In uncertain times, it is more important than ever to share experience, insights and advice with your peers so we can all learn from one another. With this in mind, we are having conversations with members across various sectors to understand how themselves and their teams have been coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, what they have learned from it and how they continue helping their customers.

For this week’s instalment in the series we’ve chatted to Paul Higgins, Vice President of Commercial at Virgin Media Ireland.


MII: Hi Paul, can you tell us about how have you been adapting your marketing activities during the COVID-19 outbreak?

It has been a moving feast, that’s for sure, and it’s fair to say we created a proactive plan that adjusted and adapted our marketing strategy, team working and how we communicated with our customer base.

Our brand purpose building connections that really matter couldn’t be more central to every touchpoint inside and outside our organisation. Marketing sits centre stage and our responsiveness and outreach are reflected in every ad campaign, message and channel. In other words, you set the tone for how customers perceive your brand.

Taking the right course of action, making the right decisions and finding the right message can be challenging, especially in the fast-changing circumstances we find ourselves in. Our team has worked closely with our agencies to build a proactive approach to our comms moving through the different phases of Covid-19.

The first phase of our proactive response has been all about keeping our customers connected with family, friends, and colleagues during lockdown. Equally important was to protect the health and safety of our people and customers as we provided our essential services to the nation. As a consequence we dialled up our digital response and our customers reacted really positively to our turnaround.

We stay closely in touch with customers through our customised Play magazine, direct emails, SMS and our breadth of social media channels. To support people in very practical ways, we made all our Virgin Mobile plans unlimited for calls, texts and data. We also included a host of extra channels for our digital TV customers with some of the best loved broadcasters such as Discovery, TCM, Boomerang and Cartoon Network. For anyone who likes a great promo mix we offered customers two movies for the price of one. Remaining innovative in our approach to the market, we also created a range of new propositions online such as our 30-day offer to get TV, Mobile and Super-Fast Broadband at a click of a button and get the package delivered to your front door.

Virgin Media also recently launched a €1 Million support fund as part of our #BackingBusiness initiative to boost Irish businesses nationwide, with free on-air advertising including creative, production, profiles in relevant TV programmes and social media promotion across our full schedule on Virgin Media TV Channels One, Two and Three. This initiative is designed to underpin the recovery of businesses in communities throughout Ireland in response to the ongoing crisis. It aims to give them a national platform to showcase their resilience and ingenuity during these challenging times.

Over one million users are connected to our services, so ensuring that we reach every single customer and home is critical during this time. As we moved into the second phase of our plan, we wanted to capture the solidarity being achieved through social distancing among communities and families and this is at the heart of our current Connections That Matter ad campaign. The second wave of the campaign created new material at the end of May across TV and Video on Demand.

To compliment the ATL there were a number of activities under three pillars – causal, practical and playful support.

It was important to bring customers along with us on our journey and to inject moments to celebrate together. So we created shared experiences through sporting moments like #VMHomeGoals. This was an open competition inviting people to share their footy skills in the garden. Other shared moments include feel good video clips from people around the country who wanted to call out “thank you” messages, and people showing everyone clever ways they were staying connected during lockdown.

Our broadcast team in Virgin Media Television played a huge role in bringing our #ConnectionsThatMatter theme to life with on-air call outs from families all over Ireland who wanted to say a public hello to relatives they hadn’t seen in a while, including support for our frontline heroes.

There is a lot going on behind the scenes in Virgin Media and we are already in planning for the next phase. The ‘big rocks’ of our plans have remained important and we have ensured to protect them in the planning process. It has been great to see our team immersed in creativity to ensure we landed these big initiatives. I have to call out my colleague Niamh O’Driscoll and her team, and the people at Publicis and OMD, who by now can describe in great detail each other’s work space considering they have all spent so much time online together and continue to work on completing our next chapter on this journey.


How have you been engaging with your team?

Probably more than they want! But seriously, there was no rule book to deal with Covid-19. I continue to be amazed and inspired by the spirit of our people at Virgin Media. It’s not an easy time for any one person and none of us have ever experienced anything like this before, and while we can get caught up in the many obstacles and challenges, I think we should try to support each other as much as possible and remain optimistic. The current situation will end in time.
Our marketing team are a resilient lot. The important bit at the beginning was to keep everyone informed, connected and to regularly check in with each other. If anything, I think working from home has brought us closer – on a number of occasions during calls we get introduced to family members and family pets – everyone at home is welcome to chime in!

