Remembering Ian Wells

Anecdotes about long lunches flowed at Ian Wells’ funeral – but those who knew him as a newspaper man will best remember his achievements and lasting contributions to the industry in New Zealand over several decades.

Aged 76, Ian Douglas Wells died on January 4 and more than 400 attended his funeral at Old St Paul’s Cathedral in Wellington on January 9.

Credit: Stuff.co.nz

From 1986 to 2002 Ian was General Manager of Wellington Newspapers, a subsidiary of Independent Newspapers Ltd (INL), now Fairfax NZ. The Wellington company published the Dominion and Evening Post, merged in 2002 to form the Dominion Post, the country’s second largest daily.

Ian managed the juggling act of leading two papers which competed head-on for readers, while offering advertisers a joint deal across both mastheads. His mastery of a double-buy ratecard which delivered the company more than its share of agency dollars was typical of his clever business approach. This contributed significantly to the continued survival of both newspapers longer than in just about any city of Wellington’s relatively small size.

On the national stage, Ian drove the expansion of the Newspaper Advertising Bureau, since renamed Newsworks NZ, which developed and marketed advertising packages across all NZ dailies, irrespective of ownership. The NAB, as it was called, was responsible for securing hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising for newspapers, and became a powerful weapon against television and other media.

Auckland-based marketer Maurice Mehlhopt joined the NAB as executive director and believes Ian Wells was the key influence behind a new sales and marketing initiative called Metpak. This, for the first time, offered agencies and their national clients a simple way of placing campaigns in all metropolitan newspapers – “a quick and cost-effective way to reach one million readers every day” says Mehlhopt.

“He created a totally new metropolitan rate card and drove it through the industry with such logic and passion that any opposition from within the industry was nullified.”

“The industry, with a previous history of being very difficult to buy, suddenly had a new vision which was embraced by all. New money flowed back into newspapers, and new clients achieved marked success, previously thought possible only by using television. The regional papers soon followed suit. That period is looked back on as a watershed time for the industry – largely led by one man, Ian Wells.”

In agency land, a close collaborator was Kim Wicksteed, former head of Saatchi & Saatchi, then New Zealand’s largest agency,  with Telecom and Lotto among its big clients. Wicksteed told the funeral gathering “Wellsy was smart, passionate, engaging and fun – always prepared to try new things and make them happen.”

He recalled the Absolutely, Positively Wellington campaign which Ian drove, with Saatchi’s, 23 years ago. This campaign, since gifted to Wellington City Council, did much to rid the capital of its often dreary, public service image, and is still used to this day.

Other speakers talked of Ian’s early marketing coups which included attracting Charlton Heston to Wellington in 1966 to play a celebrity tennis match on a city street with world mile record breaker and Olympic champion Peter Snell. An estimated 10,000 people turned up. Much more recently, in 2007, he was a key member of the small group who got the Phoenix A-league soccer team to be based in Wellington.

Credit: terra.govt.nz

The lifelong sporting interest goes back to Ian’s first job at Wellington Newspapers as a sports reporter which came after he had qualified as an accountant and spent a few years working for accountancy firms. But accounting was not in his blood even though he remained highly competent with numbers – not a common trait among journalists. From the sports department, his first foot on the management ladder was being appointed company promotions manager followed by another step up to the post of advertising manager.

His sports involvement included 25 years as chairman of New Zealand Tennis, chairman for many years of his local Miramar Football Club and several years as deputy chairman of NZ Football.

As to the stories of lunches, Kim Wicksteed said Ian Wells was smart and savvy – “and he was pretty keen on savvy.”  And as most of us who lived through the ’80s and ’90s claimed, any lunch was business-focused, a time when the best ideas (and wines) flowed.

I worked closely with Ian, first as editor of the Evening Post from 1987-90, then at INL through the 90s and into the early 2000s. Until his funeral, I didn’t fully appreciate the extent of his lunching prowess. But a couple of memories linger. One was at the farewell of his friend Alex Veysey, a legendary sports journalist who gave Ian his first journalism job. As the lunch at an Italian restaurant lurched into the night, Ian was seen standing on a bar stool, sleeves rolled up trying to scoop goldfish out of the restaurant’s aquarium.

Ian also liked to mark the occasion of the opening of the Bluff oyster season by getting bulk supplies flown up to Wellington, matching them with suitably-chilled Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc, and inviting into his office a few key clients and colleagues. To ensure there were no problems with head office regarding his expenses, he made sure head office was invited. I can tell you they were vintage sessions.

Credit: Stuff.co.nz

Sadly, Ian developed Alzheimer’s Disease three years ago, and last year declined rapidly. He died leaving his wife Joan and only child Jason, who represented Wellington in cricket, and now manages an agency team in Wellington. Ian’s first wife Sylvia died some years ago.

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