Marks and Spencer Marketing

Meet M&S’ Mr Claus – Ira Dubinsky on what it takes to be head of Christmas at the most critical time of the year

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By Jennifer Faull, Deputy Editor

December 16, 2016 | 6 min read

Last year, for the first time, Marks and Spencer (M&S) created a marketing role that would be dedicated to nailing its Christmas strategy. It was up to Ira Dubinsky to take on the rivals, namely John Lewis, and ensure the retailer had honed its whole customer experience – not just the ad.

Ira

Ira Dubinsky

The creation of the role was not only reflective of the importance M&S places on the “golden quarter” Christmas sales, but of how it wanted the whole marketing team to work all year round. A few months after Dubinksy's promotion to the head of Christmas role, the retailer’s top marketer Patrick Bousquet-Chavanne was given the title 'executive director of customer, marketing and M&S.com'. Seemingly subtle, this shift was actually a massive move towards engaging with customers consistently and relevantly whatever the channel. Something Dubinsky had already been trying to do for Christmas.

It’s a work in progress but this year's festive campaign was an example of how it should come together and the role that M&S marketers should be taking across departments. But it’s not as easy as it sounds.

“This role is part of the marketing team and more than anything it is a marketing role, but there’s so many parts of the business that aren’t officially in marketing that a big part of the job is to liaise with [other] functions and build strong relationships across the business and take everyone on the journey as the proposition is developed,” Dubinsky explained.

“A big part of the job is influencing and networking within the business and spending a lot of time with people who deal with product development, merchandising, store staff, the dot-com team – so you really need to reach out to everyone.”

For Dubinsky, that begins a year in advance, with a secret ‘red book’ that contains all the campaign ideas. And so last year – before the fast-paced, product-heavy Christmas campaign of 2015 had even drawn to a close – Dubinsky was sketching out a strategy that would make a U-turn and tell one Christmas story.

“We wanted to tell a really warm Christmas story and once we had that agreed we needed to figure out how to do that in a really unique way to M&S. There were two big themes to that strategic thinking – one was this idea about alchemy; the customer adds their own special touch, it’s them and the brand coming together. The second was the idea of celebrating female customers who, let’s be honest, are often the power in the family bringing Christmas celebrations together.”

This resulted in a campaign telling the story of Jake, who’s spent the last year squabbling with his sister Anna. As Christmas approaches, Jake writes to Mrs Claus (played by British actor Janet McTeer) to help him give her the perfect gift. The ad then follows Mrs Claus as she travels from Lapland to London to deliver the present.

It was one of the most ambitious campaigns the retailer had undertaken as it tried to reach 99% of UK population over the course of the season. Beyond the main spot, there was a Channel 4 sponsored ad break featuring the Mrs Claus character, a social campaign overseen by a team in a ‘Christmas war room’ and a wave of online activity that the retailer claimed made this campaign one of the most mobile-first executions it has ever achieved. In-store, lavish displays were created featuring key products in the spot while staff were also asked to carry out random acts of kindness.

“Modern marketing is only getting more complex. And from customers’ perspective there’s no above-the-line or below-the-line. There’s just the experience. My duty is to give them the best possible experience and connect with them the way they want,” said Dubinsky.

"To do that you need to cut across every function. It’s an important way of working. I wouldn’t underestimate how complex it is to do that. Campaigns that are really joined up, where you have the right content in the right place at the right time in the right format take a huge amount of co-ordination and in the end, you never really know until it lands if it’ll work together.”

Dubinsky won’t go into detail about the commercial rewards M&S may be reaping from this more joined up approach. It’s sales figures for the quarter will be announced next year and until then he says nothing more than “the numbers are really strong", referring to the brand tracking studies it's undertaken.

“No one would deny that the Christmas period has become like the UK equivalent to the Super Bowl for advertising. We want that level of buzz and talkability and to do stuff at the biggest scale we can. We’re proud of being something that’s ownable and distinct that feels true to our brand. You can see that from the response from customers,” he said.

But before he’s had a chance to enjoy the fruits of Christmas 2016, Dubinsky’s thoughts have already turned to next Christmas and working with its new creative agency, Grey, which was appointed last year to manage both the digital and creative business. Dubinsky is confident that the learnings from this campaign coupled with the benefits of having an agency that is working across the whole marketing plan will result in a better approach to not just festive advertising but it's general marketing as well.

“We know there’s even more we can do to connect and be relevant to them in the right place and the right time,” he surmised.

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