Ken Grier

Director of Malts at The Edrington Group

Ben Somerset-How

Client Director



Tom Holmes talks to Ken Grier, Director of Malts at The Edrington Group and the man behind the global marketing for Edrington's two single malt brands – the Speyside Macallan and the Orkney-distilled Highland Park.

Prior to Edrington Ken spent five years with United Biscuits where he worked for a variety of well-known food and drinks brands including McCain Foods, Bernard Matthews, Strongbow Cider and McVities.

Before that Ken was UK marketing director for Lego.


Creativebrief: As Director of Malts at The Edrington Group, what is your primary focus?

Ken Grier : Determining the global strategic direction and leading the brand marketing team for The Macallan and Highland Park single malt whiskies. This can mean anything from strategist to luxury networker to creative provoker to management coach and anything in between.

We are in the privileged position of having brands that: stand for something, have rich provenance, category-leading product quality and a unique approach to marketing.

The Macallan has been described as, “A Rolls Royce amongst malt.” (Harrods book of malt whisky) and is building a reputation as THE luxury spirits brand. Highland Park, with its gently smoky but surprisingly sweet taste is often seen as the definitive single malt whisky (“The world’s greatest all-rounder”, Michael Jackson, the late whisky writer).

When you have brands founded in 1824 and 1798, respectively it’s difficult not to get a frisson up your spine when you think of the weight of responsibility in stewarding these forward into another millennium.

The culture of Edrington is a vitally important catalyst to our efforts. We are a private business, owned by a charitable trust (The Robertson Trust) and this means that we have a superbly aligned and supportive leadership team with a passionate and committed group of colleagues that work in partnership to build our brands whether you are located in our offices in Taipei, Stockholm or Perth.

Creativebrief: Your career has spanned Edrington, Lego Group, United Biscuits and HP Bulmer, what have been the high points?

Ken Grier :  was lucky enough to take brands to the brand leading slot in their categories (Strongbow in the UK cider market and San Marco in the UK frozen pizza market) and be part of the European marketing leadership team in Lego.  However I am most proud of what we have been able to achieve as a group in our Edrington business.

The Macallan has always been renowned for its exceptional quality and quirky marketing but growing its volume by x4 and profit by x9 in the last decade or so has been very satisfying. Along the way setting a new world record price at auction for a spirit ($460,000 for our Cire Perdue decanter at Sotheby’s in 2010) and then giving all that money to charity, setting an award-winning new creative direction through our Masters of Photography art projects – working with globally renowned photographers like: Rankin, Albert Watson and now Annie Leibovitz – and finally working with a team of great professionals to lead the industry in innovating within single malt. Over 40% of our sales on this brand come from new initiatives; like the introduction of The Macallan Fine Oak, the 1824 Collection in Duty Free and our Fine and Rare range. It’s initiatives like these that have seen us establish a reputation as the thought-leaders in our category and have contributed to the hot sector status of single malt Scotch whisky.

Highland Park is an amazing whisky. Our focus has been about taking a nascent brand and working with the team on this to turn it into a well iterated consumer entity. Along the way we developed award-winning packaging, have quadrupled profitability and launched new initiatives like our 50 years old bottle (designed by Maeve Gillies the New York based jewellery designer) which have seen our sales and awareness soar.

Creativebrief: Along the way, have there been individual marketers who particularly impressed and inspired you?

Ken Grier :  I have been lucky to work with some world class people; from Eric Nicoli and Jim Cane at United Biscuits to Bill Farrar at Edrington. A really impressive young marketer is Becky Brock who worked with us for a while and was voted Young Marketer of the Year last year by a major publication. She is now Head of Marketing at Homebase. But it’s also important not to forget really strong agency thinkers like Doug Hall (Eureka Ranch), Chris Jones (formerly of JWT), Cilla Snowball (AMV) and my creative guru, Valerie Wickes at VIEW.

Creativebrief: What are the main brands in your portfolio and what makes them so successful?

Ken Grier : The Macallan has been an industry sensation but its strategy is really very simple:

Peerless and distinctive whisky led by its insistence of using expensive sherry casks; a ruthless focus on being a luxury brand and marketing as such, not just being another single malt. Combining this with great global brand building with our talented teams in market; really maverick creativity that can drive awareness, interest and trial amongst a host of new drinkers and finally an insistence on having the highest price on the shelf to connote our quality.

Highland Park was about unleashing our inner Viking. Having the courage to build a point of difference around our Orcadian heritage and embracing a distinctive look e.g. our Viking inspired amulet logo device; the lost art of everyone who touches the brand being an enthusiastic ambassador; constant innovation; fixing our profit drivers and finally liquid to lips.

Marketers can complicate marketing but it’s really only really about: recruitment; awareness and distribution. The pixie dust comes from doing it in a way that is distinctive, different and motivating.

Creativebrief: What work have you done recently that makes you the most proud?

Ken Grier : The Annie Leibovitz Masters of Photography project has been amazing. To get one of the world’s most famous creative talents to work with us has been an incredible coup. Annie is very selective about taking commissions as she has got to safeguard her peerless reputation.

The work is sensational, shot in and around New York it positions our brand at the pinnacle of luxury with a really contemporary edge. The talent we used, Kevin McKidd the Scottish actor, and the back story that he used to work at The Macallan as young man, has great integrity.

