Having left university with an MBA, Paul Moreton has developed a very successful career in media and leisure with a special expertise in marketing. Merlin Entertainments’ first Group Creative Director, Paul’s role encompasses the whole Merlin business – all sites and all brands; and he and his team in Merlin Magic Making are at the heart of Merlin’s development and growth strategy.
With a background in both visitor attractions and TV, and a solid track record of delivering commercial growth and driving creative renewal, how is he effecting change at the world’s second biggest visitor attraction operator? Just a fortnight before the opening of the new London Dungeon on the South Bank, Charles Read caught up with him.
Related: Mark Fisher, Merlin Entertainments’ Chief Development Officer & Merlin Magic Making / Rob Hicks, Director of Displays Development SEA LIFE, Merlin Entertainments / Merlin Entertainments to Build Madame Tussauds in Prague as part of European Expansion Plan / Merlin Entertainments Among Britain's Most Admired Companies / Merlin Magic Making Appoints Shows Director
How did you first get into the leisure industry?
I used to work at Alton Towers; my first job was selling balloons. I then went off to University and took a degree in Economics and History. After graduating, a job came up at Alton Towers as a marketing executive. At that stage Nick Varney was the Marketing Director and my boss was Mark Fisher (‘Fish’), now Merlin’s Chief Development Officer and Head of the company’s unique Merlin Magic Making Organisation – and of course my boss again!
You were with The Tussauds Group (’98 to ’04), and while there launched the then British Airways London Eye.
It was fantastic to be involved in such an attraction. Although at that time while we all believed it had the potential to become the modern icon for London, its actual success has been phenomenal and far beyond what we hoped for. It is amazing looking at it now to think that originally we had only 5 years planning permission – and there was always the chance it would not be renewed beyond that!
You also played a major role in the repositioning of Madame Tussauds globally as a contemporary, relevant brand when you were with TTG – a transformation which Merlin has continued to evolve now rolling the brand out globally. What were the most significant changes you felt however that were made at that time to the brand to kick off this repositioning?
In the late 90s Madame Tussauds was seen as a slightly fusty, almost museum-like attraction, with roped-off figures in very archaic poses. What we realised then, and the research backed up, was that while there was a real public affection for the Madame Tussauds brand visitors found it very static and a bit old fashioned. More than that most UK views in particular were based on visits done when people were children…..and not repeated since, unless it was to take a foreign visitor or their own children.
Our aim was to make it dynamic and relevant to today, to give people a reason for revisiting, and make it much more of a modern, immersive and interactive brand – with a bit of edge. Madame Tussauds was after all ideally placed to exploit the growing cult of celebrity which was emerging. So first out came the ropes and barriers and we started to encourage visitors to really get up close and personal with the figures. We also looked much more critically at who we featured and how best we could use our figure investment – which was after all not limitless. One of the first things we did, for example, was decide we would not automatically include the Leader of the UK Opposition as well as the Prime Minister, as we always had done in the past. There was simply insufficient interest in such a figure from visitors, and also the potential for frequent change, so it was ostensibly a ‘waste’ of a figure slot. At the time this position was held by Ian Duncan Smith of the Conservative Party. We used this decision to kick off an edgier PR approach – which was at the very centre of the repositioning – causing quite a furore in this case, with MT even featured on the front page of The Times!
We continued this with a number of other controversial PR activities which were designed to put the brand front and centre and make people look at us differently – guerrilla tactics like overnight putting the David Beckham figure on the empty “fourth plinth” in Trafalgar Square. This not only showed the brand was very much in line with the way people were thinking; but also reminded people that they could ‘meet’ their contemporary heroes in the attraction.
Another example of this was the inclusion of a new, and very risqué, Kylie Minogue figure which not only reflected her own change from girl next door to rock siren, but was displayed in her own special area which also gave visitors the opportunity to perform and dance like her. More than that, as they came close to her figure she whispered the famous line ‘I cant get you out of my head’ – a very special moment for thousands of our visitors.
This was the first example of a much more interactive strategy; which also included a whole area focussed specifically on David Beckham scoring the goal that got England to the Finals (the injury-time free kick against Greece in 2001 that secured England’s qualification for the 2002 World Cup finals), including vibrating floors, crowd reaction and the beating heart of the great man himself. In short, we made the whole attraction much more current and really involved our visitors with the figures. We even brought live actors in to rejuvenate the Chamber of Horrors creating "Chamber Live", a harrowing recreation of London's Newgate jail. This added a new, younger appeal while still staying true to the roots of the Marie Tussaud story. These are all strategies on which the brand has continued to build and refine as it has grown.
The thing is, going through the door at Madame Tussauds and seeing your first wax figure is, and always has been, an amazing experience. Our challenge then, and still is, was to get people to that point. In the UK that meant altering old fashioned perceptions – challenging them. Of course now with Madame Tussauds opening around the world in places where there are no such preconceptions, the brand is effectively new. The challenge in these markets therefore is to explain the experience and at times to position it against other, often computer or social networking based ways of interacting with celebrities. Here we are perhaps in the same situation Madame Tussaud found herself 200 years ago when she first brought the attraction to a public who had never seen anything like it before.
