Plusnet’s Marketing Director on how simplicity solves problems and what comes next for the brand

Charlie Spargo's picture
by Charlie Spargo

Simplicity takes courage but is the key to advertising success, said Sam Calvert of Plusnet when he presented at McCann Leeds’ recent Creative Courage webinar on May 20th.

He was talking to a gathered audience of marketers online, who have enjoyed the series of engaging webinars on creative brilliance which have featured special guests including Pete Markey of Boots and Danny Micklethwaite of Arla.

Creative Courage is McCann Leeds’ programme of events, many of which have been hosted virtually, launched when the agency opened in the city with a special live event at Leeds’ Showcase Cinema in 2019.

This time, the Marketing Director of Plusnet, Sam Calvert, explained how some of the most ambitious choices he’s had to make have involved striving for simplicity.

Calvert was joined on the webinar by Ringo Moss, McCann Central’s Chief Strategy Officer, and McCann Leeds’ Executive Creative Directors, Olly Sowden and Gavin Shore.

Sam, “one of the most experienced marketing leaders in telco,” according to Ringo, asked whether more was really more. He spent 12 years with BT - owner of Plusnet - before starting as the Sheffield-based ISP’s Marekting Director.

He explored the history behind his decision to focus on simplicity, saying how vital it is not to talk over people’s heads, and remember the audience aren’t specialists. The reason it takes courage is that it’s about having difficult conversations with people and choosing what not to do and who not to please.

This was important, he said, because when he joined Plusnet it felt like they’d lost their way - trying to say “me too” to everything BT Group did, but not differentiating themselves. Effectively, they were competing with themselves.

Then, they couldn’t explain their own strategy. What sets them apart now is that they can draw on the resources of the telecoms giant BT while focusing on their own niche. That’s distilled down to their current mission statement, “Brilliantly Basic”.

One thing Plusnet did was invent its own new segment - Simplicity Seekers, which now helps them quantify the success of their campaigns through stripping them back.

It takes some courage to throw things away, said Gavin Shore, since it’s often a short-term revenue drop for a long-term benefit. Sam agreed - saying you need courage for short-term pain. How did they get buy-in at Plusnet, asked Gavin.

It’s still and will continue to be a journey, said Sam. One thing people struggled on was whether ‘Brilliantly Basic’ implied “cheap” - but at its heart what people understand it to mean is good quality with the best experience, but not bombarded with information.

The guests discussed whether an overlap with the parent company posed an issue. Calvert said there was originally some frustration between BT and Plusnet, especially with the latter offering lower prices, but this was in fact helped by the simplicity brief - which helped solve the issue of their blurred markets.

He said that while he still sometimes gets a call from the CEO questioning some of Plusnet’s publicly low prices, what’s happened in the end is that both businesses have successfully grown their share of the market.

Plusnet has had to innovate with its media strategy, choosing simplicity but still making some social commentary where appropriate. Their slogan, “That’ll do”, does that - making an online buzz and championing Plusnet’s Yorkshire identity. 

The only problem that still remains is that you can only simplify so far, and as an agenda there’ll come a point where it’s broadly done. Sam said Plusnet now needs to find a longer-term strategy that suits them. What comes next?

In the mobile market there are also already others with a similar outlook to Brilliantly Basic, so Plusnet’s next challenge is looking beyond the broadband market and ensuring they can fulfil their vision in a market that already has some simplicity-first players.

The initial plan is to take the ‘Brilliant’ side of Brilliantly Basic, and identify a very specific part of the market which they can serve very well, he said. It’s not about converting every mobile customer, just focus on the market they define.

Simplicity is relative, said Sowden - it depends on the surroundings and context you’re in. It’s easier for Plusnet and they’re pushing at an open door having already put the measures in place.

COVID was an opportunity and a threat, said Calvert. The more people worked from home, the more upgraded, but there is a threat emerging that they need to prove the quality of their broadband compared to more premium providers.

After answering questions from attendees and the panel including on how things could be simplified even further and the balance between brand and direct response, the conversation was wrapped up by Ringo Moss.

All of this and more made up the full conversation had as part of McCann Leeds’ Creative Courage webinar, which can be watched in full on the LinkedIn group here.

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