Waitrose’s Martin George on why marketers need to ‘be more magpie’

Marketers cannot be an expert in everything, so instead they should home in on opportunities that excite them, advises Waitrose customer director Martin George.

Even discounting an ongoing global pandemic, the marketing industry has evolved enormously over recent years. With new regulations, technology developments and platform launches, plus changes around measurement and ad delivery systems, the industry is becoming increasingly complex and maybe a little overwhelming.

So how can marketers possibly keep on top of everything and ensure they’re jumping on the right opportunities for their brands?

It’s a challenge Waitrose customer director Martin George is all too aware of. The answer, he argues, is for marketers to accept that they cannot be an expert in everything.

“The heart of our challenge [is] how to be excited, take advantage of the opportunities and, at the same time, not be overwhelmed,” said George, speaking alongside media agency MG OMD’s chief client officer, Claire Marker at Advertising Week Europe yesterday (11 May).

“We accept that change is here to stay, but we also accept and suggest that no one can get a total grasp on everything. It’s simply not humanly possible.”

Instead, George encouraged marketers to “be more magpie” and to follow “bright and shiny” things. Marker defined these as the new opportunities that are most exciting to the individual marketer and their brand.Waitrose’s top marketer on the beauty of working for iconic British brands “Fully embrace this,” she said. “Actively go for the bits you’re interested in and trust your instincts, they will tell you what’s important.”

Choosing magpies as a spirit animal might seem a bit odd to some, George acknowledged, given that they are generally not the best liked of birds. But magpies are “brilliantly inquisitive”, he said, which marketers should also strive to be.

“We should ask ourselves how we can look at a problem or opportunity in a new way, which feels exciting and that can affect positive change. How we can embrace what’s new to influence the way that our customers think, feel and behave,” he said.

“Don’t be hesitant to be a magpie. Like the bright, new shiny objects. We want you to give yourself permission to get excited about what excites you.”

Marker added that competitive advantage comes from “doing things differently” and by looking at the new opportunities within their category or industry marketers will “out think” their competition.

Magpies in Waitrose and John Lewis

Given all the jewellery and tech on show in John Lewis department stores, you’d think they’d be less than pleased to have a magpie in house. But according to George, being a magpie is in the Partnership’s DNA.

Waitrose has worked closely with MG OMD to deliver “media firsts”, which take new technology and “[fuse] it with an insight, a brand truth and an idea”.

A “much loved” example from 2016 involved broadcasting live ads from Waitrose’s dairy and chicken farms to TV. A supporting digital outdoor campaign across the UK’s major train stations live streamed footage from Waitrose’s Leckford Farm.

We accept that change is here to stay, but we also accept and suggest that no one can get a total grasp on everything. It’s simply not humanly possible.

Martin George, Waitrose

For John Lewis, George noted the brand’s innovative approach to Christmas, recalling the retailer taking over the Sky electronic programming guide in 2016.

But to embrace their inner magpie does not mean a marketer can get carried away. Everything must still come back to the brand, George advised.

“Be more magpie, but do it with real clarity and real focus. That clarity comes from understanding our role as marketers and knowing what we want our brand to stand for. Everything we do must be in service of our brand and the role that it plays in people’s lives,” he said.

George added that it is also “absolutely vital” that marketers measure the impact of the “shiny objects” they decide to implement, meaning they must have a measurement framework in place.

The Creative Effectiveness Ladder from WARC and Cannes Lions.
The Creative Effectiveness Ladder from WARC and Cannes Lions.

But marketers don’t have to start a framework from scratch. He pointed to the creative effectiveness ladder launched by WARC and Cannes Lions last year, which graduates the effectiveness of communications marketing in six steps from the lowest – influential idea – up to the top grade – enduring icon.

“This all helps us to learn how to create highly effective work, measure success and use creativity to drive specific outcomes, from driving sales to changing consumer behaviour and building equity in our brands,” he said.

Barriers to magpies

However, as George and Marker noted, the evolution from human to magpie is easier said than done.

George explained that the language of magpies may not be understood in the boardroom and therefore marketers may need to use different emphasis when explaining “shiny new objects” to the CEO or CFO.

“Let’s talk about the shiny, new, bright objects out there in our industry more as new ways of improving effectiveness or our marketing, generating greater financial returns and shareholder value,” he said.

“Whether we like it or not, finance is the language of business. So you have to convert marketing metrics into the metrics that you would see in a P&L or ultimately, on the balance sheet.

“Make sure you combine the quantitative and the qualitative and get as close to the impact on the bottom line as you possibly can in any initiative that you implement.”

Be more magpie, but do it with real clarity and real focus.  Everything we do must be in service of our brand and the role that it plays in people’s lives.

Martin George, Waitrose

Asked how businesses should approach magpie-ism during difficult times, particularly with many businesses having been adversely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, George said the answer is to put the customer first and ensure that a thorough measurement system is in place.

“My view would always be to start with the customer and just get closer than ever to your customer to really understand what it is that motivates them. Go out of your way to do a better job than anybody else in your sector in serving your customer,” he said.

“For me, at any time in the economic cycle, but particularly now, that is of primary importance. The closer you can meet your customer, the more you can understand what motivates them, the better able we will be to build propositions, build experiences and build communication that influences the way they think, feel and behave.”

Embracing the magpie way will include making sacrifices elsewhere, Marker added – but that’s okay. “We want you to sacrifice and we want you to feel comfortable with this. We want you to work out what you can sacrifice to give you time to be more magpie,” she said.

With all this in mind, George encouraged marketers to bring magpie thinking into their teams and organisations to drive marketing innovation and fuel their brands. Marketers might start that process with an audit of innovation, identifying priorities, analysing areas of strength or growth.Digital brands have ‘succumbed to magpie syndrome’, says Shop DirectThey may then want to curate the innovation opportunities, lay out a roadmap across their channels and make it happen. Or they may begin with the small steps, like starting a thought-provoking conversation with the phrase: “Have you thought about?”

But once the mindset has been introduced into their teams, marketers then need to make the approach stick.

“If you want to make this a habit, or even create it as a culture, make a space for it, a time or place, an expectation. That’s what leads to a culture. Incentivise it – create opportunities to participate in an exciting project, generate internal exposure and even offer a stake in its success,” George said.

“And then really importantly, enjoy it. Make it a brilliant experience for all. People will feel valued, see their contribution, feel heard, feel treated with respect and feel empowered. This all contributes to an incredible, open, positive and brave culture.”



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