Nokia has turned to a familiar face to fill its top UK marketing role – Will Harris, who introduced the O2 brand to the UK. He joins the world’s biggest handset manufacturer in October, as first revealed by marketingweek.co.uk last week. While the appointment of the polarising “change agent” at famously corporate Nokia may have raised a few eyebrows, many in the industry believe Harris could be just the man to help shed Nokia’s dependable but uninspiring image.
Harris’ return to frontline telecoms marketing comes four years after he left O2 to join the Conservative Party for what turned out to be an ill-fated nine-month stint as the party’s marketing director. He says he lost his appetite for telecoms after helping build the Orange brand at WCRS and then rebranding BT Cellnet as O2.
“I left the mobile industry because it was getting dull,” adds Harris. “After the bidding for the 3G licences, mobile operators were taken over by accountants. It was all about getting that money back and, as a result, a lot of the innovation went out of the industry. But I think it’s beginning to come back now and it’s a much more exciting place than it was five years ago.”
Harris describes his experience with the Tories as “dreadful” but says he learnt some valuable lessons that helped him become a more rounded marketer. In a Marketing Week profile in 2003, one former colleague labelled Harris a “bull in a china shop” who had “trodden on a few toes”.
But Harris says: “I think those comments reflect how I was in my late 20s. I was a young man in a hurry, but you go through things and evolve and mellow. If I were to meet the Will Harris of my late 20s I’d probably be slightly embarrassed now. I think I was a bit brash and overconfident. You have got everything to prove when you’re younger and you feel as if you have to shout a bit louder, but my style has definitely changed.”
Nokia is comfortably the world’s biggest handset maker with a global market share of about 35% against nearest rival Motorola’s 20%. But, like many market leaders, it has a rather dull image compared with some of its smaller but “cooler” rivals. The Finnish company appointed Wieden & Kennedy to handle its £175m global advertising business last month to help make it the world’s “most loved and admired iconic brand”. And it is expected to launch a new music service this week that will rival Apple’s iTunes.
Gartner research director Carolina Milanesi says: “Apple’s entry into the market with the iPhone has underlined the importance of brand. Nokia is having to put more focus on how it wants to be perceived by users.” Charles Vallance, who worked with Harris at WCRS and is a founding partner of Vallance Carruthers Coleman Priest, which Harris appointed to handle O2’s advertising account, believes his former colleague can breathe new life into the Nokia brand.
“Will is not the most corporate of animals, which is probably why he’s been hired,” says Vallance. “He makes things happen and arguably Nokia hasn’t been making things happen. It has some exceptional products but they don’t seem to get the traction they deserve. Will is a change agent more than anything. Nokia is going through a process of change and there is a lot to play for. That is the sort of thing Will relishes.”
The change agent may have been through a period of change himself, but glimpses of the old Harris remain. “The thing I still have is energy,” he adds. “I’m still inspired by interesting things, whether it be brands or people. The worst thing in the world you can be is dull.”