UK consumers and markets are reeling from the decision of voters to leave the European Union (EU) last month, as politicians and business leaders alike come to terms with the realities of a deeply divided nation. This makes Ed Smith’s story all the more intriguing.
The Australian, who is the former executive director of sales and marketing at pay-TV giant Foxtel, half-owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, is travelling around the UK in a bid to understand the population after relocating here earlier this year. The 47-year-old moved to London having spent 14 years working in Sydney, and with support from the Marketing Academy, the training body through which he voluntarily mentors younger marketers, Smith has set himself the goal of visiting 100 towns and cities across the UK, speaking to at least five people in each place.
Brexit has dominated Smith’s conversations in recent weeks, he says. Although he expresses shock at the UK’s decision to leave the EU, he explains that he has encountered the same feeling of disconnection and anger from large swathes of the population that appears to have contributed to the result. This includes a noticeable difference in attitudes between the north and south of the country.
“The first thing I noticed was a big lack of trust of London,” he says. “I don’t have much experience [in the north] yet but just from three cities [Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool], when I was talking about Brexit, it was clear that people don’t feel understood and they don’t feel represented. People in London have seen their house prices double in the past 10 years – no one else’s has. They feel hard done by.”
Lack of representation
Smith believes the discontent across the country is a problem, not just for politicians
but for the brands and marketers that aim to sell to the public. He attended the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity last month and suggests that this gathering of the marketing profession was indicative of a wider malaise across the industry.
“I was struck by how ethnically diverse a place like Birmingham is, and I reflected on the lack of racial and religious diversity in government, but also in marketing organisations,” he says. “I looked around at Cannes and there were a lot more men than women. All the men – or 99% of them – were white or Judeo-Christian. The leadership of the country, our businesses and our marketing organisations doesn’t represent the populations we are selling to.”
Smith’s decision to start a new life in the UK was partly driven by his partner, who owns a business with an expanding presence in Europe, but also by the desire to take a gamble on an overseas adventure.
“It was just one of those random life things where you want to try something different,” says Smith, who at six foot seven inches tall is an imposing but infectiously cheerful Aussie. We meet at London’s King’s Cross station – a fitting location given the cross-country challenge he is undertaking.
“The leadership of this country, our businesses and our marketing organisations don’t represent the populations we are selling to”
The idea for his trip around the UK emerged after he was told by a headhunter in the UK that his CV and previous work experience was too heavily based in Australia and Asia. Prior to his four-year stint at Foxtel, he was group marketing director at News Corp Australia and has also worked at ad agency DMB&B in China. Responding to the advice, Smith resolved to improve his understanding of UK consumers.
“I asked myself ‘how can I address my UK experience?’, so I Iiterally went to Google Maps and thought, OK, I’m going to travel around the whole of the UK,” he says. “If I visit 100 towns and cities and talk to five people in each, I’ll come back to London and know more about the UK and its diverse population, its people and its geography than anybody who has spent their entire life in London.”
At the time of writing, Smith is about a third of the way through his journey, having ticked off stops in the South East, the South Coast and East Anglia, as well as cities further north, such as Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool.
Smith is documenting the findings from his trip on an online blog and via social media using the hashtag #EdsInTown. Last month, he also recruited one of his friends, who is a documentary film-maker, to shoot videos during one week of the trip.
Smith explains that he is taking a relatively informal approach to his market research, sometimes stopping people in the street to ask them questions, at other times talking to locals in a pub or to people out walking their dogs.
His questions are wide-ranging too, covering people’s economic situation and their level of optimism for the future, their views on the town in which they live and their attitudes towards brands and advertising.
Casting a critical eye
Smith insists he does not regret moving to the UK, despite the political and economic turmoil that Brexit has unleashed. In addition to these problems, he notes a deep-rooted mistrust of brands among many UK consumers.
“I have been dismayed at how many people feel they have been taken advantage of and the lack of trust in big business,” he says.
“A lot of people have cited the tech companies not paying tax and how unfair that is, when their parents are struggling but they are paying tax. They also talked a lot about the fine print – bank accounts with hidden fees, payday lending that looked OK but then they got caught, contracts for mobile phones where they were misled by sales people.”
Smith argues that there is an opportunity for UK brands to stake their competitive difference on being “ostensibly transparent and by building trust”. In Australia, the rules around misleading advertising are much stricter, with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission able to impose severe penalties on both brands and individual marketers if it is judged that a reasonable person could be misled by an advertiser’s claim.
“Even though the regulations [are not the same here], I would challenge marketers to consider whether any reasonable person could possibly be misled by your advertisement,”
says Smith. “If the answer is yes, even if it’s not illegal, [ask yourself] are you doing the right thing by your brand and your consumer by trying to trick them or over-promise.”
At other stages of his trip, Smith has heard complaints from consumers about poor customer service from British brands. He attributes this to a “lack of ownership” within service businesses whereby customer service staff are discouraged from taking a personal stake in a complaint and seeing it through to resolution.
“John Lewis is an exception, but I’ve been surprised at how, for simple issues, you get punted from one person to the next [in many British businesses],” he says.
