40 years in marketing and an early landmark moment

July 2014

This month marks a fairly significant anniversary in my life: I’ve been working in marketing for 40 years. Such a length of time is a truly sobering thought, and one which has inevitably made me reflect on the highs and lows of my career to date. But more than that, it’s made me think about real standout moments which ultimately determined my career course and where I am today.

When I started out as a sixteen-year-old leaving school (further education was never an option even put to me by my parents or the truly dreadful school I attended in south west London) it was as an apprentice in a department store in south London, and what would now no doubt be called ‘in-store marketing’. But back then it was called ‘display’, and this essentially meant window dressing, interior display, promotional gondola ends, POS, directional signage and making the store look festive at Christmas. The apprenticeship lasted two years and one of the best elements was the day I spent each week at the College of Distributive Trades, which was located in Charring Cross Road underneath St Martin Art College.

All went well, I went on to pass my exams, and also met some great people both at work and college. But even in the first year I knew that my chosen profession was never quite going to be enough to meet my level of ambition and instinctive desire to learn more and do more. And amazing as it seems to me now, I actually remember the very moment when a light came on and it was this: The department store, which was called Shinners and was in Sutton (it’s long gone), took delivery of some new carrier bags. And on these carrier bags and printed below the Shinners logo were the words ‘simply better’. So vivid is the recollection of seeing this some 39 years ago (I can’t remember what I had for breakfast yesterday but can certainly remember those carrier bags…), that I even have in my mind the visual angle I had when I read the message (low down and slightly to the left). But of course, it was my emotional reaction at that precise point in time which has engrained an otherwise useless event so firmly into my brain.

So what was the problem? The problem was that the statement was a lie. My employers ran a pretty good department store, but it was not, by any stretch of imagination ‘simply better’. Selfridges was ‘simply better’ and I knew that not just because some of the friends I made at college worked there and I knew a fair bit about the place, but because it was bleedin’ obvious. A more appropriate strapline might have been ‘local and dependable’.

Although at that time I knew nothing about brand strategy (I doubt I could have even properly articulated what a ‘brand’ actually was) what I could very plainly see is that stuff needed to be joined up for the benefit of the customer. So no point a strapline saying one thing when the actual retail experience for the customer delivered something quite different.

The latter quickly shaped my view of the commercial world and, as they say, I never looked back.

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