Media Headliner: Why Kydd is no virgin when it comes to mobile

campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 21 July 2006 12:00AM

James Kydd will have his work cut out creating a happy union of the Virgin, ntl and Telewest brands, Alasdair Reid writes.

Four Play is, apparently, "a poignant look into the lives of four thirtysomethings and how they change and grow. Through the clever use of time, we follow the tempestuous relationships of four best friends, their lives, loves and careers."

Clever use of time? We'll be the judge of that. If we make it along to the Pleasance Courtyard during the Edinburgh Festival, that is. The blurb quoted above comes courtesy of a play mounted by Odd Sok Productions and running at the Fringe from 2 to 20 August.

It has also been chosen as a vehicle for the opening salvo in the marketing efforts of the new ntl-Telewest-Virgin Mobile communications combination, which officially came into being last week following the formal completion of a £961 million merger deal. The new company, which will be rebranded (with the Virgin name given prominence) next year, will take cable's old "triple play" (multichannel television, fixed-line telephony, broadband internet) and bolt on mobile communications, giving us a quadruple offering.

Or, indeed, a four play - thus the company's decision to sponsor the Edinburgh Fringe production. And therein, perhaps, lies the challenge facing James Kydd, the new company's (let's call it Virgin-ntl for now) chief marketing officer.

The initiative was sanctioned by Kydd's new boss, the ntl chief executive, Stephen Burch, though it was, apparently, greeted enthusiastically by the Virgin supremo, Richard Branson.

But you can forgive Kydd for experiencing a momentary sinking feeling. The marketing effort already seems to feature at least one cook too many and is conjuring up a nudge-nudge atmosphere that threatens to saddle the brand with a dubious heritage before it has even launched.

It might be a challenge steering this one into a classier zone. But if anyone is up to the task, it's Kydd - after all, he also knows the Virgin franchise extremely well, having worked on many variants and sub-strands of the uber-brand.

He began his involvement with the Branson empire a decade ago, joining as the advertising and planning manager at Virgin Atlantic; he then moved over to join the launch team on Virgin Cola, becoming the brand's marketing director and helping to manage its international expansion. Next, he was drafted in as a senior advisor on several other initiatives such as the extension of the Virgin brand into financial services, vodka and cross-Channel travel via a Eurostar joint venture.

He joined Virgin Mobile in February 1999 as its brand director charged with ensuring the integration and development of wider Virgin brand values into the business. He was responsible for all marketing communications, from design to advertising; and the accolades soon began to roll in.

The mobile industry has recognised Virgin Mobile's marketing efforts with Campaign of the Year awards in three out of the past six years. Kydd has since overseen the launch of the brand in the US and Australia too. So no-one is better at extracting resonance from the paradox - youthfully irreverent yet aspirational and dependable - at the heart of the Virgin brand.

That's certainly the view of James Murphy, the chief executive of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, who boasts a long association with Kydd: "He was my first client at Rainey Kelly more than ten years ago." Murphy praises Kydd's uncompromising pursuit of the very best for the brand and the bravery with which he will champion ideas he believes in.

He adds: "Virgin is populated by creative and entrepreneurial thinkers and when you work with James and his team you get a real sense that they are open to creativity from any source within any of their agencies. Having been on the agency side himself, he's very switched on to an agency's priorities and creative motivations. It also means he has a highly tuned bullshit detector."

Others agree that Kydd's ad agency background - he spent 11 years at Euro RSCG, reaching board account director level, with an enviable track record on the BT, Cadbury and Procter & Gamble accounts - is definitive.

Robert Ffitch, the managing director of Virgin Mobile's media agency, Manning Gottlieb OMD, says it allows him to stretch beyond the cautious belt-and-braces approach popular these days in some parts of the industry: "Some marketers are slaves to numbers - evaluations, pre-testing, whatever. His approach is more the other way around - he has a feel for what is right for the brand and a belief that if he follows that instinct, the numbers will come through on the back of that. He's been responsible for some fantastic advertising."

There have certainly been some iconic campaigns - think Kate Moss, think Christina Aguilera. But Virgin Mobile had a very clear sense of its own proposition and the mindset of its target market. Virgin-ntl will be a very different proposition. It will, for a start, have to appeal to a broader age range.

And though Virgin Mobile had a heritage at the pay-as-you-go, cheap and cheerful end of the market, the new combine will be aiming fair and square at the sorts of premium customers who can afford to sign up for four play. Then there's all the baggage that ntl will bring with it - and it's also in the throes of absorbing its erstwhile rival, Telewest. Neither of the two cable companies had a proud record when it came to customer service or reliability.

And things could be doubly disorientating for Kydd, who will be flying without Branson (who now has association with the mobile brand only through a lingering halo effect) as squadron leader for the first time in more than a decade.

So this won't exactly be a breeze. But Kydd, those who know him say, will relish this challenge. On first meeting he might come across as reserved, shy even, but he's a supremely determined character.

As Ffitch puts it: "It's true he won't be the loudest person at a party. You'll find him over at the bar with a glass of red wine and a cigarette, chewing the fat. He's certainly not a table thumper. But you'll soon appreciate that behind the reserve there's this incredibly powerful personality. He's wonderfully entertaining too. He has a wicked sense of humour and loves taking the piss out of people. A lot of people in the business find his direct approach very refreshing."

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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