The marketing of Edinburgh to the world is in big trouble – John McLellan

The writing has been on the wall for Marketing Edinburgh chief executive John Donnelly ever since the city council decided to slash the organisation’s budget by £300,000 in February and decreed it had to become entirely self-sufficient by April next year.

John Donnelly departure leaves a vacuum at the top of Marketing Edinburgh. Picture: Greg Macvean
John Donnelly departure leaves a vacuum at the top of Marketing Edinburgh. Picture: Greg Macvean

He didn’t get the chance to present his plan before falling – or being pushed on to – his sword last week and the immediate problem for the company, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the council, is who will take on the job against a background of savage cuts and high expectations.

Some would be delighted if tourism stalled, but despite what some councillors might say the council’s clear demand is for growth and a mission statement spells out its expectations for “an official city promotion body dedicated to promoting Edinburgh to the world”.

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Last year the council’s grant was £890,000 and the SNP-Labour administration was all set to slash it to around £100,000 which would have closed the organisation and put its 20 staff out of work, despite ruling out compulsory redundancies. After the customary Scottish Government budget re-think the cut was limited to £300,000 but the remaining £590,000 will be reduced to zero within 12 months.

Getting rid of Mr Donnelly and his £140,000 salary might seem like an obvious saving, but there is now a vacuum at the top because his departure is with immediate effect. While the organisation grapples with an uncertain future he’ll have been enjoying the Easter sun on a golf course somewhere, presumably with a significant severance and non-disclosure package safely lodged with his solicitor.

He leaves behind a company bound by a nine-point “service level agreement”, not so much an agreement but a ransom with a £790,000 gun against his head and those of his staff.

Point nine was “Reduce Chief Executive and Senior Management Team time and input into core council activities”, so from Mr Donnelly’s point of view at least that’s one box well and truly ticked, but most of the other eight are big jobs in ferocious global markets in which Marketing Edinburgh is expected to deliver with no leader and a slashed budget.

They lay out how Marketing Edinburgh is to support the Festivals, use the Convention Edinburgh and Film Edinburgh brands to build the city’s business conference programme and attract film production but at the same time show how it will generate all its income from the private sector.

Mr Donnelly was due to present an annual performance report at the next Housing & Economy committee on June 6, but figures presented in February showed it had helped produce marketing investment worth £580,200 from partner organisations while Convention Edinburgh received £295,311 in membership fees and was ahead of its targets for digital advertising revenue (£53,712) and accommodation commission (£99,575). Marketing Edinburgh was able to demonstrate it generated £99 of activity in the wider Edinburgh economy for every pound spent.

The presumption must be there are thousands more out there waiting to be hoovered up by a successor who must not only match but exceed these numbers, and probably be expected to do so for a lower salary and have homework regularly checked by council officers and councillors whose expectations are that the organisation will deliver a world-class service for free.

Nowhere in the Service-Level Agreement is a value attached to the Council’s expectations, in other words what it would have to pay a private company to meet its objectives if Marketing Edinburgh didn’t exist. The tortuous mission statement continues: “An organisation with clout, credibility and confidence. A well-run organisation that is efficient with its resources, and is trusted by everyone that matters in the city because it delivers what they want. An organisation that looks and feels like a city promotion body. An organisation that measures its impact on the city and the wider city region economy.”

All that’s missing is “and we expect all this for the square-root of hee-haw”.