It’s been 18 months since Giffgaff’s chief marketing officer was propelled into the top job, a rare move in the dog-eat-dog world of British telecoms. In hindsight, Ash Schofield admits he may have underestimated how big a leap the change of desk would be. Now, after a challenging period, he is settled in and has revealed his ambitious plans for the brand.
Schofield has been at the decade-old Giffgaff brand for nearly eight years. He joined from Tesco Mobile in 2012 when it was a plucky upstart and housed just a handful of employees. Today, he runs a company of over 230 staff.
"Marketing had always had a very strong voice in the company so what would be different?” he recalls of his promotion. “As soon as I changed desk – everything was different.
"I had thought Giffgaff was a marketing business but as CEO I realised that actually I'm running a technology company. I was on a bit of a journey that first six months to find my place in that. How I describe it back to the team now is that what we're running is a brand-led technology company.”
It’s a bit of a mouthful, but a fundamental idea that the entire group has had to get its head around over the past year. Schofield wants his cohort of data and technology experts to have the same appreciation for brand building that the marketing team do, and conversely for his marketers to approach everything with the fast pace, “test and learn” mindset that’s embedded within the technology side of the business.
“I want to make marketeers out of everybody. Everyone is working on the brand in some way, whether it be writing a line of code to deliver an experience, or working on creative, and it all impacts our members and potential future members. So, I want everyone to think with that kind of value creation mindset. That’s the mission,” says Schofield.
“Gone are the days when you rely on a marketing team and its agencies to come up with that big idea that you’re going to spend six months or a year building, and then place everything on that bet and cross your fingers that you win. We now embrace a lean UX methodology.”
Despite the business being five times the size from when he first walked through the doors, Schofield has been determined to maintain the start-up "habits” that would have been so easy to park at some point along the way. It's critical to the way he sees the company working in the future as it continues to grow.
“When I joined, every Monday 40 people got together to talk about what had happened [in the past week] and what was going to happen. We still do that today,” he says of the weekly ritual which sees all staff congregate in its Uxbridge auditorium to update on business priorities.
“It’s really important to keep these things as you scale. Because you don't want to lose that edge. I don’t want anyone to ever say ‘I don’t know why we do this – it’s just the way we’ve always done it’. You’ve got to challenge constantly what you do and how you do it.”
This mindset is what’s perhaps helped it through challenges in the past year that no new chief executive wants to face. Chief among them, a potentially brand-killing revelation that Giffgaff had been inadvertently overcharging 2.6 million customers for most of its existence. Ofcom fined it £1.4m for the error, though gave it credit for admitting the mistake.
Schofield was just a few months into his CEO tenure when he had to deal with the fallout.
“I knew that people would judge us on what happened next. We are all human and people do occasionally make mistakes. By the time we’d told Ofcom, we had already started paying everybody back, including people who had already left Giffgaff. We hired an agency to try and find them to give them the money back, even if it was like only a pound," he recalls.
In that period it obsessively tracked the impact on the brand, but encouragingly it didn’t fall. In fact, Schofield claims that as a result of the swift action and comms strategy, it actually saw its steady Net Promoter Score of 68 go up a couple points.
“That’s how opinions are formed. You can’t get it right every time, all the time. And people will form their judgments based on what happens when maybe it didn't go quite so smoothly,” he continues.
“I guess being from a marketing background, being used to managing comms it was an area that I could add something to. When you’re CEO, you've got to decide which kind you going to be. Are you going to be one that tells everyone what to do or are you going to the kind that liberates people? For me, it's the latter. And where I can personally make myself helpful by guiding people through a situation based on my experience and they grow out of it as well.”
Troubles behind him, Schofield is now looking ahead and wants Giffgaff to establish its “purpose” over the coming year. Its 3 million strong customer base is broadening from the 18-25 male-skewing audience it first attracted with its cheap bundles and “freedom” positioning. And with that has come the opportunity to talk about more than just price and convenience.
A major focus is the idea of sustainability. He's still working through what this means long-term for Giffgaff, but the relentless push for everyone to embrace a “test-and-learn” way of working means it’s been making small bets on a few projects to see how the concept lands with customers.
So far, it’s paying off.
At the beginning of 2019 it invested heavily in its refurbed phone division, which allows people to buy a second-hand phone whether they plan to use a Giffgaff sim-card or not. It quickly filmed a series of 300-idents for its sponsorship of ITV’s The Voice, all of which were shot on second-hand phones.
A few months later, on Black Friday, it launched a pop-up store – the first time the brand had gone offline – which it filled with second-hand items, including phones, and asked visitors to pledge to make more sustainable choices. 1,500 people participated in the experiential stunt and it highlighted just how “useful” the phone company could be in giving people an alternative to buying new from the big brands.
“It’s a massive shift,” Schofield says. “We're building a category. The majority of sales are coming from refurbed phones. The success that we've had has given us an extra poke to look even deeper on whether there's more we could be doing that's a win-win for us, our customers and society.”
How this continues to play out over the coming year is still a bit of a mystery. Schofield says he doesn’t want to set marketing budgets or concrete plans for the year; doing so would limit its flexibility to launch something at the drop of a hat. He does, however, expect to spend more on events that get the brand off screens and allow people to interact with it in the real world.
“Giffgaff is much more mainstream. 10 years ago, it was a mobile network that didn't have any shops and didn't have a call centre and seemed a bit weird. We're officially not weird anymore,” he laughs.
This broadening appeal to more than just the teens and student demographic means it’s also opening the door to more commercial opportunities. In yet another experiment last year it allowed start-up energy company Bulb to effectively advertise to its customer base.
At the time, it was running a series with financial advice and was looking for ways to help people save money. The opportunity then came knocking for Bulb to promote its affordable green energy services on its platform.
“We’re a community-based platform that happens to focus on mobile, but we can sell anything our community wants,” Schofield explains, saying there are around 10,000 members of this online group that Giffgaff consults on everything from new bundles and app ideas to how its services are performing.
“It was an interesting experiment to work out whether people would listen if we we've started to talk about things other than mobile. They did. It’s exciting for us.”
Schofield and co are now mulling how they can “shine a light” on other brands to its customers though they stress it’s simply “territory to explore”.
He surmises: “The environment that we operate in feels like it's changing. Both socially and technologically and that's going to be really exciting.”