Meet the marketer charged with steering Ford into a new age

Anthony Ireson, marketing director at Ford of Britain
Anthony Ireson, marketing director at Ford of Britain

Anthony Ireson, marketing director at Ford of Britain, brings a breadth of experience to his push for new-car sales. Interview by Alex Brownsell.

For a man in a senior role to wear a tie in the workplace is hardly unusual, but the fact that Ford of Britain's recently appointed marketing director is sporting one provides a subtle hint as to the truth about him: Anthony Ireson is not actually a marketer.

While it may be that he is yet to be convinced by the classic open-collar look so favoured by marketers, he has a quick-wittedness that suggests he will enjoy the more creative elements of brand-building.

Ireson took up the top marketing role in the summer, replacing Mark Simpson, who went to head sales at Ford's Russian office.

A company veteran of more than 15 years' standing, 40-year-old Ireson joined the vehicle manufacturer in its finance department and worked across a raft of dealer management and operational roles.

Of all his jobs at Ford, he most fondly recalls a stint as product manager, in which he was responsible for carving out a positioning for the marque's successful S-MAX MPV. When quoting advertising legend David Ogilvy's famed mantra - 'The consumer is not a moron, she is your wife' - he displays an excitement for his new discipline.

Prioritising effectiveness

'In big companies, we sometimes talk about the customer like they are an alien species,' he says. 'Results slowly get better, but Ford can get very frustrated - we know we've put in the work, and yet can't quite convince the customer. The best thing is to step back from the corporate view and think, "What would you do?"'

As with many automotive marketers, Ireson comes armed with a broad understanding of his company and its range of customer touchpoints. He flits quickly from one Ford-related fact to the next, revealing a breadth of experience, including a bizarre anecdote about a time when a Birmingham dealership he was working with came under threat from local gangs.

However, one experience in particular seems to have shaped Ireson's view of the car-buying market. During the credit crunch and financial crisis in 2008, he led a European team responsible for managing production levels - and, in the process, learned about consumer habits the hard way.

'When the crisis hit, every month we were seeing the market collapse, but it was very hard to react,' he grimaces. 'Without the benefit of hindsight, it could have been a blip, and we are talking about multi-million-pound decisions. By the time you make the decision, another month has gone and you've ended up with months of stock. We just didn't predict the pace of the fall.'

Given such a painful financial experience, it probably comes as no surprise that, rather than looking to reinvent Ford's marketing, Ireson's main priority is to enhance the effectiveness of its existing media spend.

'The days of putting out a TV ad and hoping people walk into dealerships have gone,' he says. 'As ad campaigns go out, web traffic goes up - a new world has emerged in the middle, so you've got to have the right story throughout.'

An example of what Ireson refers to as tackling 'the middle' is a recent partnership Ford struck with MSN, where the brand used the portal's new 'Filmstrip' ad format on the MSN News channel. The interactive ads allowed users to view a 360 degs image of Ford's latest Focus model and click through for further information.

With a record 1.3m visits to Ford's UK website in September, Ireson is keen for dealers to react more rapidly to online consumer interest. Too many of them, he claims, are quick to dismiss online enquiries as somehow 'not serious' because 'they didn't come to the shop'. He hopes a new real-time lead system will help Ford avoid a 'fall-off' in effectiveness in the minutes and hours after a consumer makes a brochure or test-drive request.

'This is a huge change for us as retailers. We spend a fortune on salesmen sitting there waiting for people to come in to dealerships, but we know (online visitors) are a serious group of people,' he adds.

Ireson's desire to allow fewer potential buyers to slip through the net is motivated by the gradual decline in the UK's new-car market. Although Ford has maintained a leading market share in the region of 15%, according to SMMT, ahead of Vauxhall and Volkswagen, he accepts that manufacturers must work harder for each sale.

A frustration to those ambitions is what he describes as the 'glacial' pace of changing perceptions of Ford's brand, caused largely by the manufacturer's high profile in the second-hand car market.

'We've got so much brand history - if you ask people to name three Ford cars, Escort still comes near the top, even though we replaced it in 1999,' admits Ireson. 'The first impression of Ford will often come from a second-hand car, and it takes a long time to change that perception.'

With its latest global Focus model, promoted with an international ad campaign, Ford has sought to convey the technical benefits of its cars, including its in-car entertainment system and automatic reverse-parking technology. The ads are so direct that some observers have likened them to product-demonstration videos, but such a blunt approach is necessary, argues Ireson.

'We're not Apple, nor are we trying to be, but in automotive we are one of the leaders. Our buyers understand the new technology you get with Ford, but the trouble is getting a "conquest audience" to understand that through advertising. Younger people won't even listen to the message,' he says.

The only way of reaching those consumers, claims Ireson, is by 'dramatic revelation' - in other words, through the kind of experiential marketing that wins drivers over 'one by one', and then capitalises on this through word-of-mouth and positive social-media sentiment.

If all this sounds distinctly unsexy, it is intentionally so: Ireson sneers at the very thought of ineffective, but creatively laudable, marketing.

'I'm not in marketing to win any awards or for any of those reasons,' he asserts. 'It's about increasing favourable opinion of Ford, which leads to higher sales. That's the only reason for doing it.'

And with that, Ireson is off to plot Ford's major 2012 marketing objectives, including the launch of its mini-MPV, dubbed B-MAX, and a campaign to educate consumers about its forthcoming range of low-CO2-emission engines.

Perhaps a return visit in 12 months will reveal a changed figure, with the top button undone and conversation dominated by how many awards Ford has won in the intervening months. Just don't bet on it.

INSIDE WORK

1993-1998: Various finance roles

1999-present: UK pricing manager, rising through various UK and European strategy-, product- and dealer-focused roles to marketing director, Ford of Britain

OUTSIDE WORK

Family: Married, two children

Lives: Essex

Favourite car: Ferrari Testarossa

Favourite brand: Guinness

Hobbies: Skiing, cycling and cooking.

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