Virgin Media's Nigel Gilbert on the brand's creative challenge

Virgin Media chief marketing officer Nigel Gilbert
Virgin Media chief marketing officer Nigel Gilbert

Nigel Gilbert, chief marketing officer at Virgin Media, cuts a more relaxed figure than when he was at Lloyds TSB.

It is hard to think of an item that would have seemed more out of place in Nigel Gilbert's old office at Lloyds Banking Group than a canvas featuring Sir Richard Branson's face superimposed upon an image of Che Guevara. Yet, here, at Virgin Media's headquarters in Covent Garden, London, it occupies pride of place on Gilbert's office wall.

Since joining the company as chief marketing officer at the start of the year, the former Lowe Group Asia-Pacific chairman has quickly stamped his authority on the brand. Virgin Media, too, seems to have had an impact on the 55-year-old.

The last time Marketing met Gilbert, more than three years ago, was a much more formal occasion in the glistening headquarters of Lloyds TSB in the City of London. The bank's acclaimed 'For the journey' campaign was in its infancy, and Gilbert was enjoying praise from all quarters for reviving a British institution. Yet, lurking around the corner was the credit crunch and Lloyds TSB's eventual merger with HBOS. Gilbert lasted only a year as chief marketing officer of the merged bank before leaving the business, a sequence of events he clearly still rues.

Challenge ahead

Today, Gilbert cuts an altogether more relaxed figure, having ditched City pinstripe for the open-collar, smart casual look. Leaning back, he expounds enthusiastically on the culture at Virgin Media, and his excitement at the challenge ahead - to take arguably Virgin's weakest brand and bring its marketing up to the standard of it Virgin stablemates.

'I'm genuinely having a ball, really enjoying it,' says Gilbert, who cut his teeth in the digital world while leading the Ericsson Mobile account for Y&R in the 90s. 'Coming out of banking, which is, in essence, static, here you have an incredibly dynamic business where there is still so much happening. The business really wasn't very well as NTL and Telewest; there was so much work to be done. Now, it is in rude health, and (that transition) has created a great dynamic.'

The shape of the marketing department was the first area to receive Gilbert's attention, with a fresh customer marketing organisation split into four parts. The commercial strategy division is now led by director Richard Guest; brand and marketing communications is overseen by executive director, and one-time Honda marketer, Jeff Dodds; the strategic customer insight team has director of strategic customer insights and 1-2-1 marketing, Michael Payne at its head; and a customer strategy and experience division is led by executive Marcus Banks.

'I wouldn't wish to be disparaging about what has come before, but the market is changing and we needed a more intelligent, integrated structure,' says Gilbert. 'It is less about pushing products into the market, and more about customer centricity, marketing toward our own people as well as prospects.'

Agency arrangements

Gilbert has also wasted little time reappraising Virgin Media's agency arrangements. Manning Gottlieb OMD and Goodstuff Communications were reappointed to the brand's £75m media planning and buying account in April after a review, but its creative account is now in the spotlight. DDB UK was appointed alongside Rapp in May 2010 by Gilbert's predecessor, Ashley Stockwell, with the aim of creating a more integrated approach to marketing. However, with the new four-pronged marketing department in place, Gilbert feels it is right to reappraise its agency relationships.

'I looked at the decision to bring in an integrated agency when we weren't very integrated ourselves. We've had a lot of success and produced some interesting work (with DDB), but I've built a team which I intend to be one of the best out there, and is deliberately customer-orientated and integrated. We don't need the agency to be integrated; we'll do that. I'm not known for making knee-jerk reactions, and this will be a rigorous process. It will be a long relationship with whoever wins,' he says.

A strong creative idea is needed to help Virgin Media compete in a combative sector. Gilbert is only too aware of the strengths of Sky - 'it has an enormous budget that dwarfs any in the country' - and BT, with its long-running 'Adam and Jane' ads. He believes he can replicate the long-running success of previous campaigns that he has overseen, such as Lloyds' 'For the journey' and HSBC's 'World's local bank'.

'Consistency and great creativity go hand-in-hand, whereas I have never really considered one-off ads to do the job. The big ideas last for years, decades even, if you get them right and occupy mind-space,' he explains. 'We need to do something that is profound and important to our customers, and will represent all the great things that Virgin is.'

Switching from tactical

For Gilbert, given the relative maturity of the pay-TV and broadband markets, the challenge for Virgin Media is switching from tactical, one-off customer acquisition pushes, to a strategy more in keeping with the ways of Virgin businesses. 'We need to grow through a different method: sustainable growth through customer advocacy. We are going to be more Virgin; we're going to love our customers, who in turn will advocate us. We're uniquely positioned to do it, because we're Virgin.'

In the short term, Gilbert's priority is to promote Virgin Media's latest TV service, TiVo, which offers customers vast storage space for recording shows.

The TV ads for TiVo star Marc Warren, the Hustle actor, who Gilbert describes as a 'cheeky but hopefully likeable face', a good representation of Virgin Media's 'witty' brand values.

An on-going print ad promotion, internally dubbed 'Brilliant as standard', is intended to remind Virgin Media customers of the services already available to them, such as free maintenance call-outs.

Gilbert also vows to keep up the pressure on Sky with targeted communications in the mould of its recent TiVo ad, which, at the time of the News of the World phone-hacking crisis, stated: 'Richard likes it, Rupert doesn't'. Throw in the odd live TV ad, such as the recent clip on Channel 4 to promote the V Festival, and you gain the impression of a brand not averse to having fun and taking some risks.

His marketing plan is not revolutionary - Gilbert is no Che Guevara-like figure. Instead, he has spotted a brand with significant potential, one of the biggest names in the Virgin stable, but in dire need of a fresh marketing approach. This is one journey Gilbert hopes to be able to complete.

INSIDE WORK

  • 1980-1983: Media executive, Allen Brady and Marsh
  • 1983-1993: Media planner, rising to director of Europe, Collett Dickenson Pearce & Partners
  • 1993-1996: Managing director, senior vice-president, Dentsu, Young & Rubicam
  • 1996-1998: Account managing director, executive vice-president, Young & Rubicam
  • 1998-2006: Worldwide account director, rising to chief executive, Lowe Asia-Pacific
  • 2006-2008: Group marketing director, Lloyds TSB
  • 2008-2009: Chief marketing officer, Lloyds Banking Group
  • 2011-present: Chief marketing officer, Virgin Media

OUTSIDE WORK

  • Hobbies: Skiing, music
  • Favourite brands: Apple and Porsche
  • Favourite gadget: Apple iPad
  • Favourite car: Porsche 993
  • Favourite destinations: New York and Hong Kong

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