Jonathan Warburton says he was the sort of child who ‘ran away from the school play’. Acting? ‘Not bloody likely’. He laughs about his lack of enthusiasm these days, of course.
‘So now I’ve done five pieces of acting in my whole life — and my co-stars have been Sylvester Stallone, Robert De Niro, Miss Piggy, Peter Kay and now George Clooney. I’m not sure you’d find many proper actors who can say that.’
Who knew that a career with the family bakery business — started in 1876 and still based in Bolton, for goodness sake — could have led here?
This weekend, Warburtons’ latest TV commercial will air for the first time. Jonathan, 63, who runs the company with his two cousins, has a starring role, eating toast.
How difficult can it be to eat toast convincingly? Quite difficult, even when your name is Warburton, he admits. ‘Sometimes you do have to do 20 takes, but it isn’t always my fault when it doesn’t work. It might be the cameraman. Although I do have trouble remembering the lines and the more takes we have to do, the more I overthink it.’
His co-star in this advert is George Clooney. Crumbs! The story goes like this: Gorgeous George wants a Zoom meeting with Mr Warburton, but Mr W is way too busy having his afternoon toasty snack, so he shuts his laptop.
Jonathan Warburton stars in the firm’s latest advert with George Clooney (pictured) over a Zoom chat
It’s all madly implausible. Who has toast in the office at 3pm? And then there is Ave Maria on the soundtrack, toast flying triumphantly into the air (rather than having to be hooked out of the toaster with a knife, risking electrocution) — and butter spreading with ease (as if).
The most preposterous ingredient is Clooney. ‘It’s a little bonkers, yes. I was stunned when he said yes, but he was an absolute star, such a nice fella. He doesn’t take himself too seriously, which is what you want.’
Now while it is obviously a coup to land George Clooney, we don’t normally associate him with toast. Like most women, I’ve had my share of Clooney daydreams. None have involved toast. Or butter, come to think of it (although . . . ).
Was this a deliberate ploy to get more easily swayed women buying your bread, Jonathan?
He says yes, in a roundabout way. ‘I’m not being sexist here but who is the major shopper in most families?
‘If you look at our target audience — women between the ages of 25 and 50 — you won’t find any woman who hasn’t heard of George Clooney, nor will you find anyone with anything bad to say about him.
Jonathan Warburton said he was ‘stunned’ when George Clooney agreed to be in their advert
‘And if a red-blooded woman happens to find him attractive, and thinks of him when they are standing in the supermarket when their usual loaf isn’t there . . . ’ He leaves the obvious conclusion unsaid.
Is Gorgeous George as dishy in the flesh? Alas, Jonathan never met him (it was all done via Zoom) but he says, yes, he was intimidated starring opposite a bona fide sex symbol.
Let’s face it even Brad Pitt can look a bit meh next to Clooney.
‘I didn’t have Botox to prepare, no, but I did shave off my beard, only to find that Clooney had one. He’s a good looking fella, though.’ Attractive? ‘I prefer his wife,’ he says.
Clooney took the part on one condition: the hefty fee (no, Jonathan won’t tell us exactly how much) was paid to the charity foundation Clooney runs with his barrister wife Amal.
Indeed, he tells me that it was Amal who was chief negotiator, not George himself.
‘He was busy filming, but I was a bit gobsmacked to be told that she wanted to meet on Zoom.
‘I think she wanted to know “Who on earth are this lot from Bolton, and why on earth would we want to be involved with them?” ’
Jonathan set about wooing Amal. Or was it the other way round? Whatever, they hit it off.
‘I did my research. She’s got an impressive CV, hasn’t she? I didn’t know what to expect, but she was just terrific, as normal as one would hope from people with that level of fame. We nattered away for 45 minutes.
Jonathan Warburton has done five pieces of acting in his life, alongside Sylvester Stallone, Robert De Niro, Miss Piggy, Peter Kay and George Clooney
‘We both have twins, although mine are older, so we talked about twin stuff, and general family stuff. She wanted to know about our company, what we stood for. I think she liked what she heard about our family values.’
It gets more surreal.
The Clooneys’ dog got in on the action. ‘They’d got a lockdown puppy, a St Bernard, who ambled into shot and I said “Wow, did you realise how big that thing would grow. You’re going to need a saddle”.’
Did they talk bread, toast, crumpets? Not being funny here, but Amal doesn’t look like the sort of woman who eats a lot of crumpets, Warburtons or otherwise.
‘I did ask, and I think it’s fair to say she didn’t give me the straightest of answers,’ he says. ‘She did say she likes crumpets but I didn’t get the impression she eats a packet a week.’
Obviously Warburtons only had the confidence to even approach the Clooneys because they have form when it comes to celebrity involvement in their brand.
Robert De Niro was another Hollywood great to have appeared in the Bolton-based business’ advert
Warburtons is an industry juggernaut, of course. It is now the UK’s biggest bakery brand in an £8 billion industry. It has a turnover of £550 million, employs nearly 5,000 people, supplies all the major supermarkets yet, most unusually, is still family-run.
Jonathan started working for the company in 1980, having gained management experience elsewhere first (at Unilever).
He has firm views about the pitfalls of running a family business. He and his cousins are the fifth generation of Warburtons to run the company.