“For big companies there is a massive opportunity to focus on single-point resolution and achieve a competitive point of difference by being able to deliver on that. Most staff in Australian companies are either more empowered or more willing to do that.”
“We spend tens of millions of pounds a year to create brand stories but most people just don’t care”
It is not the only area in which Smith would seek to make big changes were he to join a UK brand. He came fourth in a list of the 50 most innovative marketers compiled by Australia’s CMO magazine earlier this year – an achievement he attributes in part to Foxtel’s pioneering use of data modelling and real-time ad buying.
“We did our programmatic and performance digital media buying in-house – we were kind of trailblazers for how that stuff is done – so any job I’m looking for [in the UK] is probably one that is more a transformation role than a business as usual role,” he says.
Insight and leadership
Smith plans to pull together all of his observations at the end of his trip, which he hopes to complete by early September. His routine involves travelling for a week before returning to his London base for a week of networking. It is a tiring schedule, and he still has Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to explore in the chaotic, post-Brexit climate.
“I’m not working, but I have never been so busy in all my life,” he says with a sigh. “I must admit some mornings I wake up and I just want to be me – it takes a bit of pluck every day to go out and come across someone and start a conversation.”
Smith admits it has been a big effort taking on the role of vox pop interviewer and recalls that on the first day of the trip – standing in the streets of Maidstone in Kent – his confidence was dented by repeated rejections from passers-by. “I only had to be told ‘no’ or ‘piss off’ about 20 times and I was crushed,” he says.
Trying out different approaches and ways of speaking to people has helped Smith to grow into the role, enabling him to glean unexpected insights from a range of different sources. This includes going into a mechanics’ garage to speak to the workers inside, or pulling his car over on a country lane to ask questions of a person tending to their front garden.
“You often don’t want to – it’s awkward and they look at you suspiciously – but when you get going you notice things and a little red light goes off in your head and then you take a breath and think ‘I’ll make the most of this opportunity’,” he explains.
Smith believes that many marketers are guilty of relying too much on agencies to provide them with consumer insights while they reside in the “ivory tower” of their brand headquarters. He suggests listening is one of the core attributes a good marketing leader should possess and cites Gogglebox – the Channel 4 reality programme that captures people’s reactions as they watch TV at home – as a great example of consumer insight.
“What is amazing about that show is how smart every single consumer is and how they
all see through the bullshit,” notes Smith. “When a marketer or a TV show tries to pull the wool over the eyes of the consumer, they all see through it and they shoot it down. That’s a real wake-up call.”
Smith urges UK marketers to shed their preconceptions and misconceptions about
the consumers they serve by welcoming more robust challenges from colleagues on their decisions and assumptions.
Reflecting on leadership attributes, he speaks enthusiastically about the importance of developing an internal feedback culture within a business. This involves devising an agreed set of behaviours where members of a team can confidently suggest areas where other members could improve, as well as commend the things they do well.
He says that this concept has received push-back from some of the UK business people he has held talks with, who suggest it would not work as effectively in a more ‘polite’ business culture such as Britain’s. Smith is determined to use it in his next role, though, and adapt his approach to a UK brand. After all, in a country still coming to terms with Brexit, listening to some hard truths may well be what businesses need.
“A high-performing team should self-correct and team members should give each other feedback,” he says. “Something I’ll be watching for very carefully in my next leadership role is how I can bring a feedback culture to life in a culturally sensitive way and without shocking everybody.”
Ed Smith will be speaking at this year’s Festival of Marketing, which takes place on 5-6 October. For more details visit www.festivalofmarketing.com
Ed Smith on…
Consumer attitudes towards brands
“Of all the things I’ve been talking to people about, the most boring and the one they give the least thought to is the brands they surround themselves with. They say things like ‘I bank with this bank because I have done since I was a kid’. We spend tens of millions of pounds a year to create these brand stories and influence change but most people don’t care. It’s interesting.”
The impact of Brexit on the UK economy
“While there might be some retribution from France and Germany the world is big and there’s many partners you can trade with. Asia and China are huge powerhouses. The UK is good at what it does in the services economy, in banking and media, etc – it will weather the storm.”
The benefits of working in media businesses
“Working in media, particularly where there are editors, you are kept very real about what the audience wants. In marketing, you can often get lost in the creativity – I’ve heard people [in the UK] talking about ads being too ‘Shoreditch’. You end up with a cool creative team making cool work, but is that going to resonate with people?”
What the interviews reveal about the UK market
- People based outside London don’t feel represented or understood by politics, which generally has a London-centric view.
- People have a deep-rooted distrust of big businesses, fuelled by companies not paying tax, banks hiding fees and misleading advertising.
- There is an opportunity for UK brands to create a competitive difference by being transparent and therefore more trustworthy.
- There is a lack of ownership when dealing with customer complaints, so brands should look to have a single point of resolution.
- Many marketers are guilty of relying on agencies to provide consumer insight.
- Businesses need to adopt a ‘feedback culture’ so employees can suggest areas where other team members could improve.
Executive director of sales and marketing, Foxtel
Group marketing director News Corp Australia
CEO of content and commercial, News Digital Media
Chief commercial officer News Digital Media
Head of retail segments St. George Bank
CEO, Virtual Communities
General manager, DMB&B Beijing and Shanghai