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Guardians of the gallery: PhotoBox MD Robert May on the challenges of online retail

Having spent the bulk of his career as a marketer within the online gaming industry, Robert May, in his role as UK managing director of PhotoBox, is now tackling the diverse challenges of online retail. The Drum Network’s Michael Feeley finds out more.

Robert May hasn’t always worked in the online retail sector. After graduating from Edinburgh University in 1996, he joined Camelot, the UK’s National Lottery operator, where he spent the next 14 years in a variety of marketing roles.

He recalls: “The beauty of working for a smaller company like Camelot was that, if you put your hand up and were keen, you were given the chance to work in different areas.”

As a result, May took on a succession of posts that saw him launch the National Lottery online and on mobile, establish Camelot’s scratchcard and Euromillions offerings, and play a key role in the bid team that secured the UK lottery franchise for Camelot until 2019. In his final role for the company, May even acted as a consultant to the then governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was looking to revitalise his state lottery.

Sports betting brand Blue Square was the next move for May, which, in turn, led to an interim marketing director post at Betfair, who acquired Blue Square in 2013.

“Betfair, as one of the big five in that market, is very innovative and dynamic: mobile-focused, ferociously competitive and prepared to make a big push on TV,” says May. “The betting industry has been a real innovator with things like in-play betting and then promoting live in-play odds in their TV ads, which was ground-breaking stuff at the time. I learned a lot in my time there.”

Keen to venture beyond the gaming sector, May relished the opportunity to join PhotoBox, Europe’s leading personalised product printing company, as the company’s UK managing director at the end of 2013. The move from marketer to managing director, though, was not without its challenges. “The biggest change, of course, was managing the entire P&L; having a close eye on costs as well as on revenue and marketing spend. In practice that means having much closer relationships with production and customer service across the business to make sure that everything we’re doing and planning is actually going to generate a profit.” May adds: “Another key difference for me, personally, moving from the gaming industry, is that the products I’m working with now genuinely bring our customers joy. The same couldn’t always be said about betting.”

PhotoBox offers a comprehensive digital picture printing solution and over 600 personalised products to choose from. The PhotoBox Group also consists of Moonpig, the online greetings card retailer, Sticky9, which leverages Instagram and other social networks to produce photo-based products, PaperShaker, which targets the invitations and announcements market and the recently-acquired Hoffmann, the Spanish market leader in photo books.

One particular aspect of the PhotoBox business model represented a totally fresh challenge for May: manufacturing. Unlike its key competitors, PhotoBox doesn’t simply sell physical goods online, it manufactures the vast majority of the products it sells.

“We have a factory in Park Royal creating a wide variety of products such as calendars, posters and smartphone cases, and another in France that produces all our photo books. Having complete control over the full supply chain gives us the power to innovate faster, scale our operations and to keep close control over our pricing and quality. As we’ve gotten bigger, we’re now seeing great benefits from that arrangement that simply wouldn’t be available if we outsourced,” says May.

Charged with increasing PhotoBox’s rate of growth in the UK, May has used his experience to better integrate campaigns across PR, social, search, TV, production and customer service to “make sure everything joins up and that there’s a golden thread of an idea running through everything”. Mobile, for good reason, is a key focus as a growth channel.

“Right now, we do very well among women aged 25 to 44, particularly first time mums who see themselves as the guardian of their family’s memories. Travellers are another strong market for us. However, the vast majority of the photos uploaded and used for creation are taken on smart phones, which represents an interesting challenge for PhotoBox. Under-30s take more pictures than anyone else but, because they tend to live with parents or share a home with others, they have less inclination to ever actually print and display those photos. So we need to find a way to tap into that generation.”

With that in mind, PhotoBox is currently developing a simplified photo book creation studio for mobile users that will allow the complex task to be achieved in minutes. However, according to May, successful product development doesn’t always need to involve anything quite so radical. He says: “This year we launched bone china photo mugs, as some of our more discerning customers don’t like drinking from heavy ceramic mugs. They sold fantastically well for Mother’s Day so, sometimes, smart little tweaks are all that’s needed.”

In the end, though, May believes that his years as a marketing professional (combined with the masters business degree he gained in 2002) have equipped him well for his role as managing director at PhotoBox.

He says: “In the end, I think being a marketer is about putting the customer at the heart of everything you do. It’s slightly clichéd but it’s true and it can sometimes be forgotten when you’re busy discussing the cost of wood for canvas frames. My marketing background ensures that I stay focused on ensuring that everything that we do is in place to delight our customers.”

PhotoBox is a client of The Specialist Works, a member of The Drum Network. If you would like to find out more about The Drum Network and how it can help support you and your growing agency visit

This feature was first published in The Drum's 22 July issue.

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