Career profile: Simon McDowell, marketing director, Coles

Simon McDowell, director, Coles Group marketing, speaks to Marketing about a career that has spanned the business and communications industries, three seemingly very distinct sectors, and the globe.

Much to his parents’ relief, Simon McDowell’s big break came straight after graduation from the University of Sydney. The recipient of a scholarship from the Advertising Federation of Australia, McDowell scored a sponsored role with
Interpublic’s Lintas. He was gainfully employed in his first job.

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And so his career launched in Agencyland, working in a big multinational agency, a client list replete with big multinational companies such as Unilever, Nestlé and Coca-Cola. After about six years in the role, he was transferred to London – it was McDowell’s first time overseas, a relocation that would set the tone for the next decade-plus of his career.

But he would not remain agency side for much longer. The lure of a wider breadth of marketing responsibilities was too great for McDowell, as was the chance to work for “one of the most famous brands in the world”, based in its heartland, Atlanta. It was the beginning of a stint with the Coca-Cola Company that would last more than a decade. Responsibility for Diet Coke’s global advertising and Coca-Cola’s Asia Pacific advertising turned into a marketing directorship for the company’s Asia Pacific operations, which later turned into what McDowell describes as “a very interesting job” – being the president’s chief of staff. When the president (of Coca-Cola Asia Pacific) moved from Hong Kong to London, so did his chief of staff.

Finally, McDowell had to get a “proper job” – managing director of Coca-Cola in the Netherlands. Full managerial responsibility for the entire territory. A significant step-up for anybody, but after four years in the role he was looking for greater challenges.

He remains a Coke fan to this day, but after 12 years with the Coca-Cola Company, McDowell decided it was time for a change of scenery. “I missed having a multi-territory role,” he says. So when an opportunity arose to join Sony Pictures Home Entertainment as managing director of its European operations, he took it, along with full profit and loss responsibilities for all the territories that entails.

Of this completely new industry McDowell admits he knew nothing at first, but sought to apply some of his FMCG skills – the more strategic aspects, the rigour, the discipline, process and planning – and apply it at Sony.

Marketing: After starting out in Agencyland, what drew you to the client side?

Simon McDowell: I loved the advertising industry and communications, but I saw advertising as just one part of marketing. So I left Lintas, and I left advertising, in London and my next job was then with the Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta. For me, that was: how can I broaden my advertising experience, but do it with a client? I spent a lot of time working with some of the best marketing and agency people in the world, in all sorts of countries and all sorts of places, and I absolutely loved it. And that job then led me on to become marketing director for Coca-Cola Asia Pacific. So that was when I had the full marketing responsibility, not just communication.

What was that transition like?

I think, obviously, advertising is just one part of marketing, as opposed to all aspects of marketing. Advertising is just one of the Ps. There used to be four – product, price, place and promotion, and obviously advertising was the promotion P – when I was at university. I don’t know how many there are now. But I wanted to experience and be accountable for all of the Ps of marketing as opposed to just one, and obviously the Coca-Cola Company is very famous in that regard, and to have the opportunity to learn all of those things at Coke for many years was fantastic.

Were there any key mentors from that time who have had a major influence on you?

When you become very senior at the Coca-Cola Company – one of the top four or five executives – you get what’s called a ‘chief of staff ‘ who is somebody you work with side by side, and it really is a development opportunity for somebody to learn even more about how a big multinational business runs. So I did that for a couple of years in Hong Kong for a guy called Sandy Allan, who has since retired and, for me, he was definitely my mentor. He had been in the company 30-something years, and was an absolute fountain of knowledge and a real inspiration about life, love and all things business… and all things Coke. That was a fascinating job for a couple of years in Hong Kong.

What specific things did he instil that you carry with you?

Probably the two things are, one: be really single-minded and very focused. You can’t do everything. Focus on the key things that are really going to make the difference, and then [two] try to execute those few things perfectly. Sandy had a great skill at being able to make whatever was seemingly very complex in a very big complex business… a real skill in boiling it down, prioritising and making it simple and focused. That’s a real strength of the Coca-Cola Company, but a particular strength of Sandy. I learned an incredible amount from him. I was his chief of staff for a couple of years in Hong Kong, and then he moved to president of Europe, in London, and I moved with him as his chief of staff for another 18 months.

When you’re the chief of staff in a role like that, eventually they say you’re supposed to get a ‘proper job’, so I became the managing director of Coca-Cola in the Netherlands, based in Rotterdam, for four years. That was my first managing director job. I wasn’t the marketing person or the chief of staff anymore; I was the managing director responsible for the full P&L with all the functions. Doing that for the first time is always a bit scary.

How was that as a learning experience?

