Tim Watson 1963–2021

Scroll through social media and you will find a massive outpouring of shock, sadness, love and grief as hundreds of people from around the world reacted to the news that Tim Watson had passed away on 6 February at the age of 57. Only Tim’s family knew that he had been battling cancer for the last 18 months – he did not want to trouble his many friends with the news.

The high regard with which Tim was held by journalists and industry figures in several countries is reflected in the words repeated over and over in the tributes to this former automotive communications high-flyer. “Professional, talented, brilliant, inspirational, honest, genuine, likeable, gracious, loyal, honourable.” And, of course, “funny”. Tim’s sense of humour was as legendary as his skills as the consummate PR and communications specialist. He certainly was one of a kind – there was never a dull moment with Tim around, but he never let the fun prevent him from doing a top-class job. One senior industry executive summed him up as “A rare and exceptional person, a professional of the highest order and one of the most engaging people in the industry.” 

Born in Tunbridge Wells, Tim began his career as a journalist on a Kent newspaper and, a winner of the Guild’s Sir William Lyons Award in 1984, developed his automotive interest at Motoring News before joining Mazda as press officer. He eventually became Head of PR and his reputation as a skilled and likeable PR specialist grew. It was at this time, while I was PR Director for the TKM/Inchcape group’s various automotive brands, that our friendship developed and we first became colleagues. The group needed a PR and marketing manager for Ferrari UK and I did not have to push Tim too hard to accept the role. His skills and success with the British media did not go unnoticed in Italy and he was eventually lured to Maranello to handle international PR, before stepping up to run global communications for Ferrari and Maserati.

Tim was never overawed by anyone’s reputation or perceived status. What mattered to him was how someone acted and treated him and others. He gave respect when it was deserved. One of my favourite examples of this relates to Michael Schumacher’s appointment to the Ferrari F1 team in 1996. Tim and Ferrari boss Luca di Montezemolo greeted the German racing star as he stepped from a helicopter at Ferrari’s Fiorano test track. Schumacher shook hands with the Ferrari President and turned to hand his briefcase to Tim. He was taken aback to be told “I’m your PR adviser, not your valet”, so carried his own briefcase as they walked off, discussing the media briefing Tim had prepared. The pair went on to develop enormous respect for each other as they worked together in the coming years, becoming good friends.

In 2001 new Aston Martin CEO, Dr Ulrich Bez, needed a PR director and Tim was the natural choice. As the brand was Ford-owned, this led to Tim’s new ‘twatso’ nickname, for Ford took the first initial and first five letters of a surname to create the @ford email address. Tim’s role developed to public affairs director and then brand communications director before Ford sent him to California in 2005 to take on the role of vice-president of communications and public affairs for Jaguar, Land Rover and Aston Martin North America. Tim attracted enormous respect from his new US colleagues and the American media as he made yet another huge success of his latest career challenge.

After a brief switch to a senior commercial role at Jaguar Italy, he was offered the opportunity to return to the UK as number two to the Aston Martin CEO, a senior position created specifically for him. Despite the attraction of the role and an eye-watering financial package he told me “I’m going to say no. It’s time for me to leave the corporate world and do what I really want to do with the rest of my life.” And that’s how Tim reinvented himself to follow his dreams. He started by rekindling his life-long love of motorcycles, writing a column for an on-line bike magazine, building a Triumph chopper and buying Harley-Davidson models for himself and his wife Anne. After six months of touring on the Harleys together, Tim wrote a Bryson-type book – “There and back again to see how far it is” – using his dry wit and very British sense of humour to describe his adventures and discoveries in small-town America. It was illustrated with images taken en route by Anne, his kindred spirit and an award-winning photographer.

But his real ambition was to create his own vineyard and wine company to support this new life for himself and Anne, and to create a special legacy for his children. Despite having no prior experience, he spent the last six years planting, developing and nurturing a vineyard alongside his hilltop home in Southern California – learning as he went along and toiling every day. It was just three weeks before he passed away that he was able to see the fruit of his labour – the first bottles of Watson Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon wine. And true to form, the Watson sense of humour was there for all to see on the label. He had branded the wine as “Piston Broke.”

Tim leaves his wife Anne and their seven year old son Russell, plus daughter Faith, aged 20, and 17-year-old son Hugo from his first marriage. Anne has asked me to gather stories about Tim from his many friends so she can share them with Russell when he is older. Please send your anecdotes and tales, especially the funny ones, to peter.frater@outlook.com.

Peter Frater

Friend of the Guild…and Tim’s friend for 35 years