Graham Horner's youthful looks belie his reputation as one of the most formidable troubleshooters in the world of direct marketing. He landed his current job as loyalty director at the Telegraph Media Group (TMG) after putting Coca-Cola's digital marketing operations on an even keel.
Nonetheless, Horner, smartly dressed and wearing fashionable Soho specs, is a nervous interviewee. He makes minimal eye contact and his slightly sharp response to a question about his age ('I am in my early thirties and not afraid of that.') points to a man who is keen to establish he has the credentials for a major marketing role at one of the UK's biggest newspaper groups.
Horner's CV may not detail a particularly glamorous career to date, but it does reveal his aptitude for the minutiae of marketing and swift progress along his chosen path. After studying geography at Cambridge and then in Canada, he joined the graduate scheme at consumer insight agency Dunnhumby, where he developed his skills in areas such as data analytics.
'I had to decide if I wanted to pursue a career in academia or business when I left university. I decided I wanted to go into marketing and joined Dunnhumby,' he says. 'This gave me a good grounding in direct marketing, but I longed to complete the picture and wanted to get more involved in the comms side of things.'
A stint at Loyalty Management Group, which runs the Nectar scheme, introduced Horner to working with brands such as BP and Debenhams, and he quickly rose through the ranks. His former colleagues speak highly of his contribution to the company. For Horner's part, the 32-year-old points to his time as manager of the Nectar Home Mover Scheme, where he maintained a strong base among his target group of people who had recently moved house, as a highlight of his early career.
Horner's success marked him out and Coca-Cola hired him to head its loyalty scheme, a role that he says 'catapulted me into a new dimension'.
'This was an amazing opportunity. Coca-Cola was the first FMCG brand to launch a loyalty programme in the UK,' adds Horner. 'Coke realised that it needed to form deeper relations with its consumers and get away from just doing big TV campaigns.'
Coca-Cola's loyalty scheme, Coke Zone, allowed consumers to collect codes from packs and redeem points against them. It soon gained momentum and, by the time Horner left, it had attracted 1m users. He oversaw all aspects of the scheme, handling everything from website development, the rewards catalogue and call-centre management to the coding of the cans and bottles.
Customer loyalty schemes can be a tricky and expensive proposition, and many have foundered, often because they failed to secure sufficient buy-in from the brand's senior management. However, Horner had no such problems at Coke. 'The Coca-Cola people had the vision,' he says. 'They gave me breathing space and it took me two years to get the programme going'.
So why did he leave? 'The offer from The Telegraph was irresistible,' says Horner. 'At Coke the focus was more on digital, but at The Telegraph we have a more mature audience - time-rich, cash-rich and professional. The execution will be completely different.'
This sort of assertiveness is, arguably, exactly what TMG, which publishes The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph, needs. The group's high subscriber base - 328,000 out of an overall circulation of 685,000 - is the envy of the industry, and rival News International is investing heavily in marketing in an attempt to lure these readers over to its Times and Sunday Times titles.
Horner's brief is to shore up the loyalty of TMG's affluent subscribers (25% of whom have cash savings of more than £250,000, according to company figures) by offering them something extra.
'I have met our readers and I know they like getting a deal,' he says. 'It is not about getting cheap subscription papers - it is about giving them value.'
The Telegraph loyalty card that has been sent out to subscribers is being promoted with the strapline 'How can we give you more for less' and offers holders a raft of additional benefits.
According to Horner, the process of identifying suitable inducements was based on a desire not 'to shock' subscribers who 'need warming up'. Many of the rewards are relatively banal, such as a free glass of wine at Carluccio's or a cup of coffee at Debenhams, which are in contrast to rival publications' more substantial offers.
However, other privileges, including exclusive events at which subscribers can meet The Telegraph's best-known contributors, and discounted offers on birth and marriage announcements in the paper, sound more promising.
'Telegraph readers love the paper's editorial team of writers and commentators - people like Matt the cartoonist and Hilary Alexander - and we are putting in place a programme of events where our subscribers can get access to them,' says Horner. TMG will also be taking over a London theatre for a special performance of Phantom of the Opera sequel Love Never Dies, introduced by Telegraph theatre critic Sarah Crompton.
Horner is also doing his own bit for customer outreach and makes a point of lunching with a group of subscribers once a week; it seems likely that his serious but upbeat manner goes down well with Telegraph readers.
Change of focus
Some observers have suggested that TMG's loyalty scheme runs the risk of preaching to the converted. Nonetheless, the group's marketing activity for this year will be centred on customer loyalty at the likely expense, at this stage, of any major advertising campaigns.
The brand's 2009 campaign 'It pays to think big', created by Adam & Eve, was well-received, but the current state of the newspaper market means TMG executives are more concerned about holding on to existing readers than attracting new ones.
When it comes to explaining the secret of his success, Horner points to insights he gained as a student. 'A lot of people who do geography do not think about a career,' he says. 'It is about being interested in places and people, and studying it gives you an understanding of what people do.'
It seems that this understanding has played a crucial role in Horner's career to date and TMG must be hoping that he will be using it to similarly good effect with its subscribers.
2000-03: Account manager, Dunnhumby
2003-07: Head of partner marketing, Loyalty Management Group
2007-09: Head of loyalty, Coca-Cola GB
2009-present: Loyalty director, Telegraph Media Group
Family: Married with one son, Leo
Lives: Hurstpierpoint, West Sussex
Hobbies: Photography, food and travel
Favourite brand: Waitrose