I’d like to think I did a pretty good job, but there’s nothing like doing it yourself for the first time, and I think I was as prepared as I could have been for the role, and loved it, and had a lot of great support from the company, but there’s nothing like doing it yourself. You’ve got to be managing director once first, somebody has got to believe in you that you can do it. Then I held hands and jumped… and absolutely loved it.

Simon McDowell on the set of MasterChef

You spent a lot of time overseas after completing your tertiary education in Australia. Do you think international experience is essential to the learning process for marketers?

Like a lot of Aussies, I wanted to have the opportunity to work overseas so, after six or seven years at Lintas, I got transferred to London to run their Nestlé confectionary business in the UK, so that’s how I first went overseas. I can’t speak for everybody but, for me personally, getting a broader experience beyond just my home market was something I always wanted to do and found it something I had an absolute passion for, just to get a wider and… richer experience. It’s not for everybody, of course, but it was just something I was absolutely fanatical about, and I was glad that I got the chance.

Do you look for it in potential employees?

When hiring people, I’m always looking for multidimensional talent, and I think one of the ways you can demonstrate that is by living and working overseas. Is it essential? No. Is it something that definitely attracts my attention in potential hires? Absolutely.

You joined Coles a year into a five-year turnaround plan. Were you looking for a challenge?

To come back to Australia, to be on the board of Coles – the Coles Group is a $32 billion retail business, it’s a much-publicised turnaround business – I always say that the great thing about this job is it’s very high profile. And, of course, the bad thing about this job is, it’s very high profile. Everybody has a view, internally and also externally, and so it’s very challenging. But it feels like Coles is a $32 billion start-up. It’s a place with enormous passion and drive to change, and to be successful.

Our objective, of course, is clear for the business, but from a brand point of view, we are intent on building the most famous brand in Australia. Ian McLeod, the managing director of Coles, as my boss, said, “Let’s get on with seeing if we can build the most famous and most trusted brand in Australia,” and so that really is an offer too good to refuse. It never happens really that somebody gives you that brief on a business that has 100,000 people and sales of $32 billion. So you can’t let that one go through to the keeper.

The idea of a $32 billion start-up is an interesting one…

It is actually somewhat odd, I know, to say that it feels like a $32 billion start-up, but in my mind it absolutely does, because there’s a passion for the business, a passion for the brand, a passion for our customers. Of course we’re a big business, and there’s a lot of discipline and rigour and process and planning that goes behind the scenes, but, at the same time, we’re a brand and a business with massive aspirations to constantly do better, and to constantly look to innovate and do the most compelling, engaging and unique marketing we possibly can. For me, I’m trying to apply what I learned and what I did at a famous brand called Coca-Cola, or a famous brand called Sony.

Others will be the judge based on our results and, ultimately, customers will be the judge whether they think what we’re doing here, and specifically the marketing, is any good.

I wanted to also touch on social media and where it fits for a brand like Coles – I’m particularly keen to get your view on whether it should be kept in-house.

One thing perhaps your readers are interested in, one thing that makes Coles unique, I think, is that the vast majority of all of our marketing is done in-house. By design we have set up the marketing function across the Coles Group as an in-house model. We do all our own insights work, product development, design work, research work, online work, digital work, internal PR function. We have purposely built a team of people from all sorts of complementary backgrounds to build, in effect, an in-house resource for the Coles Group, because we believe that we know our brand better than anybody else. That said, we still use agencies, of course, to help us bring some of the things that we want to do to life. We absolutely value those agencies and see them as a physical extension of the marketing department.

SAS: Do you have plans to enhance Coles’ social media and real-time services?

Simon McDowell: Of course… it’s absolutely key. We look at all channels in the mix, whether online or otherwise, to see how best we can communicate to our customer base. But the number one channel we have above all others, of course, is our store, because we have over 13 million customers a week coming to Coles, which is a huge number. So the vast majority of their experience of us, and of our brand, and of our offering, comes through the stores themselves. So for us, our number one focus is the in-store experience, and that’s the very nature of retail.

What are the greatest challenges you experience when it comes to using analytics to compete?

I think, of course, marketing is very much a blend of art and science. We are very focused on the science aspect of what we do, the analysis of data, the research, the insights, the planning, all of those things. However, I’m also a firm believer that even with all the science in the world you still need to combine it with the art, because what you do is incredibly important when you’re building a brand, but, to me, equally as important is how you do it, and that’s why we’re as much focused on the science as we are on the art.

There are lots of companies with too much art and not enough science. There are also a lot of companies and brands out there that are too much science and probably not enough art. We’re trying to find a balance that works for us. We’ve had a reasonable run, I think, in the last few years. Are we satisfied? No. Is there more to come from Coles? Absolutely.

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