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  • Writer's pictureLucas Bergmans

How to grow sustainably with TV advertising

Updated: Jan 4

“Real world brands need to learn from failures as well as successes”

The case for investing in long term brand building activity is widely accepted and understood nowadays. Publications such as Binet & Field’s ‘The Long and the Short of It’ – now 10 years old – have demonstrated the benefits of striking a balance between generating long term demand and harvesting it in the short term.

There is an increasing number of scale-ups who have recognised the risks of ongoing over-reliance on performance marketing and short-term metrics. They have moved on from the ‘performance plateau’ and have worked out how to adapt their approach to include brand building in a way that is right for them. In my last chapter of ‘Adventures in TV’ I spoke to Ben Farren, CEO of Spoke, about how his business has embraced TV advertising and over time learned how to get the most out of it to support their next chapter of growth.

That said, this is by no means an easy thing to get right, even with an experienced team. The focus on the businesses who do it successfully and who submit case studies for awards leads to survivorship bias. In truth, we have as much to learn from those who have struggled to make it work so far.

For the third part of my ‘Adventures in TV’ series, I spoke to Pip Heywood, Managing Director of Thortful, the UK’s largest online greeting cards marketplace about how she has leveraged her wealth of experience in brand building to drive growth for her business and how hard it can be to navigate the first steps into TV advertising for a young business.

Pip, thanks very much for joining. Why don't we start by you giving us an overview of your career highlights to date and what you're doing today at Thortful?

"What I loved about FMCG is that it just sharpens you as a commercial marketeer from the get-go."

So, the first half of my career was in FMCG which I found after a graduate placement at RHM traipsing around lots of functions and then settled into marketing. The main highlight for me within that stint is how, as an FMCG Marketer, you get all that juicy, classic brand management experience like you do in most traditional brand houses. You're covering strategy to category management to insights and segmentation, product development, portfolio development and comms. It's a brilliant grounding in business. I was pointed at heritage brands initially, like Hovis and Imperial Leather, which gives you a really solid understanding of looking after and improving brands that have been around for hundreds of years. I think that teaches you how to make change very deliberately and strategically rather than rashly, which I think is something that is changing within the world of brands and not in a good way.

Then I got thrown into new brand and international development whilst at PZ Cussons. I went to Australia for a few years and managed the global mix of brands for them. And that included working on scale ups, like Original Source, and taking them international as well as helping markets like Africa and Asia map out their progression, so that group portfolios could align over time and drive more profit.

What I loved about FMCG is that it just sharpens you as a commercial marketeer from the get-go. You know your product cost down to the price of a label or your bottle shape’s impact on supply chain efficiency, and you represent your P&L in every decision taken at board level.

In the second half of my career, I opted to move into digital and brand comms knowing that that was a trend that was happening back then. I worked at Very as Head of Brand and then moved into MoneySuperMarket where I was Brand Director for a few years. And I did that very consciously, because I knew that I had 10 years in FMCG and needed to branch out and carry my brand development into above-the-line in a significant way. What I learnt there was a huge amount of big agency skills development, and I think that's really underestimated. You're charging these agencies with millions of pounds worth of your business. I think that's something that's understated in business today. How do you work with agencies? How do you motivate them? How do you get the best out of them? How do you commercially charge them and empower them with information about your business? That's something I carry with me: bringing data, creative and media understanding. I also picked up econometrics and had the chance to broaden out my people management skills, going from small to mid-teens to more significant, multi-discipline teams.

That gave me the confidence, at the end of my tenure at MoneySupermarket, to step into scale-ups where you start to take on multiple multi-channel responsibilities - folding in PPC, CRM, etc. And I think I was lucky at MoneySupermarket, because we had a marketing leadership team that gave me good counsel and confidence to step into scale-up and naively - because it's not my functional expertise - start to manage those channels. I did feel quite unconfident about that, it's quite exposing to go and suddenly pick up PPC when you're a brand marketeer. So I did take on some extra training and I leant into my network. I think that's the critical thing as you step out of big business into start-ups and scale-ups. You have to swallow your ego and your pride and make sure that you're surrounding yourself with people far more intelligent than you are in that discipline.

