Mary Portas is a retail marketing consultant, founder of agency Portas and Mary's Living & Giving charity shops, an author, broadcaster and campaigner.
Mary Portas is a retail marketing consultant, founder of agency Portas and Mary's Living & Giving charity shops, an author, broadcaster and campaigner.
A view from Mary Portas

Mary Portas: creativity is about finding a brand's essence and expressing it in a powerful way

I was lucky enough to be growing up at a time when glam rock hit. I was lucky enough to have David Bowie as my...

I was lucky enough to think we could all express ourselves differently. And I was lucky enough to be growing up in a family surrounded by the love of music, art and poetry. It was all these influences that I was buying into, not just advertising. I wanted to be these people, wanted to push boundaries.

These creative sways made me use my imagination, and when I went to Harvey Nichols in 1990, that is exactly what I did. I turned the retail experience on its head. Why should a shop window be just about selling garments? Why can’t it be art, drama, a space where anything could be played out? I wanted to stop people in their tracks. I wanted people to talk about it, to hang out there. I brought in Thomas Heatherwick, straight out of college, to do an installation, as well as other artists, and launched The New Generation catwalk shows to highlight future British designers.

Advertising was the last thing I did. It was the media that expressed all the attitude of the brand that Harvey Nichols had become.

Creativity is about finding a brand's core essence and expressing it in a powerful way; something with the ability to provoke and inspire.

That is what creativity is for me. It’s about riding the cultural shifts, and developing creative techniques, messages and behaviours to make customers really love you. It is putting Grazia magazine’s editorial team inside a perspex pod at the Westfield shopping centre to create a pop-magazine, while being surrounded by curious shoppers; installing The White Shirt Bar – like a cocktail bar with a menu, with the best personal service – at Thomas Pink.

Expressing the brand's essence 

Creativity is about finding a brand’s core essence and expressing it in a powerful way. When I say powerfully, I do not mean a big, 60-second creative solution. I’m talking about a behaviour, a performance, a show, with the ability to provoke and inspire. Like the "clickable catwalk" from Burberry – which is dismantling all our notions about fashion by making everything on the catwalk available to buy online and in Burberry stores immediately afterwards, and not having to wait six months. And creativity is about unleashing ‘engineered’ discovery.

Marketers will need to develop more products, evolve them more rapidly, segment them to smaller audiences and communicate in real-time. Look at Story, the New York boutique that redefines the shopping experience by functioning "like a magazine" – the store themes change every four to six weeks, like an art gallery with different fixtures, events and interior design to create a storytelling environment.

Real creativity comes when brands use wit and humour to look at not how people buy, but what people experience.

Disruptive creativity

Commercial creativity is not just advertising – well, not as we know it. I belong to a generation that understands advertising and the arts as reflective of the culture and economy that produces them. The reason I started my own agency. But we are not just another advertising agency. We are a total retail communications agency, and understand that every inch and minute of the brilliant, beautiful process of shopping is important. And every inch and minute of the customer journey is a brilliant, beautiful opportunity to make the customer love you. But we also know that creativity is disruptive, messy, exciting and sometimes uncomfortable and challenging.

Real creativity comes when brands try to set themselves apart by their behaviours; when they understand the actions and intentions of their audience; when they can connect with communities; and use wit and humour to look at not how people buy, but what people experience.

For instance, I love the Kwik Fit ‘spare tyres’ campaign, targeting consumers looking to get fit with free fitness classes. Something that could easily have been caricatured was captured with such affection through this campaign. Or look at the simplicity of the free coffee and newspaper that comes with the myWaitrose membership. The brand experience that creates could not have been manufactured by an ad.

In this brave new world of marketing in the age of experience, businesses will have to find their heart and create behaviours around it. It is a risk worth taking.