Boots CMO Pete Markey: Why bravery is the key to great marketing

Alex Sword

Alex Sword


The Financial Services Forum

“If your creative sails through the approvals process, it’s not the right creative.”

It’s safe to say Pete Markey’s first few months in retail have been eventful ones.

Speaking exclusively to the Financial Services Forum, the former CMO of TSB, who moved to Boots in February, says that the faster pace of the retail sector has been “exhilarating.”

“Before I took this job I used to say to my team at TSB ‘we need to be more like a retailer’, not knowing that would be my next job. It’s exactly like I thought but even faster.

“I think financial services can learn a heck of a lot from the pace and agility of retail.”

The need to move quickly was displayed recently when the Boots in-house magazine featured Eva Echo, a trans woman, as one of many women on International Women’s Day, sparking a backlash on social media.

Pete’s response was to conduct an interview with Eva and discuss her life, experience and the impact of these kinds of events. This was then shared across Boots’ social media channels.

One of the most notable things about Boots’ response to the backlash was its speed, in an age where social media storms can brew very quickly.

“At Boots our brand’s strapline is ‘let’s feel good’. It’s all about being accepted as who you are.

“So for us, it was really important to stand by Eva and say it was absolutely the right thing for us to include her.”

The ability to move decisively to take a stance on issues is something Pete, who was previously the Executive Sponsor of the LGBT+ programme at TSB, views as arising naturally from an organisation’s DNA.

“It definitely helps [having an exec sponsor who can take leadership],” Pete says, highlighting how at TSB there was also an extensive network of execs involved in promoting diversity.

He adds that it is important to “know what your brand is about.

“When you know what your brand is about, that gives you a reason to engage with certain topics. When you face challenges on these topics, this means it’s core to who you’re about and in your DNA.

“One of the great things about Boots is feeling good about yourself is part of who we are. When we face any challenge in that area we have a really strong narrative as a business around what we’re trying to do.”


Built in purpose

Pete has an extensive background in financial services, where smaller boutique firms, challengers and fintech start-ups may have a shorter history and a less established brand. How can organisations define what they stand for from the ground up in an authentic way?

“I would do a really dedicated bit of work on what you’re here for.

“If you go to the history of many businesses, you can find out who founded the business and why. In fintechs, you can ask why was the business created.”

Markey left his role at TSB to move to retailer Boots earlier this year.

He highlights the examples of Monzo and Starling, having strong founders at the core who arrived with a vision.

“I would start there and think about what is this vision telling us, beyond say being successful and profitable. Monzo is a great example – clearly it was about challenging the status quo, power in the hands of consumers and the slickest banking experience – and it was designed to not feel like another bank.

“There’s a lot there and you can almost write the purpose wording [based on that] – so I would start there with why it was founded and organise a group of people around that who can pull it out.”

He says that when it comes to a topic like diversity and inclusion, every leader and business needs to have this front and centre in everything they’re doing.

“[You need to] represent the customers you’re looking to serve, which should be fully diverse and inclusive, and your workforce [need to be] better representative of the customers you serve. Those things are so essential to businesses succeeding that I think you can’t walk past that.”

As somebody who has sponsored diversity issues across multiple businesses, Pete is used to translating this from the emotional and moral realm into a business argument that can cut through at the board level.

“If you look at business purpose, there are lots of great industry reports on why having a core purpose helps strengthen and drive increased brand value and greater growth.”

He says that this is also true of diversity and inclusion.

“People joining businesses now expect it,” he adds it. “To walk into a role where they don’t have that would be bizarre.”


Bravery in marketing

The point around taking bold stances also translates into Pete’s work as a marketer. While working at MoreThan he headed up the More Than Freeman campaign, which featured a soundalike of the Oscar-winning American actor – on paper a bizarre advert, but one that certainly made an impression.

Pete says this kind of marketing requires “bravery”, highlighting Direct Line and its Winston Wolf campaign as his go-to example of this.

“That idea on paper is a bit crazy – but it works. That took huge bravery from Mark [Evans, MD of Marketing at Direct Line] to get that over the line, and I think that’s why Direct Line is still around.”

He says to stand out brands need to be braver and create “watercooler moments”, the idea being that people talk about the advert the next day.

“It’s about brands saying we want to be positively disruptive, we want to be talked about and we don’t want to be run-of-the-mill. If you want really great results you need people to talk about it with other people.”

He highlights TSB’s advert with David Schwimmer, which debuted back in December. The ad features Schwimmer travelling around the UK against a backdrop of members of the UK public.

Pete says that he struggles to think of other brands that are doing such impactful marketing.

He suggests working with agencies, who will “push you creatively and aren’t just going to deliver a bogstandard ad campaign.”

“The litmus test is, if you’ve got creative that sails through the approvals process and everyone loves it and no one comments on it, it’s not the right creative. You’ve got to have a moment where people go, hang on a moment. Those types of comments are really helpful, and you may end up not doing it, but at least you’ve had the conversation.

“If you push something through that’s vanilla and boring, it just won’t get the attraction. You need something to really arrest and grab you with advertising these days.”

He highlights the GoCompare opera singer or the meerkats in the Compare the Market advert.

“Those campaigns have endured, because they’re brave and disruptive.”

TSB was one of the first banks to do an advert based around lockdown, filmed from people’s homes. Its advert with David Schwimmer notably struck a balance between looking forward and backwards.

They consciously didn’t include masks, but the actors including Schwimmer notably abide by all social distancing rules. The campaign was filmed with a number of different versions of lines, meaning that it could be rolled out even when lockdown rules changed, as they did in December.

Pete says TSB has prepared him well for his role at Boots.

“Financial services gives you a really good training ground in looking after customers, investing in data, focusing on digitalisation which banking and insurance have come on a long journey with. And also loyalty and retention, but also brand building.”

Also useful has been his experience putting in the Adobe marketing cloud, which he has implemented at TSB and Aviva.

Pete says Boots has some big plans coming up, including tapping into the data provided by the 10 million people using the Advantage card.

This is where the challenges are similar to those at TSB.

“Covid has caused a commonality – we’re all looking at similar data on how the nation is feeling.

“The marketing challenges and opportunities have many parallels with TSB – having a super strong, energised brand, a focus on data and a focus on customers. All of that is there at Boots but just in a different context.”

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