In a field of one

The extraordinary life of Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones has taken him from the army, through the kitchen, to a successful career as a TV director, running a marketing agency and, now creating the Black Farmer brand. He talks to Patrick Burgoyne about the future of the supermarket, working with Tony Kaye on his first commercial and why it’s time for the ‘age of the creative’

Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones is one of those interviewees who needs little prompting to tell his story. And it’s a great story too – from leaving school with few prospects, to travelling the world making TV programmes to fulfilling his dream of buying a farm and creating his own, highly distinctive food brand. From failed squaddie to Black Farmer – it’s some journey.

Born in Jamaica in 1957 and brought up in Birmingham, Emmanuel-Jones describes himself as, “one of your classic working class boys done well” but his adult life didn’t get off to the best start. “I left school without any qualifications and then got kicked out of the army because of arrogance,” he says. “The one thing you didn’t want to be back then if you joined the army was a black, arrogant, son of a gun or else you’d get your head kicked in and I got my head kicked in.”

MASTER_flamenco copy
Stills from the upcoming Black Farmer TV commercial, directed by Tony Kaye. The ad features Emmanuel-Jones’ love of Morris Dancing and Flamenco

With few prospects, he decided to give catering a go. “If you were a failure at everything, the only option available to you then was catering.” He professes amazement that “it’s now developed into one of the golden professions to go into where people talk of pride in being a chef”.

Emmanuel-Jones went to catering college in the West Midlands, loved it and ended up working in hotels and restaurants in Birmingham. But all the time he was harbouring an unlikely goal in life. “From 11 years old I had a dream that one day I’d like to own farm,” he says. “My father had an allotment and it was my responsibility to look after it. I loved the peace and quiet.”

Everything he subsequently did, he says, was aimed at getting into a position to buy that farm. “I knew I was going to have to earn money, to progress up the social ladder, to do that. At the time there was a brilliant documentary series on called 40 Minutes. I loved that programme and I thought ‘right I want to go into television and work on documentaries’. My friends and family thought I was nuts because, a, I could hardly read and write because I’m severely dyslexic and, b, because there’s a very Oxbridge type who goes into the BBC and that wasn’t me. But I was determined.”

After badgering anyone and everyone who worked in TV that he could find, Emmanuel-Jones met someone who was to change his life: Jock Gallagher, then one of the executives at the BBC’s Pebble Mill studios. “What you have to do in life is spot what I call the guardian angels,” Emmanuel-Jones says. “These people out there who are going to take a chance on you, stick their neck out and give you a break. I went to see this guy and he said ‘look, you’re not the sort of person we’d normally employ in television because, a, you haven’t got the education and, b, you’ve got a bit of an attitude problem, but, he said, though it might be something he lived to regret, he would take a chance on me.” Emmanuel-Jones started as a general runner progressing to be a researcher, before winning a place on the BBC’s famed trainee scheme, after which he became a producer/director.

BELOW: Tony Kaye filming Emmanuel-Jones for The Black Farmer’s first TV commercial at West Kitcham Farm in Devon. Agency: Big Eyes

“At every stage of my career there have been people who have gone out of their way for me,” he says, people who were prepared to “forgive my negative traits and see that behind my front there was some sort of talent.” Peter Bazalgette was another of his ‘guardian angels’, acting as mentor throughout his time at the BBC.

Emmanuel-Jones went on to travel the world directing TV food programmes, principally the groundbreaking Food and Drink series. “Because I’d worked in a kitchen, it was my job to break in first-time celebrity chefs – people like Gordon Ramsay, James Martin, Anthony Worrall Thompson.” Such characters could prove a handful: “If you are a head chef, you run your kitchen with an iron rod,” he says, “But when you are doing a film shoot, you don’t want them coming in and taking that attitude. I had some spectacular fights with these chefs. As a director, the moment you lose the shoot and the talent takes over, you’re fucked. It was really important people knew you were in charge.”

Emmanuel-Jones directed food programmes for over 10 years, “But the dream of having my own farm was always needling away at me. Working in television is a pretty glamorous life but there’s no money in it really. I realised I needed to go and make some money.”

No more supermarkets?

