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Storytelling and Irish grannies hold key to ad agency's success


PHIL COTTIER: “The ad world is as ‘Mad Men’ is. It’s like a normal job on steroids. It’s very fast-paced”. Photo: Tony Gavin

PHIL COTTIER: “The ad world is as ‘Mad Men’ is. It’s like a normal job on steroids. It’s very fast-paced”. Photo: Tony Gavin

PHIL COTTIER: “The ad world is as ‘Mad Men’ is. It’s like a normal job on steroids. It’s very fast-paced”. Photo: Tony Gavin

When Phil Cottier moved to Ireland with his Irish wife in 2008, he had decided to kiss goodbye to the fast-paced world of advertising. Mr Cottier had worked with Omnicom, a major international advertising agency, for most of his life. He had also worked with Publicis, another advertising heavyweight.

"The ad world is as Mad Men is," says Mr Cottier. "It's like a normal job on steroids. It's very fast-paced. At one stage, I just said: 'I've done enough of this, I'm on the wrong side of 40'. So I stopped working in Britain and did a masters in climate change and renewable technology.

"I planned to just potter around being a consultant. I had a vision of setting up a sustainable business in Ireland."

However, not long after Mr Cottier moved to Ireland from Hertfordshire in Britain, he found himself lured back into the advertising business.

Frank McCaughey, who founded the Dublin-based direct marketing agency, Acorn Marketing, approached Mr Cottier. "He originally asked me to work for the agency for a day a week," says Mr Cottier.

By early 2011, Mr Cottier had been appointed CEO of the company.

Acorn was set up in 2006. It has been behind major advertising campaigns, such as the 2011 TV commercials for the online insurance broker, 123.ie, where viewers were encouraged to "just log on, and save money".

It is also behind the advertising compaigns for the pay-as-you-go electricity provider, Prepay Power, and the craft beer, McGargles. It has major multinational clients, such as Google and Dell, under its belt.

"We drive engagement between our clients and consumers," says Mr Cottier. "We run all types of advertising campaigns. It could be direct marketing, a letter, an insert in a paper, or a TV or radio ad. We're the creative spark that joins the product to the consumer. That builds relationships and boosts sales."

Acorn was acquired by marketing firm, Epsilon, in 2012. Acorn has a huge amount of information at its fingertips as a result - which it uses to better target and understand people, according to Mr Cottier.

"In the United States, Epsilon is the biggest direct marketing agency," says Mr Cottier. "It runs a massive loyalty programme so we can look at that data and apply it to campaigns.

"So, after the takeover, suddenly we had insights into what consumers did. We would know for example that a consumer buys a pizza on their way home from work on a Friday - so we would direct our advertising campaigns around that."

The recession was challenging for most players in the Irish direct marketing industry because many companies slashed their marketing budgets.

Although Acorn was no exception, it has survived the storm and has grown over the last few years, explains Mr Cottier.

The company which started off with three employees in 2006, now has 105 staff in Ireland. Its turnover is in excess of €20m.

As Mr Cottier has worked in advertising for about 30 years, he has witnessed enormous changes in the industry.

"When I started out in advertising, it was very labour intensive," he says. "Apple Macs didn't exist. But we had studios full of graphic artists. Technology then took over and we got too far ahead with it. I've seen a pushback to the traditional drawing and thinking recently."

Mr Cottier however is fully aware of the advantages which technology has brought to his industry.

"Back 30 years ago, you put stuff on TV and sort of hoped it reached the right audience," says Mr Cottier. "Now you can speak directly to a consumer.

"We have the technology to communicate with people at the right time. If you take the example of beer, a lot of beer drinkers aren't loyal. So we have to engage them at the right time. There's no point sending them an email at 10am on a Monday morning - you send the email on Friday instead."

Along with its Dublin headquarters, Acorn has offices in London, Sydney and Paris. It's important to understand the different lifestyles led by consumers in any country you are building an advertising campaign for, explains Mr Cottier.

"We run Domino's Pizza ads across Australia, Japan, Ireland and a number of other European countries," says Mr Cottier. "I couldn't run the same ads in different countries. In Holland, they don't share pizza - but in Ireland, they do. So you couldn't run an ad in Holland about sharing pizza. You have to tailor the ad to the individual market."

Choosing the right advertising campaign is always a challenge. Ultimately, the campaign has to reach out to new and existing customers - and drive sales for a company.

The recent McGargles campaign was a particular case in point because McGargles is a small family brewery competing against global corporate breweries.

So how did Acorn make the McGargles campaign stand up against those of global heavyweights?

Simple - by using the power of storytelling, explains Mr Cottier.

"We created a family, very reverend and very Irish, which includes a granny with a seriously fiery temper," says Mr Cottier. "We named the beers after the individuals in the family and put a story behind them.

"So rather than being just a beer, you've got a character behind the beer. People like stories. If you go back to classic ads like the Nescafe ads, that's what people like."

Sunday Indo Business