Profile: Turning geek into brand chic

Spencer McHugh, brand director at Orange, is quietly setting about reinforcing the brand's credentials. Interview by Daniel Farey-Jones.

Orange's brand director, Spencer McHugh, seems a little guarded. He certainly isn't easily drawn into discussing rivals, such as market leader O2's decision to offer its customers fixed line services, or how much his rival's exclusivity on the iPhone harmed Orange.

In fact, McHugh seems the polar opposite to his predecessor, the ebullient personification of Orange's 'I am' brand proposition, Justin Billingsley.

Nonetheless, the overriding impression is that McHugh, the man charged with driving Orange's campaign to win mobile users' hearts, minds and, more importantly, wallets, is more 'careful political strategist' than 'gung-ho general'. He is prone to the politician's tendency to opt for shades-of-grey answers and not to give too much information away.

Regarding Orange's proposed joint venture with T-Mobile, subject to approval by the European Commission, all he is willing to say us that it is business as usual for Orange. 'As you can imagine, there are lots of options being looked at regarding the branding for the new venture, but what's clear is that both the Orange and T-Mobile brands will continue to operate for the foreseeable future'.

Political skills

McHugh believes 2010 will be a particularly interesting time in the mobile market. 'Those conversations we were having years ago about the possibilities of what people could do with their phones are starting to come true,' he says. 'Having a mobile computing device in your hand and powered by the network that's able to offer you lots of different services - we seem to have reached a tipping point in the last couple of years where people are actually starting to do that en masse.'

McHugh took the brand director role last May after Billingsley, in a surprise move, left to become Asia regional chief executive of ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi. The two men don't just appear very different; according to people who have worked with both of them, they are polar opposites.

One says: 'Billingsley loved to do lots of public speaking, cultivated an industry profile and had a very classic FMCG brand training background. Spencer is much less of those things, but, in some respects, you get the feeling that he is a bit more focused on the business and a bit more effective at knitting the various parts of Orange together.' This chimes with the view of McHugh as a politician - the source praises his ability to manage internal stakeholders at the France Telecom-owned company.

McHugh provides his own insight into internal workings when explaining where he wants the brand to go in 2010, after what he describes as a 'great year' in 2009. 'We have a term we use internally about being "effortlessly digital", which is something we've been trying to do for the last couple of years, where the digital landscape, or digital media, affects everything we do. We want to continue to develop and grow that.'

As part of this, Orange will further explore placing calls to action to search in its offline advertising, which it was one of the first brands to do with its Fallon-created 'I am' campaign in late 2008.

In what might mark McHugh's first influence on Orange's marketing strategy, he says that 'I am', which dates from before his promotion, will continue this year, but future executions may feature an adaptation of the phrase.

The rationale behind 'I am', which has received a mixed response, comes from Orange's overarching global brand vision, 'Together we can do more'. 'We still believe in the central thought that people are made up of the individual relationships that they've had over time with people,' says McHugh, adding that future executions will continue along this theme.

Having spent only eight months in the top job, it would be understandable if McHugh was tempted to meddle with the Orange brand, which he describes as 'simple, straightforward, honest, friendly'.

However, McHugh sees no major changes this year in sponsorship activity or his agency line-up, professing to be comfortable with both. This should set minds to rest at Fallon, Mediaedge:cia, i-level, Chemistry, Iris and other roster agencies Poke, AKQA, Proximity London, M&C Saatchi and KLP.

Having previously worked in agencies, McHugh has developed strong relationships with his marketing services suppliers. Jason Foo, managing director of direct agency Chemistry, credits him with being 'appreciative and respectful' of those he works with. Foo adds: 'It was a significant shift for a digital/direct person to move into brand stewardship of Orange. He has a clear sense of what the issues are and what he wants to achieve.'

McHugh joined Orange in 2003, after an eight-year stretch in various planning roles, working on accounts such as Audi and Vauxhall. He had been looking to move advertiser-side, but only for a brand serious about digital marketing. 'There were lots who were toying around with digital,' he says. 'I was more interested in working for somebody who saw it as a part of their business and their future.'

Briefly warming to his theme, McHugh talks animatedly about USB wristbands being handed out at a past RockCorps gig, containing a link to a site offering footage of the night, and he is expecting a big trend in digital this year to be merging the online and offline worlds.

Elsewhere, expect Orange's sponsorship activity around the Baftas and Orange Wednesdays to take on more of a life online. The latter may be boosted by the involvement of the growing community around the brand's Facebook film club.

Challenged as to what Orange can add to the mobile experience that its rivals can't, McHugh cites an Orange cinema/film search and friend-invite app as an example.

While smartphones are a must-have for many this year, value will remain an important part of the consumer's purchase decision, he believes. 'It's very important for us to have a clear story around value that people understand, and it's important that people are clear about our products and service, whether that be Orange Wednesdays, Magic Numbers or Best Plan.'

Maybe one day we will see a value package even for smartphone apps, to which McHugh has succumbed himself. His face breaks into a smile when he confesses the last one he downloaded to his iPhone was 'hardcore' weather forecast tool WeatherPro. 'I'm a bit of an app geek - well, I'm a bit of a geek full-stop'.

Perhaps it's a line that McHugh is keeping up his sleeve for the next Orange campaign.

INSIDE WORK
1995-97: Planner, GGT Direct
1997-99: Planner, Limbo
1999-2000: Planning director, Publicis Dialog
2000-02: Planning director, MBO
2003-present: Head of direct and digital, rising to brand director,
Orange

OUTSIDE WORK
Family: Married with two children
Hobbies: Tottenham Hotspur, gadgets and technology, cinema
Last holiday: Florida
Currently reading: The Visual Miscellaneum by David McCandless
Tariff: Orange Monkey

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