Series #fmbewords: Locked in on Lockdown

Frank Wainwright reflects on 2 recent jail sentences for crooks masquerading as  field marketers and how field marketing at grocery has since developed into a capable and essential service that is shining during this crisis. 

One thing I have learnt from lockdown is that our freedoms are curtailed relatively easily when we are in agreement with the state. As soon as both the people and the Government were on roughly the same page about how we should protect the most vulnerable and how to mitigate as much as possible the damage to workflow, then civil obedience to a radical set on impositions on freedom was facilitated by a willing public who rapidly self-policed the rule breakers with social (media) disapproval.

So, the power of the state has recently been seen at its most dynamic. Less than a month ago the Cheltenham Festival was, after all, in full swing.

Circle back to a week before Cheltenham and I witnessed State action seen at its most dogged and determined in terms of FMBE. It was a unique and depressing, seemingly small story.  A series of business crimes from 2004 to 2013 were finally laid to rest with jail terms for the chief perpetrators, Gareth Onions, David Webb of The Brand Company. The Brand Company was once a mid-size field marketing agency with major tactical brand team representation for some of the most prominent FMCG teams in the UK. Onions and Webb were well known agency directors.

Their business phoenixed multiple times, and I now know that Onions and Webb paid themselves handsomely whilst entering administration, eventually owing nearly £3 million of unpaid taxes to HMRC.  The pair also pleaded guilty to money laundering.

Fortunately for me, 3 days into trial, Onions and Webb, together with colleague Glenn Delaney pleaded guilty for their crimes that had an 8-week trial slot booked at Southwark Crown Court. I say fortunately, as I was due to be a witness at this trial and the whole duty of it was a necessity but potentially inconvenient.

The fact that I was a witness at all was an immense nod to the dedication of our legal system. There would surely be witnesses who knew much more than I did. Any evidence could have provided was decidedly meagre but it had nevertheless been followed up diligently several times through the intervening years.

The result? Onions was sentenced to 5 years 6 months imprisonment and banned from acting as a director for a further 7 years.  Webb was jailed for 4 years 2 months and disqualified for 5 years, and Delaney received a two-year prison sentence, suspended for two years. He was also disqualified for 5 years.

It is the sentence rather than the verdict that comes as a shock as we so often seem to hear of business frauds getting away with it. Onions and Webb were widely rumoured to be up to no good and although my own research into their directorships eventually caught up with their slippery ability to reemerge successfully from debt-laden agencies it was hardly super-sleuthing.

This sentencing was years in he making. We are all collectively paying for these crooks, even now as we all chip in to keeping them in prison.

It was probably as long ago as 2009 or 10 when I last saw Onions and Webb. At the time they seemed to have a knack for undercutting the field marketing market rate to win tenders. It is now obvious that this was done by financial cheating rather than through dynamism, efficiency, effectiveness and industry.

At the time the Field Marketing industry saw a series of agencies going under, many revealing creative accountancy processes as they subsided.

It has taken a long and persistent pursuit from The Insolvency Service and HMRC to prove that The Brand Company was not operating on a level playing field.

The past decade has seen transparent and fully accountable field marketing agencies driving the industry forward and clients who are alert to best practice requirements, doing more due diligence before appointing an agency.

The jailing of The Brand Company duo feels like closure on that long past era, and the more markedly so as the current crop of leading FMCG field marketing agencies are helping food retailers and brands to navigate shopper requirements during a pandemic lockdown whilst Onions and Webb are locked up.

The status that many field marketing agencies currently enjoy as a vital service during a crisis is a result of our industry’s collective push for best practice coupled with trust that the state is our friend in recognising and protecting best practitioners.

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