Ken Livingstone, mayor of London

Back in 2002, London had hit rock bottom as a tourist destination and a brand. Like many international cities dependent upon a steady flow of traffic at its airports, overseas visitors had sunk to a relative trickle after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

And that was not the worst of it.

The city also was plagued by a series of economic setbacks when several giant developments either failed outright or were massively delayed. Chief among the embarrassments: the Millennium Dome, a World’s Fair-type exhibition hall built along the Thames that was marred by long lines, broken ticketing equipment and delays in constructing rail service.

Ridiculed by everyone from cultural critics to Prince Charles for its odd, wok-like shape, the Dome has been described as “the biggest fridge magnet in the world” and a “memorial to the total incompetence of Cool Britannia.” Once the 2000 celebrations were over, no one could quite figure out what to do with the structure, and it became a monument to the hubris of the British government, which ordered it built.

Across town, Wembley Stadium, the ancient home of England’s national soccer team, was closed in 2000 and demolished in 2003. The stadium, with its castle-like gates, had famously hosted mega concerts and been the site of England’s 1966 World Cup victory over West Germany—an event that is at least as important as the end of World War II in the English psyche. Its replacement got stalled during renovations, forcing London to relinquish its role as host of the 2005 World Athletics championships. It was, as mayor Ken Livingstone told Brandweek in September, “a series of disasters.”

Today, all that has changed. London’s disparate forces came together, and the city in July 2005 won its bid to host the 2012 Olympics, beating out Paris and New York for the honor. A day later, a terrorist attack on the city’s Underground subway system claimed 52 lives and sent more than 700 to hospitals. But Britain again showed its stiff upper lip—from Queen Elizabeth II on down—and turned the senseless destruction into a potent rallying cry. This past summer, British authorities foiled a terrorist attack targeted at Heathrow Airport, preventing trans-Atlantic chaos.

Much of the responsibility for London’s renaissance lies with its top cheerleader, Livingstone, 61, who was elected in 2000 and has since harnessed the city’s wealth, power, culture and vision as its de facto CEO. Bloggers note that Livingstone’s pr machine paints him as Thomas Jefferson meets Father Christmas wrapped with Nelson Mandela. Certainly, he is full of bluster and contrasts. Some consider him anti-American, even anti-Semitic. Known for his socialist politics, “Red Ken” as he is nicknamed, hurls insults at George Bush one week, then makes a deal for cheap Venezuelan oil the next. He has appeared as an occasional panelist on the U.K. TV quiz show Have I Got News for You, and breeds a collection of amphibians in a tank at his home. He is, perhaps, London’s best practitioner of at once the kind of unabashed candor and foot-in-mouth proclivities that Jon Stewart loves.

Of course, it’s not as if Livingstone turned the city’s image around single-handedly. But for all of his flaws, the man, who has taken cues from New York’s hardy soldier Rudy Giuliani, contributed three key ingredients that earned him Brandweek’s Marketer of the Year award:

First, realizing the city needed to be actively marketed as a world-class destination, Livingstone re-established London’s then-anemic tourism authority, Visit London, by hiring 75 people and giving it a proper £10 million (or $19 million ) budget.

Second, he formed a coalition in pursuit of the 2012 Games that featured two of his political enemies: Sebastian Coe, the former Olympic running champ who later became a Conservative member of Parliament; and prime minister Tony Blair, who both expelled Livingstone from the Labor Party and fought, unsuccessfully, against him becoming mayor.

Finally, Livingstone has a talent for keeping his media profile on fire, simply by opening his mouth and speaking his mind. By extension, even as Blair’s stormy term reaches its end, London’s popularity has soared in the worlds of fashion, politics and culture (enter Mary Poppins on Broadway this season). Who would have imagined that a European public-sector socialist could offer the world lessons about marketing?

London mayor Ken Livingston, despite suffering from a bad cold, broke off from a day-long series of meetings last month to speak with Brandweek. Here’s what an Old World socialist has to impart to the New World’s marketers.

Brandweek: Do you know what this interview is about?
Ken Livingstone: I’ve won something like Mouth of the Year Award, or something like that.

BW: Close. Marketer of the Year. You created Visit London, the city’s tourism agency, in 2002 and 2003, upping its ad budget and staff considerably. Why did you do that?
KL: We had this old [tourism] board, and its broad approach seemed to be that because we had the Queen and Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London and Beefeaters that tourists would always come. And it was really very old fashioned in its thinking. In a city like London those things are always going to be there; that’s not a reason for coming this year or this month. We had to really sell what was new about London, what was exciting, the things that might never happen again. I’d only just been mayor about 18 months. It wasn’t top of my priorities but after 9/11, the collapse of our tourism and leisure industries in the center of London was catastrophic. Turnover was 30 to 40% down and we were heading for a real meltdown. So we basically had to take control of the situation, target European tourists and people from the rest of Britain to fill the gap that was left by tourists from Japan and America.