And so, after we got Yopa to profitability, I stepped down as CMO there to be CCO at Thortful and then more recently stepped into the Managing Director shoes. And my role there sees me very much involved with the Marketing Director on brand development, comms strategy and daily involvement with our product and tech teams on our platform experience and development. And I'm personally really passionate about our card content and creator teams because of our marketplace model. I'm really involved in that: how we manage our creators, how we brief and inspire them and how we merchandise on site. And I've picked up all the other functions that fall within general management.

I love the variety. I still lust after the big business resource I took for granted - as you can see the bags under my eyes! I push the teams on delivery, and I think the biggest learning for me at Thortful is empathy with all the leadership decisions that I've experienced, but not been part of. The pressure of leadership, the pace you have to drive business, especially scaling up business. I think I'm lucky that I've got a good network, because otherwise it could be a very lonely place, actually.

What an amazing journey. You've got that amazing balance of the early part of your career working in big, established FMCG brands, and then more recently in scale-ups. How has that early experience helped you? And how have you had to adapt to a very different environment to where you were before?

"That grounding as an FMCG marketer sets you up.(...) You become far more of an intuitive marketeer, but also a research disciplinarian." 

As I called out earlier, commercial nous is the biggie. That grounding as an FMCG marketer sets you up. You know P&Ls inside out, you know the consequence of your commercial decisions. You know how promotional mechanics work and the likelihood of cannibalization for example. You're more confident to get going quicker. I think you become a walking insight encyclopaedia. You gather insights in a carpet bag, depending on the business and category you've worked, and it gives you really good gut instinct. You become far more of an intuitive marketeer, but also a research disciplinarian. Something that is a gripe of mine is how today we seem to be okay with taking four or five customers’ opinion and applying it to strategy and rollout.

It really worries me that we're losing our skills in attaining good, robust insight versus opinions. I'm able to calm the business in that respect and bring insights to bear even when we can't afford a research function. I think you become quick. You know the ins and outs of good process, as boring as it might sound. You can cut time out of procrastination. You can get people to prioritise. You can get them to deliver quicker. And the biggest for me, at the moment, is attitude over aptitude. You're able, because you've worked across many businesses at different grades, to have a spidey sense on grit and graft. You know the people that can learn as they go, the people who are going to put their shoulder to the wheel and make change happen without wincing. And you need that bunch around you in a start-up, so you recruit for that. You find that talent and you surround yourself with people that will run through walls with you whilst holding your hand.

Tell us a bit more about the journey that Thortful has been on. Where it started, how you joined in and what you're doing now.

"And one of the challenges is how we test the brand spend regionally."

Thortful was about £8 million in revenue before COVID. It was doing well. It was stepping on after a couple of years of operating and then things went mental during COVID. At its peak, revenue was at £33 million. That gearing is ridiculous, actually. And the business swelled, probably prematurely, from about 30 to almost 90 people. Then the market changed and there was retraction, which we could all have predicted. The online market pulled back, revenue retracted, we pulled back on resource and that was painful but necessary. 

And what that provided to the leadership team at the time was a really stark reminder to grow sustainably and improve the value of each role before we go too wide. That's the big challenge. We're still dealing with that, but our growth is about 6% ahead of the market at the moment. We're experimenting with brand advertising, cautiously in bursts. We're harvesting demand at peak with a really strong direct response play. And one of the challenges is how we test the brand spend regionally. At the moment, we're running a couple of upweight tests in regions while the rest of the country does its own thing. And that's all about this sprint mentality to brand growth that I'm leveraging within the business to build confidence in our response curves before going too wide.

And the second biggest challenge, which everybody's feeling, is recruitment. Finding talent and attitude.

I've seen some of your TV ads, which I love. You've invested in that space and you've got a huge amount of experience in TV from previous jobs. But I've also seen that you've said in the press that you went too far with it as well and you're revisiting your approach to TV. So, talk us through how you approached the decision to embark on TV advertising for Thortful and where you've gone since then.

