The just-drinks Interview - Portman Group CEO Henry Ashworth
Henry Ashworth, the Portman Group's chief executive
Henry Ashworth has faced plenty of challenges since taking the reins at the Portman Group in 2011. Dealing with the fall-out from decisions by the group's independent complaints panel and the ever-agitating UK health lobby means life is rarely dull. Here, Ashworth talks to just-drinks' deputy editor James Wilmore about the watchdog's work, and a certain Scottish brewer.
Being the head of a regulator must be a thankless task. You’re either dealing with complaints about a product, or being complained about by someone you’ve taken a decision against. But, for Henry Ashworth, head of UK drinks industry watchdog the Portman Group, it’s just all part of the job. It comes with the territory.
“I’m not unused to having criticism thrown at the Portman Group,” he tells me as we meet at the group’s head offices in central London. But, even for the 44-year-old former civil servant, the reaction earlier this month from Scottish brewer BrewDog over a ruling on its Dead Pony Club pale ale will take some beating. The Portman Group’s independent complaints panel found the beer’s packaging breached the industry’s marketing code for encouraging anti-social behaviour and "rapid drinking".
Never shy of letting his true feelings be known, BrewDog’s provocateur-in-chief James Watt let rip. Watt branded the Portman Group a “gloomy gaggle of killjoy jobsworths, funded by navel-gazing international drinks giants” and said he “couldn’t give a shit” about the ruling.
So, how does it feel to be branded a “gloomy gaggle of killjoy jobsworths”?
Ashworth appears unfazed. “I guess what was most interesting about the BrewDog situation is we had their response in the same week that Labour put out its first foray on public health and alcohol and what it might do in government,” he says. That week a Labour policy document emerged suggesting the UK’s main opposition party would consider introducing tough new curbs on selling and advertising alcohol, if elected. Labour denied that this is official policy. Nevertheless, Ashworth’s point is that some UK politicians are looking for an excuse to further regulate the drinks industry.
We’ll come back to that.
Clearly, he is reticent to engage directly on BrewDog’s barbs. But I try again. Does he feel the criticisms were unwarranted?
“A regulator should always expect criticism,” says Ashworth. “The key point is, are the rules clear, are they consistent, do they apply to everybody in the market? Sometimes, people will feel the rules seem to be harsh. But, the bigger picture is that there are some people out there who would rather see alcohol marketing banned, full-stop.”
Of course, BrewDog and the Portman Group have history. The watchdog found problems with the company’s 18.2% abv beer brand, Tokyo, in 2009. Following the latest ruling on Dead Pony Club, Brewdog also argued that the organisation “vilifies creativity”.
Again, Ashworth takes it on the chin. “I absolutely welcome innovation. My background is as an entrepreneur. I understand the value and power of humour and innovation. What we have to do is help producers big and small through our advisory service look at how to be as creative as they can be without breaching the rules the industry has had in place for the last 18 years.”
But, does Ashworth regard BrewDog’s outburst as irresponsible? Could episodes like this threaten the self-regulation model for everybody? Again, he is phlegmatic. “No. I think people generally look at any code of practice and they will see that anyone who has had a ruling against them may decide to make that very public. That is their choice. That is a matter for them (the company) and their shareholders and their customers. Whether that’s good for their business, or not. We have to maintain a clear consistent set of rules for the wider drinks industry.”
Let’s deal, then, with the point that the group is only funded by its big corporate members. At present, the group has ten members that bankroll it, plus 140 signatories to its code that agree to abide by the judgements. “Somebody has to fund an organisation,” says Ashworth. “You could put in place, as some might want to happen, a levy on anybody who tries to market alcohol products, which happens in other sectors. But, we’re trying to be an open transparent organisation.”
Ashworth is keen to stress that the independent complaints panel is exactly as it says; “independent”. Its chairman is also head of the Electoral Commission, so a highly-trusted figure. Ashworth notes, though, that the membership of the Portman Group is “constantly under review”. He adds: “I would welcome any drinks producer who wants to consider joining. It’s a good thing to align around. I have conversations with people from time to time, I’m happy the members are fully supportive of what we do and we recently had a new member join last year - SABMiller.”
But it is not only the odd rogue drinks company that Ashworth has to joust with. The UK’s health lobby is no fan of drinks industry self-regulation. Last year, a swathe of health bodies walked out on the Government’s much-touted Responsibility Deal. The Portman Group chief admits he finds the stance by some health professionals disappointing.
“It seems counter-intuitive to me that, when partnership working at a local level is so effective, that there are people who believe partnership working at a national level might not be effective,” he argues. “There are many people from the public health community who would rather not see a Portman Group and would rather not see any alcohol marketing, it’s incumbent on the whole industry to be mindful of that.”
Ashworth points to the progress producers are making in cutting alcohol units from products. “A cut in units would be very complicated to do through any legislative programme,” he says. “My only answer is, we have to get on and show what can be achieved and then encourage public health community to get back on board with us and work with us.”
All this sounds like a test for anyone.
But, again, Ashworth, is determined to stay upbeat about the role he occupies. “It’s challenging, it’s fun,” he says. “If everybody around you feels challenged, that’s good. The job of the Portman Group isn’t to be a trade association. I’m not here to be a nice guy. Our role is to be fair and tough, but also to be a good critical friend of the industry.”
Judging by some of the flak directed at it, then, it would appear the Portman Group is fulfilling its task.
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