Tell us a little bit about yourself and your role.
I set up Islandbridge in 2004, when my work with a number of clients both in Ireland and in Asia (where I’d spent ten of the previous fifteen years) suggested there was a real gap in the market for strategic and media-neutral brand development. Coming from a non-marketing background, I’d devised a range of tools to help clients survey, devise a brand framework, and prepare a brand action plan. One happy client in particular suggested that I set up my own business using these tools to offer a brand, or bridge-building, service to the market. Fifteen years later, we continue to work with that client, Michael Lennon of the Westport Woods Hotel, and many others, to build bridges that span the gap between buyers and sellers, between businesses and their markets, and between organisations and their audiences, in sectors ranging from financial services (Savvi Credit Union) to not-for-profit (Acquired Brain Injury Ireland) to hospitality (Maldron Hotels) and beyond.
Why did you choose a career in marketing?
In many ways, my career in marketing chose me! I’d served as a Senior Inspector of Police in Hong Kong, owned and operated an Art Gallery (Hong Kong) and an Events Management Business (Asia & Europe), and developed a seminal Road Safety Campaign (Ireland), learning from customers, colleagues and other marketers, and devising and adapting my own tool-kit along the way. My college studies in Philosophy had fostered my own life-long fascination with how things work, and people most of all, so I found myself building frameworks to enable me to grapple with questions such as ‘Why do people buy?’, ‘Why do people choose one course of action over another?’ and ‘How do people make sense of the world about them?’. These are all questions that concern marketers and influencers the world over.
In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge marketers are facing today? How would you tackle it?
The greatest challenge we face as marketers is the perception that marketing is more style than substance. For many people, marketing is seen as smoke and mirrors, part of the bag of tricks of the snake-oil salesman. Much of this perception is of our own making as marketers. In our work with Islandbridge, we tackle this by explicitly linking the work we do, the bridges we build, to the purpose of the service our clients offer to the world. When we frame the relationship between buyer and seller in this way, we set a standard for everything that our client says and does to build their brand. This gives substance to style. Our clients choose to work with us because we’re very demanding of them; we work hard to set the standards in their brand framework that match their purpose and then we work even harder together with them to meet and exceed those standards. Great marketing brings out the best in everyone concerned, and this is the great opportunity for us all as marketers.
What advice would you give to someone starting a career in marketing?
Get as much work-experience in other sectors as you can before and whilst you learn the basics of marketing. Hospitality, in particular, is a great training ground for marketers, and my own experience suggests that those who answer best the questions around why people buy are those who’ve served others face-to-face in often-challenging places such as hotels, restaurants and bars. There’s nothing like a happy or unhappy customer there to teach you a great deal of what you need to know about people and why and how and what they buy.
What makes a great marketer?
Paraphrasing Julius Rosenwald of Sears Roebuck & Co, I believe a great marketer, like a great salesman, is able to stand on both sides of the shop counter at the same time.
What is your favourite marketing campaign of all time? Why?
Whilst I can’t trace this to a single campaign, I find the Toms’ One for One ( https://www.toms.ie/about-toms#companyInfo ) founding philosophy to be hugely attractive, particularly in terms of how it bridges the potential gap between its commercial and social purposes. Its campaign, and campaigns, to both make a profit and make a difference are a dramatic instance of the power and importance of marketing. Imagine if every marketer could span that apparent divide so effortlessly.
Where do you look for professional inspiration?
I look first to our clients and their customers. So many of them are working hard every day, doing the little things, the unnoticed things, the often difficult things, to make a difference in the lives of the people they serve. As part of our work together, we spend as much time as we can walking the shop-floors, the factory sites, the hospital wards alongside them. Or chatting over a cup of tea. Hearing their stories. Understanding what’s important to them, what they value. Almost always, the inspiration for my work as a marketer, and the stories we might help our clients tell to bridge the gaps, comes from there.