Despite employing around 200 people, Giffgaff – the ‘anti-establishment’ mobile provider – is determined to maintain its startup ways as it continues to grow. After a year that saw it lauded with awards, chief-marketer-turned-chief-exec Ash Schofield talks to The Drum about outshining bigger rivals, in-housing creative and surviving the pandemic.
“I understand mobile trends, I know what the dashboard looks like,” says Giffgaff’s chief executive officer Ash Schofield, who has worked in the mobile industry for 20 years. “But when I looked at it in April 2020, I didn’t recognize it. I dusted off our business plan altogether. It was pretty scary.”
In the end, he didn’t rip it up and start again. Having reread the original plan, he found it was still relevant. Born out of the digital age, he says Giffgaff is a “business designed to be resilient in the face of the pandemic” because not only does it not own shops, it doesn’t have call centers and is ‘digital-first’.
While logistically Giffgaff’s business set-up was fortuitous in the face of a global pandemic, this doesn’t relieve it of the fact it’s a company that sells mobile connectivity when people weren’t mobile. Plus, the fact its selling point is to not lock people into contracts means in theory its ‘members’ could drop it at any point without warning. On the flip side, Schofield says there was a massive increase in the use of voice calls and people using Giffgaff as their own wifi at home. As a result, the company has had to navigate peaks and troughs, with Schofield admitting there was some downward pressure on Giffgaff’s revenue throughout the year.
All in all, though, it’s been a very good year – one that saw Giffgaff lauded left, right and center. “We won the treble this year,” Schofield exclaims, listing off its various prizes. It was voted Uswitch’s ‘Network of the Year 2021’, it topped Which?’s customer satisfaction survey (with 91% customers recommending) and it came out best in Ofcom’s satisfaction survey, ranking first for satisfaction (it also found its customers are the least likely to need to complain). Outside the world of telecoms, it was placed as fourth-performing business across all sectors under lockdown in an Opportunity Index devised by Yonder, coming in third after Netflix, Amazon and Amazon Prime. This all points to a lot of happy, satisfied customers – Schofield puts this down to its belief in simplicity, flexibility and great value.
These results don’t bode well for O2, EE, Vodafone and Three. Nicknamed the ‘big four’, these mobile providers were consistently outshone by smaller rivals like Giffgaff, Smartly and Tesco Mobile. Schofield joined from Tesco Mobile in 2013, when Giffgaff was a plucky upstart, where he headed up its marketing team. Perhaps why Giffgaff shines so bright among such huge rivals is because it doesn’t compare itself to the big four, but to brands shaking up business in other industries.
Schofield recalls how prior to the pandemic, Giffgaff would take inspiration from other challenger brands who he would invite to come and talk at a mini amphitheater set up in the middle of the HQ called ‘the park’. “We’d invite companies like Monzo and Bulb, which we have a lot in common with and respect. And they would come and tell us their story directly. It was cool to compare sources and inspiration and the way they approached similar challenges and problems that we had,” he says.
He says this is important because while “Giffgaff has a strong sense of self”, he recognizes that it’s good to “look outside, to make sure it doesn’t become an echo chamber”.
“You’ve got to challenge the established way. You’ve got to disrupt. There’s always a level of tension and restlessness within the business.”
When Schofield joined Giffgaff it was three years into its history and was already insourcing technology, which he claims is unusual for a telecom brand. Soon after, it began in-housing its marketing strategy after Schofield became disillusioned by its partnership with then-agency Albion London.
“I said to my director at the time, can we just do this ourselves? And he said yeah, I think we can,” Schofield says of GiffGaff’s decision to in-house its creative. “So we fired them and fortunately the account manager decided to join us. It just gave us the freedom to work with the people we wanted to work with and to cut out the middleman. No one understood better than we do.”
While it has in-housed creative, Schofield admits it still works with agencies from time to time. “We’re working on a much more ‘what’s the job to be done’ basis. And then we assemble the right team to do that job,” he says.
An example of this creative process is Giffgaff’s anti-Black Friday campaign that surfaced last year. Demonstrating how it sees itself as the anti-establishment mobile provider, it partnered with Jump, Havas Media Group’s content and partnership hub Havas Media and LadBible Group on an ad that urged the public to ‘Check Your Drawers’. The anti-consumerist content push positioned Giffgaff as a disruptor and innovator in the telecoms sector.