Three UK’s marketing head: ‘Calling it performance marketing was a huge mistake’  

Marketers should look for allies in their businesses and speak the language of the boardroom, says Three UK’s head of marketing and communications Chris Gough.

It’s been a difficult few years for brands in the telecoms industry, with increased competition, tighter margins and customers holding on to their devices for longer in tough financial times. In these times, businesses can be tempted to pull back on marketing investment.

The bosses at Three UK understand that brand is of “utmost importance” in today’s “commoditised market”, according to Chris Gough, head of marketing and communications at the network.

“However, when things get tough, I’ve never had a conversation about cutting performance marketing,” he said while discussing the fragmentation of marketing at  Oystercatchers’ quarterly Club event last week (23 May).

In Gough’s mind, the “marketing of performance marketing” has had a big, negative impact on the industry.  

“Calling it performance marketing is one of the worst things that ever happened to the industry,” he said, not mincing his words. It’s sort of “snuck in” in the last decade, he added, and gives the wrong impression to the finance department.  

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“When you’re talking to the finance director, they go, ‘Oh, well, that’s the thing that performs’,” compared to brand.

He believes, though, that there are ways marketers can defend their brand budget.

“You’ve got to be able to speak the language of the board and get really comfortable with linking it back to metrics and numbers, and be really clear explaining that to them,” advised Gough.  

He added that getting finance on board with econometrics is also a “big help” as it allows marketers to frame brand investment through short-term performance as well as long-term. “It’s not just performance marketing that pays back weekly, brand marketing does as well, certainly in Three’s case it does,” he said.  

“You’ve got to get comfortable having conversations in those ways and you’ve got to build allies in the organisation,” Gough added.

This might mean getting into the fold with a commercial analytics person who has the ear of the board” becomes vital.  

Taking a step back

Given the challenging environment and the fact competition is rife in the telecoms market, Gough said Three realised it needed to “take a step back and refocus”.

Four years ago, the business was “struggling to grow”, he said, having joined Three from Samsung in 2022. “We weren’t getting the same number of subscribers and we had to take a step back and look at the whole brand. It wasn’t a quick fix.”

Around this time, the business cut its CMO role and introduced the chief commercial officer role.  

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Three launched in 2003 and experienced “quite rapid growth, built on advertising”. But this is no longer enough now, he said, in a market where competition was increasing and initiatives that once made it stand out from the crowd, like free roaming, were becoming the industry norm.  

Its focus on younger audiences also “stopped working” with Gough admitting that Three had “grown as much as we could” in targeting that group of people.

It was launching its brand platform in 2021 – Life Needs a Big Network – that has allowed it to grow again, explained Gough, alongside boosting its loyalty proposition. “With that, we try and focus on building long-term memory structures with consumers, he added.  

Building the brand platform was “absolutely critical” to growing the brand.