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Sir Tom Farmer interview

By The Drum, Administrator

December 13, 2007 | 6 min read

You can't bet safer than a Scots advert maker

Before addressing the meeting, Sir Tom took time out to share the ingredients of his ‘secret sauce’ with The Drum.

Sir Tom acknowledges that “smart and clever” advertising was a key driver of the ultimate success of the Kwik-Fit business, a marketing campaign which was a contender for most memorable of the last 21 years at the Scottish Advertising Awards. Even now, 13 years after it ceased, the adverts are lodged in the public memory.

“It was a big, big spend. But what the advertising did was drive customers into the place. We had a fantastic team of people who looked after these customers,” says Sir Tom.

“Even from the first business I had in 1964, there was always a big advertising spend. But the real big push came in 1980 and 1981, after we made a series of acquisitions, growing from around 50 places to over 220 in a very short period of time. We had to establish a profile. The big leap was with the Kwik-Fit fitter.”

The campaign had its genesis during a late night brainstorm at lead marketing consultants, Hall Advertising.

“We wanted to get the message out to the motorist that this was an organisation that you could rely on. We were all sitting round the table late at night, and in conversation it came about that we should start to show the fitters. We came up with “You can’t get quicker than a Kwik-Fit fitter”. But we didn’t like the word ‘quicker’; we wanted ‘better,’” Sir Tom says.

The effect was instantaneously effective and infectious, boosting not only the image and profile of the company and providing it with an identifiable tag, but also enhancing the atmosphere and sense of prestige within each of the Kwik-Fit garages.

“It took the job of the fitter – a nondescript job – and made it the highest profile job in the country. When people asked the young lads of 16, ‘what’s your job’, they would say ‘a Kwik-Fit fitter’, and say it with real pride.”

Sir Tom’s subsequent Farmer’s Autocare venture takes a different approach, with each outlet operating as a ‘turnkey’ operation, with the aim of dropping the Farmer name and replacing it with the franchisee’s.

While always sought after, association with the Kwik-Fit account has often proven to be something of a poisoned chalice, with Halls, The Morgan Partnership, and thereafter Faulds all suffering job losses and drops in profitability in the wake of handling such a large scale client.

Relationships with agencies during the Kwik Fit era, whilst fruitful, were not always straightforward, as Sir Tom explains.

“Our relationship with the advertising agencies was always pretty solid. We weren’t an easy client. We grew to being too big a client, and we dominated the advertising agencies dealings, and they had difficulties with us,” he says.

“We wanted to keep our account in Edinburgh if we could, and if we couldn’t, we wanted to keep it in Scotland. People had been very loyal to us, and put up with the hard times that we gave them. We tried to be loyal to them, and they paid us handsomely by doing a fantastic job for us. It was a love-hate relationship, but it was good,”

A £30m annual spend is testament to the high value Sir Tom places on advertising as a contributing factor to the growth of his business. “Anyone who thinks advertising is expensive is falling into the same trap as anyone who thinks training is expensive,” he says. It is a crucial ingredient, in what he refers to as the ‘secret sauce’ of success.

“People ask us what the secret sauce was in our organisation. Without doubt, it was our people. They had the tools to do the job, and one of the most important tools was the advertising,” he says, which is one constant that subsists in an advertising environment that has changed over the years.

“We used to insist that all the work had to be done in Scotland.

“Unfortunately, though, a lot of the work seems to have filtered off down south and drifted back to London. It is a pity that Scottish firms don’t deal with Scottish advertising agencies anymore. The talent that we have is as good as anywhere,” he says.

“If we need new talent, we won’t be able to attract it if we don’t have the volume of business and the quality of business. Those people who have really got the interests of the Scottish economy at heart, and the wellbeing of Scottish companies, should bear that in mind. If we want a strong advertising profession in this small country of ours, what we want is to make sure that we have the best people, and we can only get that if we invest in our business.”

Tips for success… the wisdom of sir tom farmer

“Advertising never sold anything. We sold it. We learned at the end of the day what the advertising did; it brought the customers to the door. It was up to us to turn them into sales.” “If you want to be successful, marry the girl next door. There’s no learning curve.” “We never worked late on a Friday night. No matter what happened, at 9.00pm we finished.” “Who is most important to your business? Your people.” It doesn’t matter how big or small an organisation is, people need to have a reason to increase their own motivation.” “If the manager is a wally, the team of people they employ will be wallies as well.” “Try and employ people you already have a relationship with.” “We made mistakes, and we did things wrong. If we did things wrong, we would admit it.” “Most people are quite happy trying to help a young guy who is trying to get on.” “Get off the bus at the second last stop. Don’t stay on until the end.” “People often do things in business because of a gut feeling. If you’ve got a gut feeling, all it is telling you is that you have indigestion. Intuition is another thing; that is using your experience.” “People need to be looked after. People need to be listened to. People need to be recognised.”

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