Outgoing BrewDog CEO James Watt created a global craft beer powerhouse which revelled in its outsider status, but his reluctance to grow up gracefully meant he was no longer the right man to lead an increasingly corporate company eyeing an IPO

James Watt

The proverbial saying any publicity is good publicity might be a point of debate among marketeers and PR advisors.

But its an adage James Watt embraced with gusto during 17 years of generating hype and headlines at his disruptive craft beer company BrewDog.

From its early beginnings in co-founder Martin Dickie’s mother’s garage, to its most recent estimated valuation of around £1.8bn, much of the popular narrative around BrewDog has been characterised by an irreverent, self-styled punk attitude.

Founded amid the tabloid-fuelled excesses of the 2000s, BrewDog was the enfant terrible of the brewing and bar world, its gonzo approach showing an impressive ability to generate outrage and publicity.

Popularising what was then a fairly niche style of beer in the UK, Watt was not afraid to put noses out of joint in the sector establishment, pledging the Punk IPA brewer would never sell out to “a monolithic purveyor of bland industrial beer”.

While going to battle with big beer, he staged a long-running back-and-forth with regulator Portman Group, with a series of provocative labels.

Purporting not to care what the social responsibility body had to say, many of these guerrilla marketing campaigns were knowingly destined for failure, but nonetheless succeeded in their real ambition of building its notoriety as an industry rebel.

As a start-up looking to smash the establishment, Watt also took inspiration from the Big Tech ‘move fast and break things’ philosophy.

Cultivating a cult-like following in the burgeoning craft beer scene, it was leveraged to great effect in its Equity for Punks crowdfunding rounds which raised more than £25m.

Over time, Watt would look to emulate the Steve Jobs playbook of the guru CEO, looking to tap into a whole consumer lifestyle and identity around product choices.

Watt and Dickie also formed a brand that was strangely prophetic of the internet and political climate to come. Their anarchic tactics of hurling information into the ether and seeing what sticks, resembles one-time Donald Trump advisor Steve Bannon’s method to “flood the zone with shit”.

Like the former US president, Watt has more latterly begun to demonstrate an outright loathing of the mainstream media, as editors have become increasingly cynical of his PR manoeuvres.

Watt’s modern era also has parallels to another hubristic entrepreneur with fanboys and haters in equal measure. Elon Musk has Twitter, while Watt’s preferred platform is LinkedIn, where he can directly channel his unadulterated messages in a safe space stacked with sycophants.

As BrewDog has grown, and its revenues and bars have multiplied, the once mischievous stunts have appeared increasingly puerile in retrospect.

The brand’s industrial chic bars have become a firm fixture on city high streets, though their style has inspired a legion of copycats and now feels rooted in a previous decade.

The hoppy pale ales they helped popularise are now some of the big sellers in pubs and supermarkets, but one of a range of brands now available to curious customers.

As it has become more established, the hipster beer enthusiasts that leant it an air of cool have long since deserted back to smaller independent brewers and the now fashionable Guiness – albeit BrewDog now has a much broader cohort of consumers.

Meanwhile Watt’s pick-me posturing has regularly opened it up to charges of rank hypocrisy. The brand’s claim to be a scourge of the corporate world were stretched to incredulity when it sold a minority investment stake to TSG Consumer Partners, which part owned Pabst Blue Ribbon. Meanwhile Watt was also reported to personally own shares in Heineken.

Despite his critics, Watt has built a hugely impressive business with a superb record to point to. The company operates in over 70 countries, ships over 1 billion cans of beer, and last year grew revenues to £321.2m.

Yet his biggest hurdle, arriving in 2021, may well have been the scandal that put his leadership into terminal decline.

In a series of revelations, Watt was personally accused of presiding over a toxic workplace, and a culture of fear and intimidating behaviour.

In a familiar pattern of wanting to have his cake and eat it, Watt both acknowledged leadership mistakes, while hitting back against “false rumours and misinformation”, accusing the BBC documentary sources of having an axe to grind.

As the single biggest shareholder in the business, he resisted pressure to resign, despite reports of increasing unease from investors TSG.

Yet his flailing response of promising to “listen, learn and act” while lashing out at his critics only prolonged the crisis.

City grandee Allan Leighton, former CEO of Asda, was brought in as chair three months after the scandal broke to provide “experienced counsel on leadership and governance matters” and act as a mentor to Watt.

But while Leighton may have steadied the ship, the company further trashed its popular perception as a good employer after pulling out of the Real Living Wage scheme.

Watt was at pains to offer a counter narrative to the “ridiculous levels of criticism” it received over the move, insisting the company pays better than 90% of its competitors – a piece of whataboutery which won’t have endeared him to sector peers.

It once again showed his inability to keep his counsel, to listen to PR advisors and to demonstrate genuine self-awareness and reflection.

All the while, the company has been plotting a long-mooted IPO in America, a listing that could well have been delayed due to an investment climate still cautious of consumer businesses - or due to enduring concerns over an unpredictable leader who had ultimately become a distraction.

Watt’s replacement James Arrow, a retail veteran of Boots and Carphone Warehouse, will no doubt be seen as a much more predictable and calming corporate presence as the company reboots its IPO plans.