Chris Ward: How I got students into Radiohead
James McKeigue Dec 20, 2011
Chris Ward: Winning customers for life
Managing bands may be fun, but it wasn’t making Chris Ward rich. By the age of 30, he had toured the world with bands, but still didn’t have a penny to his name. Moreover, he had just met his future wife – “it was time to make some money”. Inspiration arrived in the unlikely guise of the former prime minister, John Major. When Major announced that his party was going to send more people to university, Ward realised that growing student numbers would swell the market for music.
Ward reckoned he could make money helping companies sell to students, and so he set up Beatwax marketing agency in 1992. He began with his old contacts from his days as a band manager and landed EMI as his first client. Radiohead, an unknown act at the time, had just brought out their first single; Ward was offered £400 to promote the band to students. “I focused on student newspapers and radio shows. They were cheap to get a presence in and had a big effect.” He also persuaded student DJs to play the song and report back on the reception from the crowd. The record label was impressed, and quickly gave Beatwax more work. With business growing, Ward hired an assistant, Jamie Theakston, who later went on to find fame as a BBC radio presenter.
By the end of 1993 sales hit £30,000. “As my network of university contacts grew I was able to offer a more comprehensive service and charge more for my work.” But the real breakthrough came in 1994 when he won a contract to promote a new film, Wayne’s World. “It was great… it was the first time that we were marketing something other than music. Also the budget for films was much bigger.”
Ward moved to a new office and hired more staff. He also began to target other brands. For example, Beatwax promoted tea producer, Twinings, by distributing 20,000 herbal tea sachets around universities and colleges. “All of a sudden more companies wanted to target the student market. They realised that if they got students early they could be customers for life.” Beatwax benefited from being an early mover, although more companies later joined the fray.
The firm’s coup de grace came in 2000 when it was awarded a contract to represent nascent social media firm, Friends Reunited. Ward’s campaign slowly raised Friends Reunited’s profile in the local and regional press before he contacted the nationals. “At the time there was a lot of bad press about dotcom millionaires making lots of money. I focused on the family side of the story and the fact that it was set up by a husband and wife from Barnet.” Ward won awards for the campaign.
In 1998 he set up First Movies. It used the internet to provide filmmakers with tailor-made focus groups. “Until then, film companies stood on street corners looking for the type of people they needed for a focus group. We used the internet to give them the right people very quickly.” By 2003 sales across both companies passed £4m and a larger agency, Miracle Media Group, made an offer “worth several million”. Ward accepted. After a stint as the creative director at Comic Relief, his latest venture is Blue Dot, a “social currency” that awards prizes for donations or good deeds.
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