Finally to launch this edition of 1,000 bottles each with a print signed by Annie and whiskies being matched to the mood of the 4 shots taken made it a really special project that will make a real splash from Hong Kong to Moscow to New York. It’s working with a great team to do challenging but creative things like this that gives me a real buzz.

And what about Annie? Well she is a tremendously talented, warm and professional artist and we would work with her again in a heartbeat.

Creativebrief: What are the main challenges for your sector/category over the next 12 months?

Ken Grier : Continued economic growth, particularly across Asia, USA and emerging economies like Eastern Europe, Middle East, Latin America and Africa will be pivotal. We have got to keep maintain the prestige of the sector through confident pricing and investment in brand building. Finally it’s about telling the wonderful story of the most aspirational drinks category in the world to as many potential new users as possible.

Creativebrief: How do you see the media landscape unfolding in the next 5 years?

Ken Grier : It’s actually about content as much as channel. It is incumbent on us to provide interesting and engaging materials to engage with consumers. Beyond that  there will be an undoubted polarisation in terms of “Always On” and high interactive media, whether social media or cloud based and highly personalised on the go channels vs. very personal “Quiet Time” consumption on media, whether that’s tablet based or the solace of escaping from demands on your time with a quality print title. There will be major challenges in terms of reach due to fragmentation of media but this will be counterbalanced on the one hand, by the increasing domination globally of media channels by conglomerates but on the other, by the ability to bundle a range of channels together in a highly targeted and cost effective way to reach certain demographics or affinity groups. In the case of The Macallan the ability to engage and target high net worth luxury consumers means that we will use the entire gamut of channels: from word of mouth to YouTube.

Creativebrief: Do you prefer to use an ‘integrated’ agency approach or specialist agencies by individual discipline?

Ken Grier : We are a boutique business relative to our competitors and so we find that its best to pick exceptional individuals by discipline who will service our business needs brilliantly and in a way that gives us a preferable cost menu by project. This avoids us being a small cog in a big wheel or paying a hefty price for someone’s large overhead. Agencies are very mature about this and normally collaborate with their peers in a very grown up way.

Creativebrief: Do you prefer to use local agencies by market or international/global agencies?

Ken Grier : It’s a mixture. If it’s a project that spans more than one market it would normally be more cost effective and consistent to use a global resource. If it’s a local PR or sponsorship activity then we find that it’s best to let the market lead as they are more culturally attuned and closer to the local consumer. We have been devolving more responsibility towards our in market commercial and marketing teams. We have some highly motivated and really talented people with great ideas that are inspiring their colleagues around the world with the marketing programmes that they are driving.

Creativebrief: When choosing agencies were you ever influenced by awards?

Ken Grier : Never. It’s always about the quality of the work, proven business results, the intellectual calibre, zest for our business and the chemistry.

Creativebrief: What challenges do you face, managing day-to-day agency relationships?

Ken Grier : Getting the right share of mind as brands of our scale are not producing major new projects all the time and so our agencies have to work with other clients. This can mean that it’s tough to always have the best people looking at our business interests all the time. It’s about good will, collaboration and planning for the intense periods when everyone has to be focused on the final delivery of, say, a new ad campaign.

Creativebrief: How often do you look at new agencies or review your roster?

Ken Grier : It varies as we need to ensure that we have fresh thinking, exploitation of new trends and continued best in class people. We are a very loyal company, some agencies have been with us for a decade, others a matter of months. If a new opportunity comes up and we have good people in harness then no problem but on something like digital we may need new thinking every 12 months.

Creativebrief: How do you monitor and stay-in-touch with the agency market to ensure you work with the best?

Ken Grier : We have excellent partners in the Advertising Agency Register (AAR) who have helped us with agency selection for 12 years. Besides that resource, it’s about word of mouth from current agencies or luxury partners; reviewing high quality work in-situ and the industry press. Most cold calling fliers or spam email is junked as we get 5 pieces a day which is normally badly targeted, poor quality or irrelevant.

Creativebrief: Which agencies do you think are ‘hot’ right now?

Ken Grier : In design Coley Porter Bell, PR: Talk PR, creative: VIEW but AMV and BBH still set a great gold standard.

Creativebrief: What’s your attitude to the ‘traditional’ pitch? Do you think there is a better/more modern way?

Ken Grier : I have yet to find a better way other than tasks that are so specialist that you just employ an agency on a project and then it works to retain them.

Creativebrief: Would you ever consider awarding an agency business without a pitch? What would they have to do / demonstrate?

Ken Grier : They would have to come with great references, a body of similar and relevant work and great chemistry that engenders trust.

Creativebrief: What are your top tips to agencies when presenting credentials to you?

Ken Grier : Make them relevant, interesting, personalised, beautifully presented and don’t badger. Sometimes I see something that excites me but I don’t have a relevant brief at the moment. I will keep it on file and maybe 18 months later get back. If I am pestered it gets put to the bottom of the pile

Creativebrief: What was the most impressive agency presentation you have ever seen?

Ken Grier : Bob Kuperman of DDB presented to me at their Madison Avenue offices. A diminutive but brilliant man he was peering over a large picture frame turned towards himself. He turned it around and it was the famous VW print campaign with 50 print ads in miniature… he quietly said “I did that one and that one and that one…..”. Awesome!!