BW: Was that why you got on board with the bid for the Olympics?
KL: The bid for the Olympics was an accidental thing.
I never thought we had a chance of winning the Olympics when the British Olympic Assn. came to me in 2000 and early 2001. We were in a mess with the Millennium Dome [a hugely expensive exhibition center with no clear purpose], Wembley [the legendary stadium of England’s national soccer team, currently being rebuilt] was delayed, we had to drop out of the international athletics [London had been named host of the 2005 World Athletics but withdrew because it lacked a suitable stadium], a series of disasters.
The only reason I said “yes” was because I knew the government would have to give me two or three billion pounds more investment in transport to make it a credible-looking bid. It was only when I went to the Olympic Games in Athens that I realized that the image of London was so strong and had picked up so dramatically that I saw we had a chance of winning. So then we threw all our resources in massively. Up until that stage I always thought it would go to Paris. We fought it like a political convention in the United States. We lobbied, we kept checking back on every delegate. I didn’t think there was anything we could have done that we didn’t do. And even then we only pulled it off by four votes. It was by no means a foregone conclusion.

BW: To do that you had to be in an alliance with some people you’ve had disputes with in the past. People like Tony Blair and Sebastian Coe. What was that like?
KL: I’ve never had a problem with Seb Coe because he’s such a polite person. He was one of the few Conservative members of parliament I’ve never been rude to. We got on fine. He’s very focused on winning things. With Tony Blair, we’d had this huge, bitter struggle about his attempt to prevent me from being mayor of London. But he had come out and said he had made a mistake—one of the few occasions I’ve heard a politician apologize and say he’s got it wrong. And we’d had a very good working relationship after that.
The other wonderful thing about Tony Blair, which is not the case for other world leaders, is he said, “What do I need to do to help us win?” And we said to him, “We need you to sit in a hotel room for 48 hours and speak to one delegate after another.” And I can’t think of many presidents or prime ministers who would be prepared to go through that exhausting and tedious and mind-numbing exercise. But he did it. He just sat there. He got off the plane, he went to his hotel room and we wheeled them in one after another. It was a very impressive bit of work.

BW: The Brandweek audience consists largely of American capitalists. What does a public-sector European socialist like yourself have to teach us about marketing?
KL: So much of what the private sector wants to do still rests on a public sector body making a public investment. No one is going to revive a run-down area unless the public sector comes in and puts in new rail lines, public transport and so on. It’s that partnership between public and private. Far too often there’s been a knee-jerk view that the public sector will always fail and the private sector will always win, and that isn’t right. It’s a question of finding good managers who can deliver your big projects in time and under budget. And that means being prepared to pay world-class prices for world-class people.

BW: Has the importance of actively marketing the city grown in your mind?
KL: No. Twenty-five years ago, when I was leader of the Greater London Council, I was the first person on the left of politics to recognize that opinion polling and advertising had a vital role to play in getting your message across. Broadly, the left had been hostile to all this. When I came back to this London role I had no doubts about the need to go out there and sell yourself and sell what’s best about your city, but also to understand how people saw it. Our initial marketing research told us that most international tourists saw London as cold and rainy and [featuring] men in bowler hats and bad food. A bit like describing America as filled with cowboys and buffaloes. It’s absolute nonsense. Or is it bison?

BW: It’s both, I think. Does having a mayor as a single figurehead for the city now make a difference?
KL: It absolutely does. I can make decisions about where we are going to throw our resources, what we’re actually bidding for. Previously you had to get 32 borough councils all to agree, which is a recipe for absolutely nothing happening. Tony Blair created the London mayoral system on his own personal initiative and he modeled it completely on the American mayoral system, and in particular the strong mayor system. And it’s been brilliant for me because I’ve been able to get things done so much more quickly. When we throw our weight behind say, something like the Thames Festival [an outdoor art-themed carnival], which has been puffing along for years, we’ve gone from having 50,00 people to having 600,000. You go out there and sell it.

BW: What is next for London tourism?
KL: One is, after years of neglect, we think we’ve found a perfect site for a modern convention center. This is where our tourism has lost out.

BW: Where is that going to be?
KL: I can’t quite tell you yet because we’re still doing the land deal but it’s right at the center where it really, really matters. We’ve also moved heavily into great big shopping malls. We’ve always had a problem for Oxford Street and Regents Street, and we’ve now got a broad consensus with the shops there that we’ll largely pedestrianize that with a tram running down the middle, making it a much more attractive shopping environment.

BW: I thought for a moment you were going to say you’d turn Oxford Street into an American-style shopping mall, all closed-off and surrounded by giant parking lots.
KL: We’ve got those scattered around the suburbs. But one of the reasons people come to London is for the shopping experience at the center. We’d be mad not to modernize that. The pedestrian environment has got to be improved. But we’re also talking to the stores, we’ll retain the façade but a lot of them are quite old. You need a modern shopping experience behind the façade, and that means reconstruction and a real increase in size. [He breaks off into a coughing fit.] Everyone is going on at me as though I’m about to drop dead.

BW: You’re obviously very sick. A visit to Orlando to accept your Marketer of the Year Award would do you a power of good.
KL: I wish I could be there. I’ve never been to Orlando. I’m sure the weather is lovely. I’m actually off to New York instead, off to the Bill Clinton [Global Initiative] thing at the end of this week. That will be fun.