Interviews

Stephen Vowles, Marketing Director, Argos

Tom Holmes talks to Stephen Vowles, Marketing Director, and member of the Executive Committee, at the U.K. and Ireland's largest omni-channel retailer.

Tom Holmes

Founder & Chairman

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Tom Holmes talks to Stephen Vowles, Marketing Director, and member of the Executive Committee, at the U.K. and Ireland's largest omni-channel retailer. The most visited retailer online (after Amazon and eBay), Argos also has 734 shops, with sales in excess of £4bn.

Stephen is an important player in the reinvigoration of Argos. His responsibilities include developing the Argos customer proposition, brand positioning, and customer experience, in addition to marketing strategy, execution and own brand development. He leads a team of around 85 and directs budgets of over £100m.

 

Creativebrief: As Marketing Director and member of the Argos Executive what is your primary focus?

Stephen Vowles: In October 2012, our Chief Executive John Walden (who was then Managing Director of Argos), announced a transformation plan to reposition Argos from being a catalogue-led, to a digitally-led business and digital retail leader. My core focus since I joined Argos in September 2013 has been landing this transformation plan for customers; by maximising Argos’ unique strengths and innovations and communicating this to customers.

Creativebrief: On joining Argos you were handed the task of “bringing to life the brand and customer strategy for Argos in its journey to be a digital leader” how are you going about this and what have you achieved so far?

Stephen Vowles: The reason I joined Argos is because I thought it was unique in a way that could be really important to customers.

During our five year transformation plan, we are building a business that has all the functionality of a pure-play digital retailer but with 20,000 items in every local market that are available for immediate pick-up and fast delivery. That combination of digital, immediacy and local availability is really powerful. But the challenge is taking this uniqueness and packaging it up in a way that is relevant, and exciting, to as many people as possible. That’s exactly what we have set out to achieve with the launch of GET SET GO ARGOS. It’s the most significant shift in our advertising strategy in our 40 year history and is the biggest signal so far of how Argos is changing for customers, and of our digital leadership strategy.

It’s about raising awareness of the many exciting things that are happening at Argos, such as the roll out of our digital format stores, changes to our fulfillment proposition and the expansion of our product range, which now includes top brands such as Bose, Dualit, Dyson and Habitat.

Above all, we want it to really make people think and feel differently about the Argos brand. The distinctive space we want to own is about heartbeats, rather than heartstrings. Lots of retailers produce sentimental ads that make people go “aah”. We need an emotional connection but that is not Argos’ territory; our territory is about excitement and the speed of getting the products you want, when and how you want them.

Creativebrief: Your career has spanned Argos, Ladbrokes, Sainsbury’s, Thomas Cook and Procter & Gamble, what have been the high points?

Stephen Vowles: There have been several so it’s hard to choose one. Since joining Argos, it would be the GET SET GO ARGOS launch. Also, the launch of Heart of House, our first cross-category home and furniture brand earlier this year.

Pre-Argos, it would be co-conceiving and launching Nectar with Sir Keith Mills when I was at Sainsbury’s in 2002. And repositioning and relaunching Stop and Shop and Giant, the biggest supermarkets in the mid-Atlantic and North-East of the US, in 2008.

All of these projects have been difficult to do and have a common thread – they had a big impact on customers and on the businesses, and took a lot of teamwork. Big teams moving in one common direction.

Creativebrief: What key attributes must a CMO have to be successful in this day and age?

Stephen Vowles: Good Leader. Customer oriented. Smart. Analytical. Commercial.

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

Stephen Vowles: No-one has a crystal ball, but the continued influence of the digital revolution will inevitably impact how we do things. Not just the growth in ‘digital media’ but use of data across all kinds of media to integrate campaigns effectively to deliver sequences of messages to specific customers and sub-segments of customers.

Innovation will become increasingly important. At Argos, we’ve got a great track record of doing some really innovative stuff, such as our #giftforsanta campaign last year, and more recently live streaming the first ever Google+ Hangout On Air through YouTube. I want us to continue to do things differently and do them first. I see integrated campaigns with a strong social media element becoming more and more important.

More broadly, I believe the lines are already being blurred between digital vs. non-digital, as digital becomes the engine that lies behind everything. Some businesses are already just about data and numbers and no products, for example bookies. So for them there’s less of a separation already. Argos is also a huge digital business but one with stock available in the market now and this is what sets us apart as a unique category of one.

 

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

Stephen Vowles: It depends on the business you’re in, the problem you’re facing, or the situation you inherit. However, I tend to prefer specialised agencies, which give you depth of experience and the best in class in each field.

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

Stephen Vowles: I don’t tend to manage the day-to-day, but there is always tension between the desire to build and differentiate a brand and effectively communicate an item and price. However, that’s why GET SET GO ARGOS really works for me. The tactical execution is always the test of a new creative concept; if it works across tactical as well as brand, you know it’s a really great idea.

 

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

Stephen Vowles: When necessary. We decided to pitch the main Argos creative account last December, not because we were unhappy with the great work CHI& Partners were doing (the aliens campaign topped the annual Adwatch rankings two years running). But the transformation plan at Argos gave us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change the way people think and feel about our brand. Naturally we had to make sure we had the best creative agency in London to do this and I’m really pleased that our existing team were the right people for the job.

 

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

Stephen Vowles: Networking, keeping an eye on the competition, industry news. But most of all I judge them on how well I believe they’re achieving our business objectives. 

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

Stephen Vowles: I’m very happy with the work we got out of a traditional pitch approach for our brand relaunch. I don’t think format is important – content is what is important. And the content of the pitches for our brand relaunch was incredibly modern and far from traditional.

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

Stephen Vowles: I wouldn’t consider awarding a major piece of business as it’s just too important. It’s crucial you can see what they have to offer.