An Interview with Alex Kelly

Kevin Barter

Klutch Studio Alex Kelly

Today we’re talking to Alex Kelly, Marketing Director and multichannel consultant for retail, fashion, apparel, beauty and lifestyle brands such as M&S, Reiss, Jigsaw, Neom and Belstaff, to name just a few.

Alex shares his thoughts and advice on how to continuously seek improvements in personal and business performance, as well as gain competitive advantage.

Q: How do you continuously seek to improve your own personal performance as a marketer?

A: I've worked in different businesses, predominately retail, but I worked for an agency to start with, which I think was a great grounding in a career, because you spin a lot of plates and touch lots of different things.

That's one of the reasons I maintain a career in marketing, because it is constantly changing. I definitely don't know all the answers today, but that perpetual learning is really important. For me, it's what keeps me interested.

I went from an agency to Marks and Spencer, and it was great - corporate, very layered, big, complex business, with lots of stakeholder management, so very, very different. But it was a great school of brand for me to learn great principles around processes. But then it got to the point where I felt I needed to be closer to the business of fashion. Rather than being a small cog in a very big machine, I needed to be more accountable.

So, I moved to Reiss and that role was all about getting close to the business and where I could take some of that big brand thinking and apply it to a smaller brand with tighter budgets, all about driving lean growth.

So, the answer is to keep changing, keep challenging yourself. Keep trying different things. And that's where you’ll learn and grow.

Q: Has it been a gut instinct, like you've known when it's time to step outside your comfort zone, shake things up, make that change? Or have you have you had a plan?

A: A 10-year plan? No, no. I think it's good to know where you're heading. But I also think, as it is for brand plans, you have a vision and where you might be, but you also have to have the agility to be able to adapt and pick up opportunities.

I know what I'm good at and I know what I can bring to the party. But being agile and being able to take opportunities is important. For me, I got to a point where I was frustrated, so the frustration told me what I needed to do. To have that mindset will at some point lead you to feeling like you're not quite fulfilled and that you need go itch that scratch.

There are times where I've been made redundant, and there's plenty of people who have been in that situation, especially through COVID, and that was a pretty hard and sharp learning curve, but nothing breeds innovation like necessity.

Q: What’s your approach in motivating and encouraging teams to continuously seek to improve?

A: I run pretty loud, busy teams. And I think within the teams they should all be challenging each other. I think having an open environment where people challenge each other is really important, there's nothing worse for me than if I'm sat in a meeting room and everyone's agreeing with me, because I don't have all the right answers.

I should never know a channel better than the people who are managing it, because I don't have enough time to be a specialist in every single area.

People talk about the lonely CEO or the lonely leader at the top and it can be quite isolating if you don't have teams that are willing to engage and challenge you and an open format for discussion. The best ideas don't necessarily come from the most senior person in the room. It's important that ideas come from every level because they’re seeing the world in a different way.

Great design creates opportunities to be different, to stand out and have a unique tone of voice.

Alex Kelly

Q: When you're looking to grow a brand or a business, how do you approach setting goals, working towards them and breaking them down?

A: I think there are lots of businesses that are growing really quickly, but they're not necessarily structured in terms of what their objectives are and what they will be able to deliver.

So quite often what I've done for more mature businesses looking to re-energize is to look at the teams and structures and just get people to break down how they spend their days.

Then a lot of it is top down, right? So there needs to be a clear business plan and that comes from the management team and the CEO. Then take that business plan, take the brand plan, and turn that into actual tactics.

If you break it down at that level, I think you can be quite granular, so that you're doing things that are measurable that you can learn from and drive growth.

You can be busy fools. There are so many ways to measure and with so much data available, teams and marketers have no excuse really but to look at the data, to really analyse and hold yourself accountable for that.

