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Five youthful experiences that influenced my marketing

My teenage years and 20s were phenomenal learning experiences in which I made lots of mistakes and pieced together some of the building blocks needed to be a great marketer. Here I’ve compiled five experiences that most strongly affected my understanding of marketing.

1. The Cobalt Raq3

At the end of my first year as an undergraduate, a game-changer occurred in the world of web hosting. Dedicated servers had been massively out of reach, and domain names were still to come down in price. UK2 had been aggressively pricing domains, so I was a customer of theirs, and they emailed to offer a dedicated server for three years at something like £1,000 if paid upfront.

The price didn’t include telephone support or any of the sort of extra security you’d definitely want – and, yes, I did get hacked – but it was just what I needed. Because I was working (doing a mix of marketing and comms) as well as studying, I wasn’t too short of cash.

The Cobalt Raq3 was an amazing educational machine to play with, hosted in a data centre in the Docklands. There was a bit of a web-based control panel, but to use it properly I had to learn Linux command line, using a Secure Shell application to connect to the server. I would typically design sites in Macromedia Dreamweaver and a graphics package called Fireworks (which were subsequently bought by Adobe) and, over time, started using an early content management system called Movable Type to make them easier to update.

I read as much as I could about managing the behind-the-scenes of websites – especially technical books published by O’Reilly such as Cricket Liu and Paul Albitz’s DNS and Bind.

So how did this affect my view of marketing? Well, it seems to me that now we are all marketing in a digital world, good technical skills need to be embedded throughout marketing teams, even if not as geeky as managing a server. Spending time learning about web sites work under the bonnet has helped me be good at commissioning and driving improvements to large websites.

2. The family business

I grew up in the middle of a family business and, as a teenager, ran marketing. This is when I learned my love of direct response – a direct mail letter I worked on was used for 20 years. Family businesses are useful experiences to have around when you’re a kid because the marketing you do with them has to pay otherwise you feel it.

Later I learned about David Ogilvy, a giant of 20th Century advertising, whose advocacy of measuring the effectiveness of advertising and making it pay, is central to my view of marketing.

3. Interviewing in the IT industry

As a teenager, I wrote for newsstand computer magazines, and got to interview some of the interesting characters in the UK computing scene – from Arm to Psion. It got me on the right path early on of realising that, contrary to commonly held views, advertising is just a small part of marketing. It was clear that interesting business models, network effects and platform ecosystems were more important than how much money you could throw at TV ads.

As a 15-year old I sat in a business park in Cambridge interviewing one of the top technology marketers in the country, who was involved in the spin-off of Arm, now a microprocessor giant but then a pre-IPO start-up. He was talking about Thomas Kuehn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions and the relevance of paradigm shifts, creating competitive advantages, and delivering value for strategic partners. We spent two hours talking but never once was a branded pen, DL-sized leaflet or a back-of-a-bus advert mentioned.

Of course the tactical aspects of marketing are important, but they need to be in the context of a grounded strategy – which is one of the reasons I think the MBA along with the more advanced CIM qualifications are such a good foundation for ambitious marketers.

4. Reading books

I have always been a voracious reader – a lot of factual books, plus some novelists such as Ernest Hemmingway, Hunter S. Thompson, Alan Hollinghurst and even some poetry. Geekily, as a teenager doing journalism, I read countless style guides and books of English usage, though these days my guilty pleasure is a subscription to the Times Literary Supplement, which I read to help make me a better, more interesting person.

Why is reading important for marketers? It helps you develop a better style as a writer. For a general marketer, copywriting has always been the core skill, as Aesop Glim noted in his famous book Copy: The Core of Advertising, decades before I was born.

5. Telegraph Media Group

I’d always been interested in newspaper and magazine publishing, and during my 20s the sector was facing creative destruction as a result of internet. I decided The Telegraph was the place I wanted to be, not least because I’d read that it was pushing digital transformation strongly, and there was plenty of noise about how terrible all this digital change was.

These days I like to think that focus is one of my key attributes, but one example of it rather makes me cringe. I had increased the amount of freelance journalism I was doing, and a senior person from The Guardian took me out for lunch near their offices, which were then in Farringdon. As the main course arrived, she asked: “So, Alex, what would you like to do next in your career?”

My transparent reply? “I want to get a job at The Telegraph.”

Nonetheless, the focus worked. I started off as a casual employee doing shifts, and also getting paid as a freelancer, before they hired me full time. Not only did my time at The Telegraph give me an insider’s view on how newspapers work, which helped inform my book on media relations, it also taught me a lot about change management, driving substantial increases in web traffic, and becoming more digital. My stock phrase about the need to “accelerate the pace of our digital transformation” is nicked from my time here. The Telegraph was and is cutting edge at modernising its business model, and my time there helped create a strong preference for grasping nettles early.

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