Close-Up: The Advocates - How Stewart keeps Britvic in touch with reality

In the latest interview in Campaign's series The Advocates, celebrating clients determined to spend in a downturn, Simon Stewart, the Britvic marketing director, reveals a no-nonsense attitude to the art of soft-drinks marketing.

The day before Campaign is due to interview Simon Stewart, the Britvic marketing director has his staff e-mail us the company's second-quarter financial results. The purpose of this, apparently, is to underline Stewart's guiding principle - that creativity isn't an end in itself, but a means of enhancing business performance and shareholder value.

Stewart's ideal commercial world is one where marketers are as equally comfortable with financial directors as they are with creatives, and where procurement specialists secure the most advantageous deals "because marketers are rubbish negotiators".

The figures would seem to bear out Stewart's belief in the power of effective creativity - £249 million in revenue for the three months to July represents a 6 per cent increase on the same period in 2008. Britvic's carbonated and stills brands both continue to outperform the market.

Given his buttoned-down approach, it's no surprise to find that a media-shy Stewart sharply contrasts with his high-profile predecessor, Andrew Marsden. No surprise either that he epitomises the nonsense-free directness of his fellow Australians. For a start, he doesn't believe in creative pitches.

"They're artificial," he declares. "They take place in a hothouse environment in which a lot of the stuff that gets presented to you isn't replicated on a day-to-day basis. If you have good relationships with your agencies, you get the best work out of them. Media is different because it's a more mechanical process."

Scrapping digital

And he's scathing of how advertisers - his own company included - have dragged their heels in adapting to digital. He says he's banished all reference to the term within Britvic. "We just call it media. It just increases the choice we have.

"Advertisers think of digital as extended TV, but it's different. Procter & Gamble is among those learning how to make money from it but there's still a long way to go."

Although Britvic's marketing spend of £47 million in measured media is down by a third, Stewart claims immeasurable activity such as PR has increased. "We're investing more heavily in our brands than we've ever done," he claims.

He has not been afraid to act decisively to ensure Britvic gets the most from its budget. Barely two months into the job, he had already shaken up the company's agency arrangements, allowing Bartle Bogle Hegarty and CHI & Partners to become media planners for a number of brands and reducing Mindshare's responsibilities.

"We want to work in a collaborative environment rather than in opposition," he says. "And we want BBH and CHI to come up with the big ideas for our other agencies to embellish."

On the face of it, the challenge confronting the two lead shops is clear - to rejuvenate the carbonated drinks market as consumers move towards healthier options and away from the likes of Pepsi and 7UP, which Britvic produces, markets and distributes under licence from PepsiCo.

Stewart, though, would beg to differ, arguing the credit crunch has aided the cola market in general and Pepsi in particular, with people returning to tried-and-trusted brands over the past 18 months. What's more, the recession has sparked a natural selection process with weaker brands going to the wall while the strongest flourish.

Stewart is sceptical that the perceived mass migration to so-called wellbeing drinks is quite what it's cracked up to be. "There's a gap between what consumers say they'll do and what they actually do," he insists. "Marketers mustn't get so carried away with the aspirational brands that they lose touch with reality."

He's also adamant that he won't be moving the company into the smoothie market. "It's a sector that was growing well before the recession. Now fewer people will pay the price. But we are looking at other wellbeing options."

The company has already launched the mineral water Drench and introduced Robinsons Be Natural, a premium drink backed by a BBH commercial starring a very domesticated bird.

Beyond television

So has Stewart altered the way he allocates his budget? "TV remains a powerful medium for us and we won't be moving away from it," he says. "But there are a lot of different options."

These include increasing the company's point-of-sale presence and its focus on digital, as well as encouraging PR-generating ideas that free up money to spend in other areas.

Stewart cites the "Save Tango" campaign that promoted the drink on TV and online as a British institution under attack from "poncy smoothies and the finger-wagging, corduroy-wearing PC brigade".

"We needed to refocus the brand on teenage boys," he explains. "They are difficult to reach and always need entertaining. Running a campaign in conjunction with a website cost us almost nothing. Yet we got something that wasn't only edgy but also created a lot of PR. And it's been successful in terms of generating sales and profit."

Nevertheless, Stewart stresses the perils of driving down agency remuneration too far - "It's a false economy" - and the need for procurement's role to be defined. "We have some heated discussions, but in the end it's my call."

Generally, clients have got their marketing outgoings under control, he believes, although he says there is "opportunity for some price realignment" in the area of information collection.

He is not surprised that, with service industries suffering more than most from the recession, "everybody is trying to eat everybody else's lunch", and that more media agencies are coming forward with creative solutions.

"It doesn't feel right to me," he says. "There's a lot of other value that media companies can give us. We'd much rather all our agencies stick to what they do best." Which is to make the ads that keep the money rolling in.

THE STEWART LOWDOWN

A good idea at a bad time

Had it not been for a depressed late 80s employment market, Stewart might not have begun climbing the marketing ladder. He was in the final year of a business degree course at university in his native Adelaide, but with no clear notion of what he wanted to do.

His mind was made up for him when some of his tutors invited him to join the market research consultancy they were setting up. "It was a bad time for jobs so it seemed like a good idea."

Travelling man

It was to be the start of a peripatetic period, first as a brand manager at Power Brewing in Queensland, then to Coca-Cola in Sydney, followed by a spell at the soft-drinks giant's Atlanta headquarters and a number of strategic roles, one of them in Indonesia.

He has been in the UK since 1997, having filled senior roles at United Distillers, Diageo and Allied Domecq.

Publicis pain

He joined Britvic early last year after a two-year absence from the drinks industry. During that time, he worked as the chief marketing officer at Emap - "a good experience" - and as the business development director at Publicis. "I didn't enjoy it. I was a relatively experienced client and it was so different to what I was used to."

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