While you were GM at UKTV you were responsible for repositioning and relaunching several of the organization’s businesses including creating three successful new TV channels – Alibi, Good Food and Watch. What are the key differences between creating / marketing attractions and marketing a TV channel?
With attractions if you create something, you can see it/touch it, there is an immediacy about it as well as an opportunity to actually witness your visitors’ reactions as they experience that attraction. You get the Instant gratification of knowing if they like (or don’t like) it. For TV, you create a show and the whole process is much longer term, involving viewing figures and analysis of trends, feedback etc.
There is something very tangible about attractions. With TV you have to innovate all the time, constantly. TV audiences can be different every day and they are very fickle, and becoming more and more so, especially with the availability and ease of access to so many digital channels. You have to get their attention very quickly – viewers will flick over to another channel within 2 minutes if they don’t like what they see.
Is there anything you feel attractions can learn from the TV industry?
How fast moving people’s tastes are. You can’t rest on your laurels in TV and need to keep constantly innovating. Huge swathes of the population both in the UK and abroad are now choosing what they want to watch and not relying on the broadcasters. The viewers are more in control and the attractions industry needs to move this way too.
You joined Merlin just over a year ago (See Merlin Entertainments Appoints Paul Moreton as First Group Creative Director). What attracted you to the role – which was an entirely new one – and the company?
I had always been interested in how Merlin was doing. I had been keeping an eye on its development and obviously I still knew people there including Fish and Nick from my earlier experience at Tussauds. The company’s journey and growth was inspiring and very attractive – and the role outlined very challenging and I believe played to my strengths. I certainly haven’t been disappointed!
You are Group Creative Director for Merlin Entertainments, a key role in the company’s unique Magic Making (MMM) organisation. What does this involve?
No one day is like another. MMM is an entirely unique organisation. A relatively small team of around 400 creates, builds and project manages all the new attractions and innovations across all Merlin’s brands and sites around the world. Every day is different – and brings new excitement and challenges particularly given how fast moving and dynamic Merlin is. I might for example, start the day with a call to Australia about developments at a SEA LIFE aquarium; this may then be followed by a visit to one of our attractions with my team to experience what the guests are experiencing and to check everything – from the lighting to theming to the layout – is as it should be. I may then end the day with a call to my Creative Lead at Madame Tussauds in Tokyo (which is about to open).
What has been your greatest success/ most satisfying development since you joined Merlin?
Probably working on the creation of the new London Dungeon on the South Bank. After 30 years in Tooley Street, near London Bridge, we have moved the whole attraction to Country Hall and this was a huge challenge (County Hall, on London’s South Bank, was the headquarters for London’s Government for over 6o years and now houses a variety of attractions including Merlin’s London SEA LIFE Aquarium and the London Film Museum. Merlin’s London Eye is directly next to County Hall).
Not only have we to some extent had to ‘create’ the eerie and dungeon-like feel which was a given under the railway arches in Tooley Street (including importing a family of rats from the original site!); but we have also used the opportunity to introduce new and exciting features and technologies to the brand. In short we have recreated within the building a space so immersive and convincing that visitors think they are in anywhere from Tudor England right through to Victorian England. As you can imagine the project threw up a lot of challenges – including operationally, given up until the end of January we were also continuing to operate at the old site.
You have talked about, “unlocking the creative excellence in every one of Merlin's 20, 000 employees." In practice, how is this being done?
We have a number of initiatives and are developing more. One is “Spark an idea”, the aim of which is to ensure that ideas from any of our employees from our over 90 attractions around the world can “bubble to the top”. Early signs are encouraging and we are seeing a lot of great ideas – and we have proved time and time again that good ideas and insights can come from anywhere – inside and outside the business! Most important is to underline to all our colleagues that real ‘magic’ isn’t just about the very big ideas – but also those hundreds of special little touches which are often very specific to individual sites – whether it is Crabuccinos in Oban or singing heads on poles at the London Dungeon. It is this emphasis on creativity at every level across the business which really picks Merlin out from the rest.
Is Merlin looking at new IPs right now – how important are they to the company’s future development?
Yes, the right IPs and partnerships can play a very important role in our development as long as they complement and enhance our own very strong brands. We certainly have some exciting new opportunities on the drawing board – though none that I can talk about yet. Merlin is also increasingly regarded as a favoured partner by global IP owners because they know that we will add value and enhance their brands in our attractions – as we have done most recently for example working with Fox on Ice Age; and DreamWorks on developing the live Madagascar shows first launched last year at Chessington World of Adventures, but now set to launch with an even bigger version in Heide Park and Gardaland.
Would you ever consider developing any brands which are specific to a particular country/ region only (e.g. China)?
Anything is possible. One of our greatest creative sources is the global nature of the Merlin business. We operate in over 20 countries and on 4 continents, and we are always looking for inspiration, stories and new ideas. These might be original, newly created characters and narratives, established stories or even national fairy tales or folk lore that are just out there in the ether. We are, after all, story tellers, so if there is a good story we are interested.
All images kind courtesy Merlin Entertainments, except Balloon image from Le Ballon Rouge.