Lots of people and leaders talk about creating a culture where it's okay to fail, and it's an easy thing to say, but actually creating an environment where people can test and learn is very important, because no one knows the answer. They might have a good idea about where to go and fish, but it's called fishing, it's not called catching - you got to go there, try something, learn from it, make a mistake, do something again and adapt.

Q: Obviously retail has been hit really hard recently, what have brands been doing in terms of gaining or maintaining their competitive advantage during this tough period?

A: What COVID has done is create fundamental shifts. But the shifts were all there before - the demise of the high street, a shift to online, conscious consumerism, etc. But what Covid did was hit fast forward on the things that were happening anyway. And some of the brands that weren't moving fast enough, unfortunately, have gone to the brand graveyard. And the ones that were ahead of that curve actually stood themselves in a good space.

Being able to pivot, provide good strong commitment, customer community, communication, managing social channels and being very agile is super important. That is one part, and the other is also having very open honest conversations with your customers. I think a lot of brands got a lot more human through COVID… Or at least the good ones did. And it’s those brands that earned good customer favour.

Q: How important is branding and design in maintaining that competitive advantage?

A: I think there's always a need to look at your design, whether it's UX UI stuff, which is hopefully driving through to better conversion, or whether it is looking at the content, there are so many ways you can consider good design and what you're able to do.

Through COVID I did see some amazingly creative approaches from brands, and you often get that in really difficult scenarios, people are forced into doing creative things. Necessity drives it really.

It's created a whole host of people who have launched businesses and brands through lockdown where maybe there wasn't a need for them before, but they've managed to carve a relevant tone of voice and relevant brand identity.

What’s always amazed me in consumer brand marketing is the ability for people to create a niche through good design, through a good tone of voice, through good proposition, by looking at design to create opportunity, where quite often there doesn't seem to be any room for a new player.

Q: You describe yourself as an unapologetic generalist. How is being a generalist an advantage over being a specialist?

A: Yeah, I don't know if it always has been. But I think there is value in being an unapologetic generalist, which is why I'm trying not to apologise for it.

When I started on my career path, some of today’s channels didn't exist - I used to try and hit people two or three times for a message to stick and now I’ve got to hit people seven to eleven times to make it stick across channels.

My role is to look across multi-channel strategies and to try to find a way to use those effectively for that brand. But you need people who specialize and know the detail into those channels, particularly in digital channels.

It's a bit like the tug of war mentality, if you all pull in the same way, at the same time, you'll have an impact.

Q: Have you ever experienced imposter syndrome in your career?

A: Yeah, regularly. It terrifies me that my children look up to me as an adult. I'm fully capable of making stupid decisions. I'm still learning, and I think that's the point - you are always still learning. But I think it's about understanding where you're adding value and accepting where you're not and being able to ask other people's opinions.

Q: Have you ever found yourself in a slump? If so, how do you pick yourself up and out of it.

A: Really good question and I think you'll go through various phases, as you do.

You've just got to change it up and do things differently. Rhythm and routine are good, and businesses need that, but sometimes you've got to shake it up and just say, okay, we're not doing that today. We're going to do something totally different.

You need to take inspiration from certain areas, and you've got to put some of those things into practise. So, if you go out and you do an inspiration session, you go to the design museum or whatever you do, bring something back to the team, make it real, do something with it. Break the cycle, change rhythm and look for inspiration from other areas.

Q: If you could go back in time and give your younger self some advice, what would that be?

A: Buy shares in Apple, Google and Amazon.

In reality, this goes back to the test and learn thing and making mistakes. If you did things differently, you wouldn't have made the mistake and you wouldn’t have learned from it. I do think it is important to learn from failure.

From a career point of view, I was very impatient for things to happen, I wanted to move fast, and I was very ambitious… a bit cocky actually. So, my advice would be to enjoy those moments when you’re in them. Because you'll get there, but it will take time. And over time careers build, networks build and then you look back at it and realise that you have added value for people and helped them, and those sorts of relationships pay dividends later down the line.