Big brand ideas trump tech every time

C&C Group's chief marketer explains why he's not one for following fads, plus other lessons from his career ladder.

I spent 13 years in agencies, both as a suit and a planner, so I’m not a classically trained marketer. However, during my agency years, I learned some principles and beliefs from some fantastic clients and inspiring colleagues that have helped me in my past nine years as a marketer.

It all starts and ends with your customer

My first boss at O2 was Cath Keers, arguably the "founder" of the brand. She taught me that nothing else matters apart from what your customers think.

This might seem obvious but, like many commonsense principles, it’s not always commonplace. In fact, failing to grasp this (and, crucially, act on it) is at the heart of most business problems.

There are too many organisations obsessed by internal politics, stakeholders and products. All of these are important, of course, but if you take your eye off the most important prize of all, you’ve had it.

Be brave

Agencies talk a lot about the need to be brave, but courage is something marketers require too. Much more so, because the buck stops with you and your actions have far greater consequences.

Paddy Power, for instance, has corporate cojones that would put most agencies to shame. Crucially, though, this isn’t out of some reckless desire to cause trouble for the sake of it. Paddy Power has simply calculated that, in this highly commoditised market, the most effective way to generate a return on investment is to be highly disruptive.

Admittedly, most organisations would be terrified of some of the things Paddy Power does (the only mandatory point on our briefs to agencies was that "nobody should get arrested"). But we all need to find our own blend of bravery – both within the office and in guiding how our brands behave.

Back yourself

With Giffgaff, it all started with a hunch. I had a sense that there might be a better way to run a mobile network: with members working together – even voting together – to improve the service.

Proving the case empirically was difficult because the idea was a radical shift. And it probably didn’t help that I was a relative outsider, without the technical expertise of a telecoms lifer. But the flipside was that I had an external perspective on what makes people tick and what was frustrating them about the existing model.

I decided to back my instincts and managed to persuade the business to go out on a limb with me. I always encourage young marketers to go with their gut feelings. If you don’t back yourself, why should others support you? Be a bit disruptive.

Keep it simple

My other lesson from Giffgaff concerns the importance of simplicity. Obviously, launching a brand with a revolutionary business model was a pretty complex affair. But that made it all the more important to have a simple focus.

In our case, all our thinking was driven by one word – mutuality – and this became the test we applied to every decision we made.

Most of us are grappling with increased complexity in our markets these days, but that just means we need to work harder to boil things down.

Know what you are rubbish at

And surround yourself with people who are much better than you (at everything, but particularly the rubbish bits). Very obvious but very true. I have been lucky to work with three agencies that were all instrumental in crafting the brands that I worked on.

VCCP was co-designer of O2, Albion was alongside me when we were building Giffgaff and Lucky Generals drove the fame that Paddy Power is renowned for.

Ultimately, this business is about people, and having the right ones in the trenches with you makes a huge difference.

A big brand idea trumps technology every time

The companies I’ve worked for have all been passionate innovators. So I’ve been fortunate to be exposed to the latest technology before it has become mainstream. As such, I’m a huge believer in embracing the new.

Having said that, I’m not one for following fads. I hate it when marketers pursue technology for the sake of it rather than as part of a coherent commercial strategy. Give me a big brand idea first, driven by consumer insight, and then we can talk tech.

Enjoy yourself

Finally, in case the above sounds too much like hard work, I firmly believe in the importance of having fun. While our work is serious business, it rarely involves matters of life and death. And, as my first boss David Abbott taught me, the more you enjoy your job, the better you will perform.

Gav Thompson is the interim chief marketing officer at C&C Group. He was previously chief marketing officer at Paddy Power and director of brand strategy at O2.

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