Profile: Time well spent

LONDON - Mark Fells, UK and Ireland marketing director for Lastminute.com, has brought in some long-term thinking.

For someone who places a high value on free time, it comes as a surprise to hear that Mark Fells, UK and Ireland marketing director at Lastminute.com, spends up to four hours a day on a train.

The 41-year-old, an affable Northerner who lives just outside Grantham, in Lincolnshire, but works at the brand's London offices, admits he regularly exploits Lastminute.com's inventory to find himself a hotel for the night, describing himself as the site's 'most loyal customer'.

Yet, Fells is clearly able to detach himself from the daily sales pressures of the travel and leisure industry, perhaps a reflection of a meandering career path that has led him through several sectors.

Fells cut his marketing teeth in retail with Boots, before taking up roles at drinksmaker Diageo, tour operator Thomas Cook, leisure company Tussauds Group and insurance provider BGL Group.

Start-up savvy

He has also lived what he claims is every marketer's dream by setting up his own brand - wine retailer Unwined, which sells 'high-quality' bottles for special occasions.

'It was great to start with a concept idea and take it through to a shop with a sign on the door. Most marketers don't get that far,' says Fells, joking that the project was penance for his contribution to the brand wine buffs love to hate, Blossom Hill.

Conversely, the attraction of Lastminute.com was a strong and established brand, albeit one that had begun to lose its dotcom cutting edge.

'We still have a really good carry-over from the early days, but we had allowed ourselves to lose sight of that original insight and our DNA,' he admits.

Fells is scathing when discussing the kind of numbers-first marketing that he believes led Lastminute.com to stray from its original path.

'There is a problem that marketers are almost trying to turn what we do into a science, and they are in danger of disappearing up their own spreadsheets,' he says. 'Nobody is driven more by numbers than this place, but what they forget you need is that sprinkling of magic dust called brand.'

Brand awareness has rarely been an issue for Lastminute.com, but its positioning has been allowed to drift. From launching as the destination website for digital pioneers seeking a hotel or flight deal, the brand expanded into package holidays, as well as single-evening entertainment, such as theatre tickets and restaurant bookings.

To distil Lastminute.com's increasingly disparate offer into a single message, Fells oversaw the launch of a marketing strategy based on the line 'Good stuff'. He also had a hand in the decision to return to TV advertising after a four-year hiatus.

'A lot of what people have to do is pretty crappy - paying bills and going to work. The time left over is really precious. People wanted some good news, and we are not a bad-news brand,' says Fells.

Created by agency Karmarama, which was hired shortly before Fells joined in early 2009, the ads have sought to capture unique moments when consumers are enjoying their free time. The most recent TV spot encourages consumers to shake off the winter blues, 'kick off their slippers' and enjoy the arrival of the summer months.

'You still need to hit people with the big-format stuff,' says Fells. 'I don't believe that anything replaces broadcast media in terms of getting across a real emotional, big statement.'

He suggests that Lastminute.com's monochrome print and outdoor ads have enabled the brand to stand out from the array of tour operator campaigns that roll out each January to coincide with the primary booking season.

'In the travel market it can be very noisy in the early part of the year,' adds Fells. 'People spend huge amounts of money on advertising, but not very successfully. We've shied away from that, and black-and-white imagery helps us get great cut-through.'

Colleagues praise Fells' ability to win senior management approval for the brand-led work, in an organisation traditionally concerned with using marketing only to ensure the next batch of sales.

They also say the marketer has helped instil a sense of professionalism in the company, which had long been 'last minute by name, last minute by nature', by introducing a three-year marketing strategy.

Fells also takes a long-term view of the brand's 'Good stuff' positioning. 'The campaign is based on an important insight, and people's spare time will only get more precious,' he says. 'So for us, whether or not the wording is right, it feels like it has longevity.'

The activity has resulted in a significant spike in the number of visitors to the Lastminute.com website. However, a more daunting task awaits Fells: at some point in the near future, the brand will be forced to address the problems of ageing.

When Lastminute.com launched in 1998 and floated at the height of the dotcom boom, it appealed to a generation of consumers that will increasingly care less about stag weekends in Tallinn and more about family trips to Disneyland Paris. The challenge for Fells is retaining that group of loyal customers while appealing to a new breed of social-media-savvy youngsters.

He believes the brand is right to continue to focus on its primary target customers, rather than overhauling its offering. 'We are really lucky, in that our customers are the wealthiest in the market place, and they spend the most on lifestyle and travel products,' he says. 'We focus on that core, and we are aware it is changing as people grow up. They get to different life stages, but they are still loyal and love the brand. Whether you're 25 or 65, we still think people will come to us to find out what they can do in their spare time.'

Fells is convinced that Lastminute.com's early entry into social-media channels, and soft-sell on sites such as Twitter and Facebook, has earned respect with consumers in their early 20s. 'It's all about how you spend your money. We got into social media very early, and not as a channel to sell to people,' he says.

This has been so effective that Fells also wants to soften the sell on Lastminute.com's website itself by providing a one-stop shop for consumers planning their free time - even if the brand is not actually selling the products being discussed.

'I know my sales colleagues wouldn't like me saying this, but maybe you don't buy something from us,' he says. 'When people can access so much information, we need to be a part of that, and then they might come back and buy from us.'

It seems Fells has been putting that four-hour commute to good use - taking the time to keep an eye on the bigger picture, and avoid the dreaded spreadsheet.

INSIDE WORK
1997-2000: Head of marketing, Diageo Wines UK
2000-03: Head of brand strategy, Thomas Cook
2003-06: Managing director, Unwined (own business start-up)
2005-07: Head of marketing, Alton Towers Resort, Tussauds Group
2007-08: Marketing director, BGL Group
2009-present: UK and Ireland marketing director, Lastminute.com

OUTSIDE WORK
Family: Married, two children
Lives: Near Grantham, Lincolnshire
Hobbies: Wines, running triathlons
Favourite wine: Chateau Musar
Favourite brand: BBC

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