EBay's Alex von Schirmeister on how the auction site is becoming a platform for big brands

Alex von Schirmeister, VP of marketing, operations and advertising, eBay Europe
Alex von Schirmeister, VP of marketing, operations and advertising, eBay Europe

Alex von Schirmeister, VP of marketing, operations and advertising, eBay Europe, is winning over brands to its platform.

The choice of the quintessentially English setting of Richmond upon Thames as the UK headquarters of one of the US' biggest and, arguably, most innovative digital exports, seems an unusual one. Yet, while its office building gives the appearance of listed Georgian architecture, it is, in fact, modern; perhaps a clever way to encapsulate what the company is all about - the old and new.

The interior ditches the mock grandeur, however, for a typical dotcom makeover: spacious, light, airy, with quirky furniture.

It is in one of its 'breakout' areas where Marketing meets Alex von Schirmeister, vice-president of marketing, operations and advertising for eBay Europe.

Sporting a preppy look, and with a nod to a group of people working at a nearby table, von Schirmeister points out that the company employs people of many nationalities. Having grown up in Mexico and spent a large portion of his career in Europe, it is a working environment in which he feels most comfortable.

Leading transformation

Von Schirmeister joined eBay France in 2004 as marketing director, and has risen up the ranks, relocating to the company's Zurich headquarters for his current role.

A year-and-a-half in, and he has overseen a fundamental shift in eBay's strategy, repositioning it from auction site to a shopping destination, by focusing all marketing on its 'champion categories'.

Last year, eBay launched its biggest UK campaign to date, promoting its fashion portal. The print and outdoor ads, by Bartle Bogle Hegarty, featured clothes from some of the 100-plus brands that sell through eBay, including LK Bennett and Superdry.

'The message is simple,' explains von Schirmeister. 'Consumers can get the brands they love directly from eBay. The campaign achieved great awareness and recollection of the message,' he adds.

The push was a hit 'on many levels', according to von Schirmeister, opening the doors for a follow-up tranche of activity to go live soon - this time, created by DDB Tribal in Germany. 'We have invested pointedly in fashion and the results speak for themselves,' he adds. In 2010 its fashion category sales grew 30% year on year.

In addition, a further 30 undisclosed brands are preparing to join the fashion portal, with one high-profile retailer committing to sell its full range on eBay. Details of the deal are still under wraps, but it is expected to be quite a coup for the site.

'Part of the challenge we still face is getting people who have not visited recently, and may still think of it as solely an auction site, to discover a whole new eBay,' he says.

While fashion may be a flagship category, von Schirmeister identifies gardening, consumer electronics and motoring as other key growth sectors. The latter already has a dedicated hub and he hints that gardening and electronics may receive similar treatment.

He is somewhat coy about future-gazing, however. This may be because the market has altered so dramatically during his time at eBay. 'This space is changing so fast I can't think of a single boring day,' he says. 'Every quarter feels like a mini fiscal year.'

Three years ago eBay was 'not even thinking about mobile', but it now forms a cornerstone of the business strategy. Its iPhone and Android apps have radically simplified the selling process. At the same time, sales through the mobile channel have rocketed: eBay expects total mobile sales to exceed $3bn this year, compared with $750m in 2010.

One of the most fundamental shifts in the business has been toward becoming a 'platform for brands', both for retail and advertising. Von Schirmeister has been at the forefront of this transformation, with brand advertisers falling under his remit.

'We have a very open platform and marketplace, where we don't compete with sellers, which makes it very attractive to brands,' he explains.

Schirmeister says eBay is well positioned to help bricks-and-mortar retailers make the transition to multichannel marketing, particularly given its foothold in mobile. It also offers brands 'an amazing amount' of customisation options on the platform.

'In the UK we receive 17m visitors every month,' he adds. 'This is a huge amount of traffic for any brand, especially when you think of high-street retailing having foot-traffic challenges due to the economy.'

However, not all brands are enamoured of eBay's proposition. A few months ago, L'Oreal, which has had a long-standing legal dispute with the site, won a partial victory in the European Court of Justice that meant eBay would be held liable for any counterfeit goods sold on its site.

Von Schirmeister is quick to dismiss the suggestion that this could cause long-term brand damage. 'Those days are long behind us,' he insists. 'We have invested significant resources to make sure we collaborate with brands to keep counterfeits off the site.'

While eBay posted impressive results for the second quarter of 2011, with revenues up 25% year on year to $2.8bn (£1.7bn), it faces fierce competition. Amazon is its arch-rival, but other big-hitters are also closing in. Electronics retailer Best Buy is starting an online marketplace business in the US, while Facebook has signalled ecommerce as a key area for growth and is courting brands to sell via its platform.

Von Schirmeister is not fazed by this, believing that eBay's 'wealth and depth of the selection' differentiates it from its rivals. Its PayPal payments business, which has 100m active registered accounts and made $1bn last quarter, helps eBay overcome the trust issues faced by many online retailers.

What's clear is that, while he may come across as mild-mannered, von Schirmeister is evidently highly driven. 'As you innovate and go quickly, you need to develop a certain stomach for risk and innovation,' he says. 'This allows you to try different things, failing at some, succeeding at others.'

This appetite for risk-taking extends to experimenting in the kitchen - he claims a 75% success rate when cooking Mexican food, but admits the rest ends in disaster.

With eBay, he has found his niche. One former eBay employee not only describes von Schirmeister as 'greatly admired' within the company, but says he has been 'identified as a future leader there'.

Indeed, von Schirmeister is open about his desire to move up to a general manager role. 'I will always have a strong marketing background, but I am not attached to taking the perennial CMO job,' he says.

Musing that so much has happened in his seven years at eBay it feels like he has been there 20, few would bet against him lasting that long at the company. However, given the rate of change, there's no telling how the business will look by 2024.

INSIDE WORK

1993-1994: Brand manager, Procter & Gamble, Mexico

1998-2000: Associate consultant, Booz & Hamilton, London

2000: Co-founder and vice-president of marketing and sales, 12snap UK

2001-2004: International strategic marketing manager, Telefonica Moviles, Spain

2004-present: Marketing director, eBay France, rising to vice-president, marketing, operations and advertising, eBay Europe

OUTSIDE WORK

Family: Wife and two children

Lives: Zurich

Hobbies: Cooking and European wine

Favourite brand: Guinness

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