Boots' Chief Marketing Officer on the benefits of holding your nerve

Charlie Spargo's picture
by Charlie Spargo

Another Creative Courage webinar is coming soon, and will see the McCann Leeds team sitting down with Pete Markey, the CMO of Boots.

Pete Markey has experience working at brands including TSB, MORE TH>N and the Post Office, and started in his current role just last month.

He'll join the McCann Leeds webinar on March 24th at 3pm - registration for which opened today. Here, he's shared a sneak preview of some of the insights he'll be providing at the webinar, encouraging creatives to hold their nerve - and emphasising the importance of backing and championing great creative work to get through corporate organisations.

I’ve been reflecting a lot recently on what it takes to nurture and land brilliant creativity without an idea being compromised along the way.

Too many times, we will have all seen a creative idea either within a business we are in - or one we observe from the outside - where we can see what the brief was, but somehow the output just misfires.

I’ve been lucky enough to work on some great campaigns, but I’ve also worked on a campaign I’m not all that proud of either! And what I’ve learnt is that you need a clear plan and a lot of determination to land a great idea.

Be firm and deliver

The piece of work I'm not proud of is one where we compromised. In 2015, we were launching the brand new Post Office Money brand and had just come off the back of a strong Christmas campaign with Robert Webb - who is great to work with.

The festive campaign drove record retail and online performance and shifted all the key brand metrics too. The challenge then with the Post Office Money launch was to use the same talent in a different setting and launch what was, in essence, a new FS brand.

The challenge was that every department wanted their message in the ad - from loans and credit cards, to mortgages and insurance. And as a team we compromised and tried to fit them all in under an umbrella message instead of being single-minded.

As a result, we rammed a ton of product messages into what became a frantic and busy 30-second TV ad that just didn’t do what the original brief set out to do. That was to land the key message that Post Office Money was here to help consumers make the most of their money. The image of Robert Webb being pulled on a wire through a sofa whilst shouting product messages at the screen will forever haunt me!

So, the lesson here is to be firm, deliver against the original brief and challenge internal pressures on messaging. FCB Inferno, the agency, did a great job, we should have just been a better client. And being a better client means being focussed, making the tough decisions around what the key messages are for a campaign, and staying clear that the best work has laser-sharp focus rather than a scattergun one.

Be prepared to be wrong

The next lesson is to be prepared to be wrong in order to really get it right. A few years ago, we were working on our first campaign for MORE TH>N with the excellent VCCP team.

Two routes went into research, the first of which was to bring back Lucky the dog with Rob Brydon, and the other - which I thought was just too left field - was to use a character called MORE TH>N Freeman who sounded like Morgan Freeman and acted as brand spokesperson.

And the idea was as crazy as it sounds. It was creative from the same team that brought us 'Compare the Meerkat' so they knew what they were doing but it just felt so left field and bizarre and different - would we get Morgan’s approval to use his likeness, would the public get it, and would it land our key brand message about MORE TH>N going further than other insurers, as well as the human side of the brand too? 

I had expected Lucky to fly in the research so hadn’t given too much thought to the 'Freeman' idea. Lucky bombed in every group, while amazingly, the alternative “out there” route with 'Freeman' absolutely flew.

People loved it and it landed all the key brand messages we needed to land. This was a good time to eat humble pie and champion a more innovative route that ultimately won us multiple awards and record business growth. The strength of the love for this route in research really helped us sell the idea into the leadership team and the wider business too.

In my previous role at TSB, we re-launched the brand with a new brand platform 'Life Made More' and used David Schwimmer as the main talent. We chose David because of the love we as a nation have for him for his Friends character - and more - and his ability to be naturally warm and funny.

Humour is tough to get right in an advert, but when your talent is an actor, director and writer who's naturally funny this definitely helps. It was a brave move, but allowing him to work with the director to ad lib certain aspects of the script gave us multiple funny reads and really helped produce a great result. We had to walk into this with our eyes open knowing that we were recording aspects of the script not yet approved - we had to do that post shoot! - but that were so important to really make the work deliver.

Overall, though, this was a challenging brief to relaunch the brand and introduce a new current account proposition.

COVID challenges shifted the shoot from April to October and the script had to change to reflect a locked-down and post-lockdown world. The lesson here was to accept the new parameters but not compromise the core idea and that’s what we did with the brilliant McCann team.

So rather than our talent being out and about at coffee shops and weddings, he was in a beautiful campervan around the UK bringing the brand to life. It’s early days but results so far have exceeded expectations and beaten the previous best benchmark for TSB brand campaigns.

Championing great work

My overall lesson is to work hard to back and champion great work. Influencing and stakeholder management are key in any business to sell in an idea and keep it alive. At TSB, this was particularly key to keep an idea and a platform alive for over a year, through changes and the challenges of COVID. But it takes guts, determination, and the focus to not compromise to ultimately deliver the best creative work. 

I’ve learnt a lot about what it takes to sell great work, to get people on-side, and to take the execs and the wider business on a journey with you. Key to this for me has been starting with a clear brief and problem statement or exam question that everyone gets behind ahead of seeing any work. This means any work can be measured and evaluated against that clear problem statement and it ensures everyone buys into why the work is being undertaken and what success looks like.

The other thing I’ve learnt is the power of removing subjectivity, as we all have an opinion on creative so using strong, valid research results from your chosen target audience is a powerful underpinning tool to sell in great work and get buy in to proceed.

It also helps if you can work with other senior sponsors that can champion great work and who really “get” marketing. It’s one of the key things I have looked for in every role I’ve taken - it’s critical for me to work in a business where marketing has room to make a positive difference and the value of brand and great creativity is appreciated. I’m newly into my role at Boots as CMO but can’t wait to deliver great work with the team from WPP as we look to take the brand and the business forwards together.

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