretary position overseeing the Digital Britain report?

Because it was offered to me, is the honest answer. And I think history would judge I was far more suited to the latter than the former.

There were a lot of movements.

There were a lot of movements. Elegantly put.

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