In 1994 he decided to set up his own food and drink marketing agency, Commsplus. “I wanted to run an agency that was in line with my personality – about being challenging, working with brands that wanted to punch above their weight and have an attitude,” he says. Among the brands the agency worked on were Loyd Grossman foods, Kettle Chips and Plymouth Gin.

Emmanuel-Jones ran Commsplus until 2005 but eventually became frustrated by the politics and compromises involved in dealing with clients. “Consensus breeds mediocrity, creativity is about being single-minded,” he says. “I thought the only way I can do something creative is to do my own thing – develop my own brand.”

In 1999, he finally bought his farm (in Devon), where he became known as the Black Farmer. Ever the controversialist, he chose the name for his own brand of meat products, which launched in 2004, though he doesn’t make the products himself.

“I didn’t want to fall into the trap that a lot of people fall into which is to get involved in the making and distribution of it,” he explains. “My skillset is in sales and marketing.” Emmanuel-Jones devises the recipes for the Black Farmer products but then has them made by a third party,  “so I can focus on the creative stuff”.

He believes that the food sector is about to undergo a similarly disruptive period to publishing. “What is fascinating about the great publishing revolution, and soon to be supermarket revolution, is that once journalists were the gatekeepers. If you wanted to get to the consumer you had to go through journalists, so they had lot of power. That has now changed. Supermarkets are going to go through exactly the same process. They are gatekeepers too but now you have the likes of Amazon Fresh coming into the market. They are going to change the notion of what a supermarket should be. Over the last 15 years retailers have dominated the food chain. Amazon are about distribution and logistics – no-one’s going to buy an Amazon chicken – but they will buy a brand. What Amazon and the like will do is allow consumers to have a much better relationship with a brand. In ten years time I don’t see supermarkets being around.”

Instead, he believes, power will shift back to brands “who understand that you have to love the consumer and that if you love them and look after them, they are absolutely loyal”.

What the Black Farmer brand sells, he says, “is more than the sausage – it’s an attitude, it’s a mentality, it’s all encompassing. What is going to separate one good product from another is the relationship they have with consumers.”

Age of the Creative

As well as a revolution in retailing, Emmanuel-Jones also believes we are about to witness a big change in advertising. “I will say to anybody thinking of working with an ad agency, ‘bugger the suits, they are an absolute waste of time, you want to build a really good relationship with the creatives’. If you go back to the heyday of advertising, that came about when the creatives were gods. The moment when the suits took over, the creatives got pushed to the background.”

“What I would like to see,” he continues, “is clients getting access to creatives, so that we have an ‘age of the creative’ when they run the shop. Science dominates decisions and what we forget about is the gut, the things that science can’t explain. When I did the market research for my brand all the research said ‘no, the name will frighten people, it will be polarising’. It taught me a really good lesson about research which is that it will teach you about where people are at today but it won’t tell you where they will be at tomorrow and for that you need vision. Great advertising does that.”

Emmanuel-Jones is just about to launch what he hopes will be his own contribution to the advertising canon – the first commercial for the Black Farmer brand. It features Emmanuel-Jones himself, leading a troupe of Morris Dancers and playing guitar with a Flamenco dancer on his Devon farm. It was shot in characteristically sumptuous style by Tony Kaye, in whom Emmanuel-Jones found a kindred spirit (see right).

BELOW: Tony Kaye filming Emmanuel-Jones for The Black Farmer’s first TV commercial at West Kitcham Farm in Devon. Agency: Big Eyes

Emmanuel-Jones has worked with the Big Eyes agency but, he says, the content of the commercial came from him: “That ad,” he says, “could never have come from a white person. Black people tend to be represented in a bland way so as not to make people feel uncomfortable. This ad is not constrained by that because I want to challenge stereotypes about what it means to black and British. It celebrates rural Britain and making things that appear to be uncool cool.”

“Agencies need to work with people who are small and courageous, if you are a careerist marketing director you are not going to be courageous,” he continues. “When you think of the great Guinness Surfer ad there was a mentality that the creatives were in charge, that the client would want to be linked to this piece of art. That’s where we need to get back to, because art will sell. I want to make a piece of art.”


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