Right message, right time, right person: Dean Cook on 21 years of change in marketing and advertising
After 21 years at Farmers over two stints, former head of marketing Dean Cook has hung up his purple tool belt, swapping it out for a red one with a move to The Warehouse Group. We sit down with Cook to reflect on the past two decades and how far the marketing and advertising industry has come in terms of in-house agencies, the proliferation of media channels and data. Plus, we hear his thoughts on how local retailers can compete with Amazon.
Sitting down to talk about both his departure and new undertaking, Cook says it was the opportunity to work in a company that touches the lives of so many New Zealanders that first attracted him to Farmers.
“Everyone in New Zealand shops at Farmers for something – not for everything, but something,” he explains. “So it touches so many people and makes a big difference to people’s lives.”
He calls it a “life stage business” because people will return to it when they have kids, then those kids will grow up and return to it when they go flatting and later when they need to buy affordable furniture when they buy a house and take on a mortgage. Meanwhile, women will stay on for the beauty and lingerie.
With that in mind, it’s certainly not just a shop for grandmas, which it was considered to be when he joined, and Cook is proud of turning Farmers into “a contemporary fashion department store”.
“And when we say fashion, we mean fashion across everything. Even homeware can be fashionable. So it’s not just clothing.”
Similar to Farmers’ position in the New Zealand psyche, The Warehouse and Noel Leeming are both core retailers that can be found in the main strips of most New Zealand towns and cities – big or small.
“You’ll see Farmers, The Warehouse and Noel Leeming as well. Those brands have helped to support families across the country.”
And once upon a time, there was also Deka, before 17 of its stores were converted to Farmers stores and 43 closed after fighting a losing battle for customers with The Warehouse.
It was in Deka that Cook cut his teeth in retail and says a lot of people think retail, they just think people work in shops. However, he describes it as relentless, as every day is an assessment of the numbers to see if you are ahead or behind.
“Every day you are measured, every week is a test,” he says. “If it worked that’s great, if it didn’t work, change it, you get a chance to change it right there and then.”
With that in mind, his advice to those entering the industry is to fail fast.
Speaking more specifically about working in bigger organisations, like Farmers and The Warehouse, he says they’re a great place for young graduates and marketers to enter the industry because they will work across such a breadth of work.
There’s marketing campaigns across digital, social, press, radio, TV and DM, as well as the loyalty programmes.
“You get huge experience,” he says, before pointing out the range of roles you get to work with, including property development, the legal team and now creatives in in-house agencies.
The idea of an in-house agency alongside the marketing department is not one Cook could have foreseen when he embarked on his career, as it was all outsourced. But now, reflecting on the progression, he says there are real efficiencies in it as there’s no need to send emails back and forth.
“You had an advertising agency and you would throw it all over the fence and get them to sort it and figure it out, and they would pass it all back to you.”
Now, with a creative department, in-house photo studio and photographers, mac operators and people doing digital display making up an internal agency, Farmers has greater control of its own destiny as well as speed to get to market. It’s been able to make all of its in season and new season TV ads as well as those for holiday sales, like Waitangi Day and Easter.
Not only is it beneficial for the organisations to have capability under one roof, for the creatives it provides an out from the stressful environment of an agency. Cook says many of the team who work in Farmers’ East Tamaki base have worked in agency side and no longer want to do the late nights, early mornings and pitches.
In-house, creatives can do the same work, it’s just for a longer term and for an organisation they can really sink their teeth in to.
But that’s not disregarding the value of working with outside partners, particularly for strategic vision. Cook says when it’s all in-house, there is the risk of second-guessing how far you can push ideas due to being hemmed in by those alongside you.
“Your in-house guys go: ‘Well, we know the marketing team like this, we know the merchandise team don't like pushing too far.’ So all of a sudden your thinking starts to come in,” he explains. “When you want to think big and outside of the box, you need someone to take the blinders off and you can only really get that from going out.”
To combat this, he says a good model is to have the everyday trade activity completed in-house, while strategic thinking and big picture projects utilise outside partners.
Beyond that, Cook says the sheer volume about the day to day work of a retail company keeps the in-house team busy and he looks back to Christmas as an example of how its partner, FCB, played a vital part in establishing a new strategic direction.
He says the in-house team was up to their eyeballs in Christmas, Boxing Day and New Year’s work, the agency was necessary to pull off a major brand campaign.
Mapping a path to the customer
Continuing his reflection of the past 20 years, the proliferation of media channels has been a major change and with budgets not increasing to account for the change, a great challenge now lies in determining where the investment should go.
He says every channel has a part to play and deciphering what the appropriate channel is for different campaigns at different times is a huge task—and that’s before the in-store touchpoints are considered.
The posters, shelving and ticketing in-store need to be just as considered he says to ensure a consistent customer journey from start to finish.
It’s here he sees room for improvement in the local market as most retailers are operating in a multichannel environment. Not many are offering a true omnichannel approach with the same experience for the customer wherever they are, and that is ultimately where retailers want to be.
That challenge only increases when consideration is given to the importance of making the experience personal—something customers are expecting more and more.
He says customer know that if they swipe a card, like the Farmers Club Card, that organisation has collected data and, in turn, expect the organisation to know who they are, what they’ve previously purchased and what they will want to purchase in the future.
