Vodafone's Danielle Crook embraces 'unsafe' decisions in the name of creativity

Danielle Crook, director of brand marketing, Vodafone UK
Danielle Crook, director of brand marketing, Vodafone UK

Danielle Crook, director of brand marketing, Vodafone UK, is keen that the company strives for inventive campaigns. Interview by Nicola Clark.

Danielle Crook arrives for our interview fresh from pledging her allegiance to the Queen of England. While this may seem an unusual way to spend a morning, it is the final part of her journey to becoming a British citizen.

Crook, who grew up in Switzerland, has made the UK her home since 1999 and cut her teeth on the ad scene at Wieden & Kennedy in London. She worked on some of the agency's most prestigious accounts, including the £38m global Nike business, and pitched for and won the prized Diet Coke account.

As one of only a small band of marketing directors who have worked in senior positions both clientand agency-side, Crook has a rare view on the market and how to nurture creativity.

'I have very high standards when it comes to creativity,' she says. 'I know, as our friends at Unilever concur, about the power of magic, the importance of making those slightly unsafe decisions.'

Process vs creativity

This is a tight balancing act at Vodafone, as its retail division has to be 'very industrial' when it comes to process. However, process does not trump creativity, not least because Vodafone's chief executive is Guy Laurence, a former marketer.

Creativity was also the reason behind Vodafone's recent agency switch. Crook oversaw the decision to move its UK account from Bartle Bogle Hegarty to RKCR/Y&R. 'To go to a WPP agency was a supply-chain decision but we shortlisted the agencies on a creative basis and the decision to work with RKCR was taken on that basis.'

Crook certainly knows her way around the Vodafone brand; this is her third stint at the company. She joined in 2004 as head of integration before leaving to become European brand director at Gap, only to be lured back by the role of general manager of brand and communications for Vodafone Australia in 2009.

It is clear that Vodafone, under the direction of Laurence, is a marketing-led business in the midst of a substantial reinvigoration programme. 'I enjoy working with the UK board, who are a diverse group of people, really focused and passionate about customers,' says Crook.

There are signs the brand's approach is making a difference to the bottom line. Here come the figures. In the three months to June 2011, revenues showed underlying growth of 5.3%. Revenues increased from £5.03bn to £5.27bn in the year to the end of March, when earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation rose from £1.14bn to £1.23bn.

Adjusted operating profits climbed from £155m to £348m. The company is the third-biggest operator in the UK, with 19.2m mobile phone customers, compared with 26.8m for Everything Everywhere and O2's 22m.

In an intensely competitive market, Crook's commitment to the job is beyond doubt. She has an each-way commute of almost two hours from her home in London to Vodafone's Newbury headquarters. However, instead of being overcome by train and Tube-based misery, Crook takes the pragmatic approach of viewing the commute as an opportunity to clear her inbox on her iPhone 4S.

Crook has sought to engender a shift of focus in Vodafone's positioning from being presented as the network with the most-reliable coverage to a brand based on consumer affinity.

While many customers in rural areas had no choice in the past but to pick Vodafone, due to signal issues, Crook is now concentrating on building a genuine emotional connection with users.

To this end, Vodafone has invested heavily in loyalty initiatives, based on three consumer passion points of fashion, music and Formula One. 'Loyalty is now key to the business, not an afterthought,' says Crook.

It is perhaps not surprising then that despite ditching BBH, Crook has no plans to drop the 'Freebee Rewardz', its loyalty programme promoted by TV spots featuring giant animated bees. The scheme is designed to thank consumers and the bees 'are here to stay' she insists.

The immaculately dressed Crook is warm and focused in equal measure, but she has not had an easy ride at Vodafone. For example, the brand has grappled with how best to deal with disgruntled customers on social networks. It has also faced the challenge of protesters targeting it over allegations of evading taxes to the tune of £6bn. Indeed, some of Vodafone's high-street shops were blockaded by campaigners last year.

Vodafone has denied the allegations and called the alleged tax liabilities an 'urban myth'. For her part, Crook is unfazed by the protests. 'When we are asked about it on social-media channels we respond with the facts: we do pay our tax.'

Moreover, Crook doesn't believe the allegations have caused any lasting damage to the brand. 'As far as our strategy and brand perception go, we are responding to what our customers want,' she says.

On a similar theme, the company was under-performing when it came to 'giving back', so it launched 'Just text giving', an initiative that allows consumers to donate to charities via SMS.

When Crook wants to wind down from her demanding role, long walks with her Labradoodle and a spot of hardcore reformer pilates are top of her list.

Although her partner, the erudite Simon Davies, sales director of Microsoft Advertising and Online, is also in the business, she pledges that they 'never talk shop'.

Instead they can often be found relaxing in front of TV shows such as Modern Family, Australian Masterchef and Dallas re-runs.

It is perhaps as well that Crook knows how to relax in her spare time as she will need plenty of energy for a crucial 12 months ahead for Vodafone. 'The new year is about building on what we have started, powered by amazing creative,' she says.

Also top of the agenda is thinking about Vodafone's role in the small-business and enterprise space. 'We are seeing more demand from businesses for efficiencies and mobile working,' adds Crook.

There is no doubt that Vodafone is in the midst of a challenging brand journey. Just as Laurence literally took down the walls at Vodafone's Newbury headquarters - there are now no landlines or individual offices - so the brand must now attempt to break through barriers with consumers.

Vodafone might be known for its reliable network, but Crook is hoping that marketing initiatives will take it beyond being simply the 'safe option'.

INSIDE WORK

1996-2002: Group account director, Wieden & Kennedy, London

2003: MBA at INSEAD, Fontainebleau, France

2004-2005: Head of brand integration, brand and customer, Vodafone Group

2006-2009: European brand director, Gap

Mar 2009-Jul 2009: General manager, brand and communications (interim), Vodafone Australia

Aug 2009-Nov 2009: Interim strategy director, Fallon

Dec 2009-present: Director of brand marketing, Vodafone UK

OUTSIDE WORK

Lives: London with her partner and her Labradoodle

Favourite Apps: Tube Deluxe, Ocado, TED, LinkedIn, Facebook

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