Sitting in a coffee house at Newlands roundabout in Glasgow, on a wet, dreary Friday afternoon, The Drum is nursing a cup of tea, contemplating the decibels emitting from the coffee shop’s loud speakers, tape recorder sitting on the table next to aforementioned cup of tea.
With music blaring out from speakers all over the shop (literally) – perhaps this wasn’t the smartest location to conduct an interview with Gordon Brown, the former director of brands at Tennents Breweries.
Having tested the volume at a plethora of seats throughout the cafÃ© before Brown’s immanent arrival, a relatively sound-proofed spot is found. Still not ideal, though.
When he appears, Brown recommends moving upstairs. This makes little difference to the volume, but does provides us with slightly more comfortable seating.
Having left Tennent’s in 2000, Brown now runs his own consultancy, Circuitbreak, working with agencies and clients to build their marketing and branding as well as training staff in different marketing disciplines.
His first job out of university was as a graduate trainee in London for Sainsbury’s. A role he promptly left after three months upon finding that the company was looking for store managers rather than marketeers. From there, Brown decided to fly to Canada to visit his girlfriend where, following a stint delivering pizzas, he landed a marketing assistant job at brewers, Carling O’Keefe.
After a short period in Canada the pair returned to Britain, and Brown found a job with brewers, Bass where he spent 15 years working his way through the ranks. Six of those years were spent working at Tennent’s.
During his time there, Brown oversaw an overhaul of the Scottish brand, which included the logo, signage, packaging and promotional work.
“When I started, about 70 percent of the brand’s cash went to TV, but by the time I finished it was probably less than 30 per cent,” says Brown, straining to be heard over the music. “The money was being moved to support events like T In The Park which is a much more effective way of touching consumers. T In The Park is so effective in engaging consumers with the brand. And you can see, with the successful spin offs like T In The Fringe, it gives you a lot of credibility in the market.”
Working for, arguably, the most culturally embedded brand in Scotland, it seems a fair question to ask why he chose to move on in 2000 after 15 years at the company.
“I could easily have stayed,” reflects Brown, leaning towards the tape recorder. “People always say it’s the best marketing job in Scotland. I would agree. If there is a better one, I can’t think what it is. Although,” he adds as an afterthought, “I’m sure Jonathan Kemp would argue that Irn-Bru is better. But Tennent’s engages so many people.
“At the tail end of ’99, I’d been working on Tennent’s for six years and it was getting to the point where I could see next year coming, with the clients in place and I thought ‘I’m not challenging myself the way I should’.
“As it turned out, a friend of mine approached me and told me he was starting a new business, Ecom Sport, in London and was looking for a sales and marketing director, pre-floatation. Whether it was just an end of the century thing, or not, I accepted the challenge.
“The other reason I decided to leave is that, although Tennents is a wonderful company to work for, you do get institutionalised,” he says, as the music lulls for a moment. “You need to expand and add variety, and that’s one of the benefits of what I currently do now. That’s probably why, in the end, I decided to go it alone, to prove to myself that I could. When you leave your security behind, it looks like the Grand Canyon that’s in front of you to cross. But after you’ve been out there for a little while it just looks like a crack in the pavement.”
Once leaving Bass and Tennent’s behind, Brown’s first project was with Ecom Sport, but the travelling to and from London to his home in Glasgow took its toll after a year.
He left the firm on good terms and decided to launch his own business, Circuitbreak. Brown made the decision to move his work life back up to Scotland, and ruled out taking on another marketing director role. That is when he noticed a gap in the market.
“People tended to perceive marketing in a way that marketers don’t. I spent my life being trained that it was about planning and I thought ‘is there a resource in Scotland that undertakes that?’.
“I took what I had learned and adapted it to work for anything – from one-man start-up teams to national and global companies.”
“As luck would have it, I got a contract with Littlewoods Pools as one of my first jobs, which was good to work on as they were trying to pull together a marketing department” he says. “I started working with them and, from there, slowly and surely, I’ve started picking up other clients.”
His consultancy offers insight into a company’s marketing strategy and offers a wide range of services from marketing planning to creative training.
“It was hard work as, a lot of people, when you say ‘marketing’, shut their eyes,” says Brown, explaining how he sold the concept of Circuitbreak to prospective clients.
“They tend to see marketing as an expenditure. I see it as an investment. One of the things I had to do was explain what marketing actually was, which sounds boring and obvious, but actually it was just a case of explaining the benefit that Circuitbreak could bring to their business.”
Brown has built his business slowly, often through referral. Although he has and does pitch for business, he claims that he’s never been for a job where there are a number of hopeful agencies vying for the business.
“As in any business, you start off with people you know,” continues Brown, speaking now at a level to match the ‘background’ music. “When I launched, I started by talking to the people that I knew. I went to Paul Cooney at Clyde, Donald Emslie at STV, a whole set of people that I knew and they were all interested... but none of them actually bit.
“Funnily enough now,” he smiles, “after all that time, I’m in with STV. But it’s taken years.”
“Creativity is the defeat of habit by originality,” quotes Brown. “Cecil B DeMille, I believe. The first thing is, you don’t go to people and tell them that you’re going to make them more creative.
“The first thing that you start off doing is to say, creativity by itself is learnable by anyone, it’s not a mystic science. Stop doing what you’re currently doing and do something different and do it in an effective manner.
“Creativity can be the smallest thing, the tiniest thing can make a difference. People are inherently creative. I know people, when at work, whose creativity levels are relatively low. But when you ask them what they’ve done at the weekend, it turns out that they’ve led a scout pack up Ben Nevis and they’ve managed to organise the whole thing, get them up there and enjoy the time. That takes an awful lot of doing, but they don’t see it.”
A more recent venture has seen Brown invest in Teetonic, a design-led online t-shirt company that he co-runs alongside digital agency, Become Interactive.
The site allows users to rate work from creatives around the world, printing the favourite design at the end of each week. As a result designers receive a percentage of every t-shirt bought which bears their work.
“It’s done well. It’s going to be a slow burner, though, as Circuitbreak and Become Interactive are so busy we don’t get the time to spend on it that we really should. But, in saying that, we’ve been doing deals with The Sun, we’ve has support from T- Mobile and we did a promotion for John Smiths in the summer. The t-shirts are now retailing in the John Smiths shops. We’re doing promotions with STV at the moment where we’ve just finished a competition for Club Cupid.
“The benefit of Teetonic is that it’s not the same as giving a single design brief. Most of the designers don’t even know the brand that they’re designing for, as they might come from Argentina or Holland [the last two winners were from Argentina and Holland]. But the beauty is, they do a bit of research, we put a brief on the site, they come back and tell us their interpretation of that brief.”
After a clash against the music in the warmth of the cafÃ©, John Brown gathers his thoughts and his umbrella to battle against the elements outside. However, Brown is used to a challenge and, in an industry where he who shouts loudest wins, Brown is certainly one player that is used to getting himself heard.