But it’s not enough to have screeds and screeds of data, he says, it needs to be turned into something meaningful in order for the right person to get the right message. As a result, Cook has watched as organisations have brought in insights teams to build predictive models that segment customers to determine their future decisions.
“Having those systems talk to each other is important so you can truly offer a great customer experience and not let anyone down. Otherwise, the customer swipes their card, gets an email or a DM piece and goes: ‘I’ve never bought this stuff before, why would you be sending this to me?’” he says.
“That’s bad segmentation if you have put out a message and it’s gone to the wrong person.
“You are getting down to a one to one level but you are doing it in a mass scale, which you haven’t been able to do before.”
However, Cook warns that there’s a fine line when it comes to targeted advertising and it as to be done with care.
One commonly known example of a brand going too far is Target’s ability to identify a woman was pregnant before her father found out. The company had determined a pattern of product purchases associated with different stages of pregnancy and with that knowledge was able to target a young woman with pregnancy and baby products early in her pregnancy. Her father was not amused when he discovered emails to be sent to his daughter with pregnancy products, and later learned that she was in fact pregnant.
And as well as encroaching on our private lives, there is also the risk of continuing to retarget people long after they have made a purchase. Cook recalls his own experience of buying a garden shed and being targeted with shed-related ads. He has since bought a shed but weeks later continues to see ads for sheds.
“How long do companies decide to do that retargeting for before they are wasting money?” he asks, saying that the messages need to fit the right stage of the purchase from information gathering stage to the purchase itself.
Talking about that segmentation and personalisation while reflecting on his own career, Dave Elliott, former Mitre 10 general manager of marketing and now senior vice president of marketing at True Value Company in the US, told NZ Marketing he thinks major campaigns were over when data emerged.
“You used to launch an ad on a Sunday night and go to bed and sleep well and your campaign was done, you’ve achieved take off. It’s not like that anymore,” Elliott explained.
Similarly, Cook says he used to open the paper on a Saturday morning and know if the ad was in there, everything was done.
But despite the changes, he says the fundamental stuff hasn’t changed in all these years: “It’s about right message at the right time to the right person.”
Retailers turned data collectors
Helping Farmers in the collection of data is the Farmers Club, a rewards system established in 2011 to build on the success of the Farmers Beauty Card. At the time of its launch, Cook told StopPress it was a major investment in IT and a considerable marketing campaign with JustOne and 99, and now he says it touches almost every woman in the country.
StopPress has contacted Farmers about the number of New Zealanders are part of the club and will update the story accordingly.
That data, combined with a strong sense of what the brand stands for and good customer experience are the three key points Cook says will help local companies in the face of international competition, namely Amazon.
The retail giant opened its website to Australian and New Zealand customers in December last year, bringing with it a concern for retailers about what it has to offer Kiwi consumers in terms of savings and range of product.
However, Cook says being on the ground and having knowledge about customers puts local retailers at an advantage.
He also points out that international players in the local market should make everyone raise their game and suggests one area of improvement is speed to market.
“We need to get better speed to market because we are here so we should be able to do speed to market better than anyone overseas,” he says.
“If you can’t do those things, you might be collateral damage but if you do, then you’ll stay around.”
Despite competition having retailers consider their lifespans in the future, from a branding perspective a common criticism is a lack of long-term thinking.
Last year, Effies international judge and Founder at Bacon Strategy and Research London described short-term campaigns as “crack cocaine” when telling StopPress that short-term thinking is a problem plaguing the industry.
He said long-term strategy is something the industry has lost sight of as a result of the instant response to a digital campaign, and marketers should always be questioning: how does the work translate into money?
And on top of the temptation of short-term results, there is also a trend of marketers jumping from one brand to another quickly and with each move bringing with it new agency partners and a brand refresh.
Cook acknowledges the trend and says that the people working in the brand get sick of the work before the consumers do and as a result, as management changes so does the communication.
However, it’s not a trend he subscribes to.
“I think often with pieces of work, you have to let them wear-in. They don’t necessarily wear out, so you have to allow the work to wear-in.”
In saying that, he gives the examples of the Nestle Scorched Almonds ad featuring a young girl wrapping the chocolates up for Christmas, and Mitre 10’s New Zealand versus Australia ad, as brand work that can have years of sticking power.
“Think of the Mitre 10 sandpit ad, that’s not about a season, that’s about a brand. Their whole DNA hasn’t changed, so why do you need to change your brand communication? You don’t.”
He suggests marketers take a look at what they are trying to achieve, saying that tactical things need to be kept up to date but that doesn’t mean reinventing brand pieces.
A new beginning
While we’ve yet to see the impact Cook has on The Warehouse with his move, he does say he is excited to be working across its range of brands. Specifically, his new role will have him working across electronics with Noel Leeming and Torpedo 7’s outdoor range.
“It’s not all that dissimilar to Farmers because Farmers beauty business is very different to how customers think about buying beds or furniture or its fashion.”
He also looks forward to working with Jonathan Waeker, who’s also recently joined The Warehouse Group as the chief marketing officer.
Waeker joined from San Francisco where he was the vice president of marketing and communication at Yahoo, and Cook is excited by the expertise and insights he will have from the US market.
Already this year, Waeker has announced the group is on the hunt for a single media agency partner to work across all of its brands as well as an ECD.
The hope is it will unlock creativity and optimise the group’s ability to be flexible.