WebEx and Instant Messenger are the main platforms we have chosen to stay in touch. Although I will admit, the constant screen time does take some getting used to as does the lack of more informal catch ups. The team have been brilliant and really adapted to the situation. With regular catch ups at a functional level, staying connected and hearing from other areas of the business have been a key feature of every week but also on the lighter side, the Friday beer fridge and virtual team quiz sessions have been great fun for everyone. One of the areas that we thought would be an issue was how we brought everyone together for our regular cross-commercial hackathons but because the team are ever resourceful in the creativity field, they worked it out, trialled a few tools and got motoring with some great ideas and initiatives coming through.


What have you learned from a marketing perspective from COVID 19?

I’d say three things – Knowing the value of your product, the importance of running your own race and focusing on the result.

This period has really shown the trust people have in our product and that broadband has never been more important nor has it been more utilised. Broadband usage has been growing exponentially for a number of years but this period has made it much more tangible for consumers whether they are working from home, teaching from home, staying connected with friends and relatives or just enjoying more in home entertainment. That trust is hard earned for product efficacy and still very much top of mind for consumers when selecting brands they buy and use.

My team will smile when they hear me talk about ‘running your own race’, perhaps I draw upon too many horse racing metaphors, but this period has really reinforced that idea for me. It is so important to do that even when the temptation comes to follow the pack or veer away from your plans – they were good plans before so why wouldn’t they be just as good now? No harm in reassessing your communications to make them relevant but your purpose remains firm.

The other big call out is to focus and remember why we’re all here. So, staying focused on the outcome, be that commercial, brand or customer is important especially when there’s lots of change and uncertainty, as it helps you stay the course. We’re here to drive growth in our businesses and do the right thing for our customers. This period could easily lead people, brands and activities down a pandemic garden path so stick to the plan and stay the course.

I’m reminded about an article I read recently by Mark Ritson and his final words pretty much summed things up for me at the time; “look after yourself, look after your brand and – together – we’ll all get through this”.


How have your work practices changed? What will you do differently going forward?

I doubt we’ll all ever be in the office 5 days a week again. This pandemic has thrown a lot of previously sacred norms out of the window. We can collaborate and ideate without being in a room together, we can run an operation in a virtual world, the most technology shy people can and will get online with the right help.
There are a great deal of things we won’t and shouldn’t go back to – I’m talking specifically in terms of decisions we’ve made which feel right for the business and for our customers. From a people perspective we’ve mastered a flexible working environment in a matter of hours in some areas and days in others. The savings of commuting time on a collective basis have also been extraordinary. When we get the green light to return to our new normal – it will be very interesting to see people’s new ways of working and the impact it will ultimately have on our work life balance.


Has your brand purpose been challenged by COVID 19? How?

No, if anything it has made our purpose come to life and has acted like a mirror to view everything we’ve done as an organisation. I have been really proud at how the entire business has rallied around our purpose and helped customers all over the country to stay connected. It’s too easy to look at it as a marketing problem or series of activities but if the brand purpose is going to stand up it has to do so throughout the organisation. There have been countless examples – ranging from our teams in our national contact centres working from home, our field technicians staying on the road and helping customers get connected to our services (and on a number of occasions even lending an extra hand to get some of our senior citizens shopping), to our teams in Virgin Media Television flexibly adapting to broadcast the #ConnectionsThatMatter series to the nation.


What brands or businesses have you admired through this crisis?

I generally don’t comment that much on what others are or aren’t doing. I’m more of a run my own race person! On the other hand, I would be much more of a fan of those who have taken significant action and commitments rather than perhaps socially distanced their logos. I thought ‘Club Together’ which the GAA, Supervalu and Centra launched was a good example and, in terms of a great advertising twist, the Netflix spoiler series hit the mark.
There have been good examples of tech firms opening up their software to help small business get online and supermarket initiatives to change their opening hours for the most vulnerable – simple things but the most meaningful.

What resonates strongly for me are businesses that don’t get showcased, the small businesses changing their operating model and battling through – be that turning to takeaway, delivery services or changing their product or service offering. These are the people and businesses that need showcasing more than ever and as an industry we should be doing whatever we can to help them.