Co-op Group - Client Profile

Captain of the Co-op takes to the seas

Marketing decision-makers the length and breadth of the country are besieged, on a daily basis, by agencies touting their wares through a combination of unsolicited calls and mailers, ranging from the well-trodden to the simply bizarre. But as the markets these budget-holders operate in become increasingly competitive, there’s an ever diminishing amount of time they can afford to prospective suppliers wanting to sell their offering.

Which is why, for the last 15 years, The Marketing Forum has been a popular choice for marketers looking to match their needs to the right agencies. Held annually upon a P&O cruise ship, the event provides a comprehensive, hectic and enjoyable networking opportunity for both sides of the marketing fence. The clients know what they’re looking for and the agencies know they’re looking. One-on-one meetings, formal dinners and (for the energetic) late-night socialising time, are packed into three days as the ship heads out towards the Channel Islands.

Last week, The Drum found its sea-legs and joined the delegates, suppliers and keynote speakers of the 2007 forum to share in the experience of one of the marketing industry’s most well-established traditions.

One man we were keen to track down on board is Patrick Allen – the new marketing director for The Co-operative Group, following the society’s amalgamation with United Co-operatives.

Allen replaced Zoe Morgan as the group’s marketing director this summer, having headed up the marketing team at United Co-operative prior to the merger. He now manages an immediate marketing team of around 160 and a wider team of close to 450.

Since taking over the group marketing role, Allen has “rationalised” its marketing suppliers, cutting its agency roster from 47 to around 10, with four or five primary agencies.

“This has given us a more unified approach that’s on-brand and on-message,” Allen explains, “so that when consumers touch any part of our company, they recognise it as a Co-operative business, as opposed to when you could go into a food store or pharmacy and feel like you were in completely different businesses.”

Despite the firm’s headquarters and Allen’s base being in Manchester, the group’s lead agencies are all London-based, consisting of McCann Erickson, Pentagram, Rapier and the recently appointed PHD Rocket. And while the firm still works with a number of north west suppliers, many were culled as part of the roster rationalisation. So does Allen believe only London agencies have the capacity to handle the firm’s larger-scale campaigns?

“I think that’s unfair. But I do think they’re better resourced and, while I’m painting a generalised picture, the calibre of people you deal with in London tend to be that little bit better.

“The nature of the agency business is that everybody wants to work in London, so anyone’s who’s any good gets a job in a London agency. That’s not to say that there aren’t good people in regional offices, but it’s a consistency of a higher level that you get with the London agencies.”

The sprinkling of Manchester agencies on The Co-operative’s roster may not be enough to placate those who question why a business that claims to be one of the most ethical in the country is happy to travel up and down to the capital.

“Some of our food agencies are in Manchester and they do an excellent job for us. It shouldn’t be based on geography, it should be based on the quality of the people in the agencies and there are some very good agencies in Manchester. I don’t care where you are, if you’re the best at what you do then I want to be talking to you.”

Allen’s passion for the company is infectious. He believes the firm’s “model, ethical policies and brand is starting to get into parallax with the consumer mood.” Any agencies meeting him on board will be buoyed by his enthusiasm to deliver his firm’s key messages to the consumer. Not only that, The Co-operative Group is a major marketing spender – making him a key prospect on this year’s Marketing Forum.

“If you look at Tesco, they probably spend about £80million a year [on marketing]; if you look at Sainsbury’s, it’s probably between £60-70million each year; and we’ll probably spend £40-50million. But when you consider Tesco is four times the size of us, you can see we punch above our weight in marketing spend.”

While the firm’s 10-strong roster are unlikely to have their position challenged by any developments that arise from the forum, it’s clear Allen has come on board with some significantly alluring projects. Allen’s broader challenge is to “get people to realise there’s an alternative to a plc on the high-street” with the Co-operative model, and he hopes the suppliers on board the ship can help him move a lot closer to achieving it.

“You have to be very clear on what you want to get out of it before you get on the boat. For me, that was sponsorship, publishing and digital.

“It’s my job to look at what kind of different media can we use to get across to people that we’re an alternative business to the Plc. So I’m looking for innovative ways and different media channels. I’ve been talking to the Sky guys about initiatives we can do with them; not just on TV, but through their interactive services. Because one thing a lot of people don’t realise is that the Co-operative has been a leader of many things over the years and have a lot of leadership credentials, but we’re not very good at telling people.

“We’ve been happy to hide our light under a bushel and get on with things, but now I think it’s time to let people know that The Co-operative model is at the vanguard of a lot of thinking. And if we can demonstrate that in our media channels, that will set the standard and help us develop that.”

At the time of meeting Allen, he’s has already had some “positive” meetings with a number of digital agencies. “We’ve got quite a large online presence,” he says, “with two main areas – travel and our electrical shop. I’m looking at ways of driving traffic to those sights, so I’ve been meeting guys that can help me do that – affiliates being one of them. That’s proving to be a pretty effective way of driving traffic rather than pay-per-click.”

\"Our e-store, which largely sells white goods, accounts for a £40million business. The other is travel. We have to be online with our travel business these days. Consumer buying behaviour has switched away from retail shops to online, although, there is still a need for the retail shops. The challenge is making sure our online offer is not just a reflection of our bricks and mortar offer. It’s a different behaviour; you have to think more about the consumer journey and buying set online.”

It looks all but certain that Allen will be making supplier hirings as a result of his time on the boat, including deals with Sky Media and affiliate marketing firms.

“The reason I like the boat” he explains, “is that I could spend days in every week with people cold calling me, while I’m distracted with the day-to-day running of the business. Whereas, here you’re away from all that; the boat legitimises the relationships between suppliers and delegates. I know I’m going to be sold to and the suppliers can get right into the selling. In two days, I can get through what would take two months back at the business.”

The Marketing Forum is already booking up places for next year. For more information, email Louise Henry at LHenry@richmondevents.com or call 020 8487 2242.

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