There are ten members of the next generation, and not a single one works for the company — yet.
‘We’ve told our children (he and his wife have four, all in their 20s), that we would love them to come on board, but they have to get experience first, and prove that they have what it takes to go to the top. Otherwise the managers will not respect them and it will end up being a disaster. Nothing will be handed on a plate.’
Comedian Peter Kay sets the scene in another advert for Warburtons as a woman looks on
He’s a typical Lancashire man: straight-talking, no nonsense, not the sort to be easily swayed by celebrity.
Yet he says he was first aware of the power of, and requirement for, TV advertising early on, persuading his parents to appear in the very first Warburton’s advert.
About eight years ago — by which time the family was worth upwards of £600 million — he was discussing a big-budget advertising campaign with his colleagues. They had a script, involving a hero delivery driver battling to get fresh bread into the supermarkets.
‘Being a careful Northerner, I thought we must have one of our own drivers who could do it, but the thinking (from an advertising expert) was that we actually needed an actor.
We had one of those “If we were being crazy, ridiculous, who would we go for?” conversations, and someone said Sylvester Stallone.
Everyone laughed, but the advertising agent said “I know someone who knows him”. I thought it would be someone who had once stood next to him in the pub, but no.
‘Before I knew it I was having a chat with Sylvester Stallone himself. Great guy. It snowballed from there.’ It sure did. Stallone pitched up to Wakefield to film.
Afterwards, Jonathan took him out for what was supposed to be a quiet meal. They ended up joining a hen party. Or rather, the hens joined them.
‘I saw them as I walked in, ladies in their 30s, looking, going “Is that Sylvester Stallone?”
‘After a while one came walking past the table a bit more slowly than was necessary. You can imagine — a group of Yorkshire girls with a couple of drinks on board. But he was just brilliant, took it all in his stride.’
So began Jonathan’s hob-nobbing with the Hollywood elite, and paying out eye-watering amounts for their company.
He won’t be drawn on the money involved but it was rumoured that Stallone received $1 million, back in the day.
‘It’s a huge outlay, yes, and especially at the start we were very careful of that. I had to justify it to shareholders.’ It has been worth it, though, since the budgets have got bigger.
In 2015, Jonathan headed to Tinseltown itself, where he starred alongside the Muppets (no, Miss Piggy did not have the same effect on him as Amal Clooney). This was part of a £25 million advertising campaign. By 2019 — with profits still soaring — they were aiming high on the celebrity scale.
They wanted to cast a New York gangster type to front an advert for bagels and ended up with Robert De Niro.
Could they not afford Al Pacino? ‘He was our back-up,’ Jonathan quips. There followed a face-to-face meeting with De Niro. ‘I remember it well. We had tea at a hotel in Halifax.’
However, there is a danger, of course, with trusted family firms, going a bit too far down the showbiz route. He is very aware of this, he says, ‘which is why it’s done very tongue-in-cheek. We are proud of our roots, and we take our business VERY seriously.
Jonathan Warburton is manhandled by Miss Piggy in this shot, part of the firm’s new giant crumpet range
‘But we have to stay relevant and look at what works. If we don’t adapt, someone else will do that for us.’
What would his great-great-great- grandfather (and great-great-great- grandmother, who actually made the bread, we should point out) make of this very modern embracing of celebrity advertising? ‘Actually, I think he would approve. I came across some early marketing campaigns and they involved local entertainers, so maybe it has been in the DNA all along.’
It is interesting, too, that the Clooney advert focuses on toast made with boring old sliced white bread. No fancy bagels or sourdough here. We can blame (or perhaps credit) the pandemic with that one. ‘Sales of sliced loaves went through the roof,’ he confirms.
‘What we saw was a large part of the industry — supplying to the big sandwich manufacturers — just slide away, but in the supermarkets, people wanted a basic white loaf. I think it was a comfort thing, going back to their own childhoods.
‘In that sense, and I don’t want to sound flippant about this, but it’s true, we had a good year.’
What of the sourdough factor, though. The bread industry is particularly vulnerable to diet fads (his worst nightmare, he says, is the low-carb brigade).
Wasn’t there a moment of horror when it seemed everyone was going to bake their own sourdough and wouldn’t need a bog-standard white loaf ever again?
He has enough experience of sourdough starters to know that his business was safe. Or safer than most. ‘Well, I did think “Good on them”, but let’s see how long this lasts, because they won’t want that thing bubbling away in the fridge.’
Warburtons makes a sourdough loaf, but it’s not a company priority.
Actually, his son’s girlfriend brings them sourdough loaves, he says. Confident woman! ‘Confident or stupid,’ he laughs. ‘But hers is good.’
Will we ever NOT want a standard white loaf? He hopes not.
‘There is a lot of snobbery about bread, but it has been around for a while — remember that chap with the loaves and fishes? — and there is a reason for that.
‘It just works, and as part of a balanced diet, it works very well.’
Will the outlay to get Clooney endorsing the Warburtons brand be worth it? Only time (and sales figures) will tell.
Whatever, he thinks, the Clooneys are heading back to the UK soon, for George’s next filming project.
Perhaps he will be invited round for tea? ‘I hope so. I can bring the crumpets,’ he says.