"I should have paced the investment rather than going guns blazing too quickly."

The first mistake was going too quickly with too much spend. And I think that's because I was doggedly following an ‘excess share of voice’ mindset and all the theory that we were taught and were able to put into play in big business. What I should have done is tested and learned more, which is what we're doing now, and I should have taken more time to spend the budget more wisely when there was still a lot of uncertainty about consumer behaviour post COVID. And I should have paced the investment rather than going guns blazing too quickly.

Where we are now, we’ve been experimenting on advertising in half 1 - this has seen us do ATL (above the line advertising) in isolation, ATL with digital in tandem, regional testing and testing spend thresholds. We’re mopping that up, but the results are telling me to be cautious. I think we have to do more on performance marketing (which has really rebounded in the last 6 months for us) and make sure we’ve got the funnel health to support the advertising before we go too aggressively again - much like Grace Kite teaches in the Wrong & The Real Of it.

How have I decided to invest in TV? I know from my experience that that's the best medium for reaching impact quickly and building brands confidently over time. But my approach is very different - peeling back the spend, proving it before you commit the next tranche and sprinting it. Leveraging regional testing, which is so much easier these days than it was 10 years ago, to carve out regions and not be charged a ridiculous premium for regional testing. Spending it like it's my own, cautiously and very conscientiously.

And have you had to evolve how you assess the return on investment for TV, from a focus on performance marketing and short-term customer acquisition costs, to spend that has, like you say, a much longer-term effect.

"It's just a patience game and that's really hard in scale-ups because you don't always have the luxury of time."

Exactly that and it's difficult when you don't have runway to keep that investment going, so you look for what are the most immediate impacts you can see. That relationship between share of voice to share of search is my biggie. We know we have really good, really healthy conversion. It's eye-wateringly good, so I know if I can get the search up, sales will follow.

We are still able to do brand tracking and that's been really rewarding. Versus last year, we've really improved our awareness and consideration. And our brand funnel is far healthier, so it is working. It's just a patience game and that's really hard in scale-ups because you don't always have the luxury of time.

Fantastic. What I'd love to hear, Pip, is your top three tips for other scale-ups who are looking to grow, particularly by investing in new marketing channels, to drive that additional phase of growth.

"As a leader in scale-up marketing, don't be too proud to ask for help from your network."

For my first tip I would say again: that softly-softly spend approach to build confidence and use a measurement framework that your Finance team absolutely buy into. You've got to have that advocacy within your finance team. I had a great board meeting a couple of weeks ago where my Finance Director lobbied for the upweight tests that we’re running. So that's a sign that we've got a good healthy relationship there. We’re bedfellows with Finance.

Secondly, great agency partners that honestly get start-ups and scale-ups. Don't make that mistake of going to some of the bigger agencies that aren't quite there yet in terms of getting how hard it is. I've chosen my agency partners really carefully. They have to be able to understand your growth ambition indexed against your risk tolerance and be comfortable with leaning into that and adapting on the hoof because you have to be street fighting.

And thirdly, echoing something I said earlier is, as a leader in scale-up marketing, don't be too proud to ask for help from your network. It's okay to need some counsel or reassurance in an unfamiliar place and where you don't have data coming out of every orifice and a research team. So as long as you've not been an arsehole to them, people are really happy to help. I have learned that and I will always return that favour.

Well, I’m very sure you’ve never been an arsehole! And finally, what mistake would you suggest that scale-ups avoid?

Don’t tie yourself up in knots thinking that you'd have done it better if you’d had more money, more time, more people. You don't have that. You're doing your best with what you have. So make sure you're grounding yourself and not looking back to big business and thinking ‘I could have done this so much better if I just have that bit more.’ You're doing the best with what you've got, so be kind to yourself.

And then I think the biggie is don't assume big business can be applied to little business. Use your knowledge and expertise but turn the telescope around the other way first, before you start applying it.


Fantastic. That's really helpful advice thanks Pip!

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