The Richard Branson and Mike Oldfield story: When you need someone to do something they don’t want to do

Cynics might interpret the title of this post as a definition of marketing and, thus, the world we live in today. But, as marketing is my job, how could I agree?

One of the advantages of working in creative businesses is that, on the whole, decision-making is based on creative talent and strength of argument rather than rank or pay grade.

After all, you can’t expect people to write what they don’t think, draw what they can’t see or film what they cannot imagine.

So, in the business sectors in which I have worked – music, publishing and advertising – people have the right to say no.

On the other hand, in the management of these businesses, there are times when you just have to persuade people to do things they might not want to do, however reluctant they might be, and for their own good as well as the business.

Once, I was managing the advertising for a large corporate conglomerate in whose portfolio was a relatively small French wine brand.

I knew the production budget would be unlikely to inspire any of the creative teams at my agency. But I did persuade the client that a visit to the vineyard in France might inspire better work than we might otherwise expect.

Our client, one of the best I have worked with, as you are about to discover, not only concurred but managed to borrow his company’s private jet for what became a memorable and inspiring day – and advertising that was twice as effective as it might have been.

But I have never done anything, or had so much at stake as this:

Back in the day, Mike Oldfield was a jobbing musician hanging around the bars and clubs of London. He had sent early demos of Tubular Bells to every record company in town.

No one was interested.

But Richard Branson, intent on launching Virgin Records, was captivated by the tapes and paid for the studio time Oldfield needed to record an album that would sell 18 million copies, spend over 300 weeks in the charts and earn royalties then, today and forever.

Furthermore, this one piece of work kicked off all of Branson’s later success and was the launch-pad of the multi-billion pound Virgin empire that we know today.

However, back then, and just as Mike Oldfield had finished recording his masterwork, Richard Branson had a problem.

Recognising the need to promote this new product (he has been good at this in his career), Branson knew he needed to do something to launch it. As is often the case in creative industries, what better way to promote a product than the product itself?

Branson arranged a live recital at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Mike Oldfield was not keen on this idea. He was not keen at all. In fact he said no.

Tubular Bells had been meticulously constructed. Oldfield had played every instrument himself. A multitude of complex production issues had been overcome, including over 1,800 overdubs. Oldfield had not begun to consider the implications of performing his work on stage. The last thing he wanted to hear was ‘Do it again but live!’.

But Richard Branson did not cancel the concert. He smoothed Mike Oldfield into his car – an old Bentley which his parents had bought for £300 and given him for his birthday.

On his way to the gig, and right at the last minute, Oldfield – again – told Branson he would not do it. He did not like it. He did not want it. He did not need it. He was exhausted. He had nothing left in the tank. It was all too much. There was no way he could play the concert.

Branson pulled over to the side of the road and the conversation went like this:

Richard Branson: ‘If you can overcome your psychological problems and play this gig, the keys to the Bentley are yours.’

Silence for all of five seconds.

Mike Oldfield: ‘I think I’m feeling slightly better!’

Oldfield gave a breathtaking performance and brought the house down.

And the rest is history.

Brilliant.

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