High50 Entrepreneur Jonathan Durden: My personal male grooming venture is a load of balls

Jonathan Durden founded and ran one of Britain’s most successful ad firms, PHD. He tells us why now, with his Below the Belt venture, he’s trying to change men’s grooming habits

Do you manscape? Shave, wax or simply trim? Do you use products ‘down there’? Modern men’s dilemmas are what Jonathan Durden wishes to address with his start-up, Below the Belt Grooming.

It sounds like a joke. But starting a company is a serious business, so I head for Durden’s ‘office’ at The Ivy Club to find out more. His reputation goes before him and his exploits have been well covered in the media: former advertising man, entrepreneur, a stint on Big Brother, a book aptly titled Essex, Drugs and Rock ’n’ Roll. Durden was clearly a wild boy in his time.

Back in 1990 he founded and ran one of the most successful British advertising companies of all time, Pattison Horswell Durden or PHD (he jokes that this was the only way any of them would get a PHD). The agency was credited with inventing ‘creative media’ (an innovative approach to buying media airtime and space).

By 1996 it had a £100 million turnover, and he and his partners sold it to the then Abbott Mead Vickers (part of Omnicom).

He says that one of the secrets of their success was to hire a psychiatrist to work with each member of staff to find what made them happy. They then designed the company around what the employees wanted to do. It kept lots of people motivated for a long time.

By the time Jonathan left PHD in 2007, it had a £5 billion turnover (today it’s grown to £10 billion).

After leaving PHD, Jonathan became creative director of two other companies and it was during this time that he wrote a book (loosely based on his own exploits), appeared on Big Brother, where the tabloids had a field day, describing him as “a multi-millionaire businessman who became a gigolo for kicks”.

Having survived a drink and drug problem and the death of his first wife, Jonathan went to live in Spain, got re-married and had a baby. But, he says, not being a golf player, he needed something to do. He realised that men’s attitudes to their bodies have changed, but that there are no personal grooming products made specifically for men.

How did you come up the idea of men’s grooming products?

“I realised we are paying more attention to our bodies than ten years ago. My son is 26, and men his age shave their chests, they go to the gym, they get tattoos, they are gorgeous, fit, proper iconic-looking chaps who are in touch with their feminine side. It occurred to me that men are not catered for specifically.

“The products men are sold are women’s products with MEN written on them. Yet we are built differently, specifically downstairs, where God clearly had an off day.

“Men put antiperspirant under their arms but don’t consider what going on in their underpants. The contents of their boxer shorts are trapped in the dark chafing and flapping about, and just having a shower in the morning is not enough. It’s about time someone tried to answer modern men’s dilemmas and it starts with BOLLOCKS.

“It used to be talcum powder [that we used] but when black underpants and aerosols arrived it died out. We have come up with a gentle and natural solution.”

How did you make it happen?

“I had an idea with one product and talked to a former client about it and with our shared skills we thought it could work. We are 50/50 partners and self-fund it. We’ve been trapped in other men’s pants for the past year, which is tragic.”

Why the name Below the Belt?

“Along with being a boxing term and the line of what is acceptable behaviour, this name sums up what we do.  My suggestion of ‘The Loin King’ for a name seemed hilarious for a moment but was a short-lived joke.

“We have three products so far:

“Fresh & Dry Balls, which is a gel, quickly absorbed, and leaves a fine dusting of a talc-like powder. It’s civilised, it’s comfortable and it’s confidence building.

“The Waterless Shower is perfect for going out straight from work and can’t get to a shower, or you are at a festival, or going on a long-haul flight. It also gets rid of bacteria and leaves you refreshed.

“Third, we have a Sports Lubricant, which prevents chafing, both pre- or post-exercise.”

Durden is ambitious and wants to build Below the Belt into a £20 million business.

Where do you sell the products?

“We sell on Amazon and on our site, and hope to be selling to Boots very soon.

“We have five more products coming and apps that will deal with modern men’s dilemmas, such as halfway houses or ‘Hubby Hubs’ where men can go following a divorce to rehabilitate themselves into their new world.”

What is it like starting up in your fifties?

“You don’t start where you left off. There aren’t 3,000 people hanging on your every word. You start again and you are in the hands of people whose job it is to decide whether your product is good or bad.

“There is no ego. It doesn’t matter who you know, who you are, what you’ve done. The fact of the matter is, you are nobody with a product. I don’t regret a second but I don’t sleep a lot.”

What mistakes have you made?

Underestimating the fact that you are in other people’s hands and you are not God, in fact you are more like Dog. You have got to get over yourself.

“I thought I could persuade everybody immediately that I am a genius but it is not in my hands. And this is frustrating when you are in your fifties. But I will win and it will work.”

Jonathan’s top three tips for starting a business in your fifties

1. Choose a partner that you first met in business, not your best friend, your sister, your brother or your wife. Start with respect and then build friendship.

2. Focus on your place in the world. Make sure you believe in it in order to sell it.

3. Don’t be a control freak, and embrace talent. Find out what makes your employees happy. It’s not about you.