Why I ignored others telling me to ditch EE brand

BT's top marketer explains why it's acceptable to make any mistake once. Except, perhaps, wearing a brown belt with black shoes.

Invest in people

I started as an intern at Procter & Gamble in Newcastle aged just 21. Fresh-faced and full of energy, I approached my first-ever marketing project with gusto. It was to design and produce stickers that would go on packs of Ariel washing powder to announce that a free sample of Lenor fabric conditioner was inside. Oh, what joy! I was at the very epicentre of marketing.

When several hundred thousand stickers arrived at the warehouse, it turned out that I’d ordered the wrong material and the backing couldn’t be peeled off the stickers.

I guess many a company would have fired me on the spot. Not P&G. My manager invited me into his office to discuss the problem. "You can make any mistake once, but you’d better learn from it and never make the same mistake twice," he advised.

That was it. The dressing down was one sentence and took about five seconds. Thank goodness – I don’t think I could have held back the tears for longer.

It remains the most important lesson of my professional life to this day. P&G believed in giving people responsibility and that if they erred, they’d learn from that and become better at their job.

It’s a philosophy I’ve stuck with to this day. Mind you, at Christmas, my boss took thousands of my useless stickers and asked the team to make a huge paper chain of them to decorate my desk. So I didn’t escape with my ego undented!

Remember: execution matters

Fast forward to 15 years later and I was leading the beauty division for P&G in the UK, making my first foray into luxury markets with cosmetics brand SK-II in Selfridges and Harvey Nichols.

One of my sales team came home empty-handed from a sales pitch. "I didn’t even get as far as presenting," he admitted. What had gone so wrong for him to be thrown out as soon as he’d turned up? "Brown belt, black shoes," he explained, simply.

It’s a ridiculous example, but nothing taught me the importance of execution more than working in beauty care. It’s very easy to believe that marketers own strategy, and other people execute it, especially as you rise up the career ladder.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Your marketing is less effective without the careful copywriting on the back of a pack, without the dedication to getting the online user experience just right or without the creative craft that goes into advertising production.

Tell stories

And on the topic of creative craft, it was a piece of beauty care advertising that made me understand the value of storytelling.

Luc Besson’s famous 1998 ad for Chanel No5, featuring Estella Warren, remains my all-time favourite piece of advertising. It tells a compelling story without even the need for words.

I’ve tried ever since to ensure all the advertising I’m involved with draws the audience into a world and a story they want to hear more about. I’ve never risen even close to Besson’s heights – but I’ll keep trying.

Listen to customers

Remember Wash & Go? The shampoo and conditioner in one? The pinnacle of my career was surely the launch of Wash & Go… without the conditioner.

Don’t laugh. I was the brand manager at the time and I recklessly ignored all the customer insight and all common sense and went ahead regardless. (To be fair, I did have a director who was pretty keen on me doing it, just to prove that "thinking outside the box" would work.)

It failed, obviously. And I learned the hard way that if you want to do the right thing, you need to listen to customers, not to your own hype – and certainly not your boss.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t have passion or use instinct. But I’ve killed a handful of famous brands in my time because that was the best thing for the business. Not to mention ended a few ad campaigns that the client and agency team were in love with.

Conversely, when I joined BT Group, everyone told me to get rid of the EE and Plusnet brands and focus on just BT, but our customers told us that each was meeting different needs and there was a place for all of them. And they were right – all three brands are going from strength to strength.

Those big decisions have shaped my career and they wouldn’t have been possible if I wasn’t obsessed with letting the customer be my guide and learning from every experience along the way.

Zaid Al-Qassab is chief brand and marketing officer at BT Group and a member of Campaign’s Power 100

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