Close-Up: The Advocates - Calming customers with more talk and less gas

In the second of Campaign's series The Advocates, championing clients who are continuing to spend through the downturn, British Gas' Chris Jansen explains how he is still making good use of his £70 million budget.

For Chris Jansen, the top marketer at British Gas, the choice between brand and price-led advertising is a no-brainer.

Whether the economic climate is fair or foul, price will always be at the heart of the way the company presents itself. It could hardly be otherwise when gas and electricity suppliers are perpetually accused of increasing bills at a stroke when energy costs are high, but are never in a rush to drop them when costs come down.

In short, Jansen's task is to mollify a customer base which needs constant convincing that it isn't being ripped off.

As a result, the £70 million marketing spend he commands has, and will remain, constant, irrespective of the credit crunch. Nevertheless, recession has concentrated minds on how that budget is most effectively deployed.

Mind you, British Gas won't communicate for communication's sake, Jansen insists. Indeed, the company stopped all TV advertising for the last five months of 2008 simply because it felt it had nothing relevant to say.

However, it was back on air in February to promote price cuts - "We'll do what we can, when we can," Jansen says - and a new campaign is set to break later this month, through CHI & Partners, aimed at accelerating the number of people returning to British Gas by explaining its benefits.

Marketing in the boardroom

As long as he can prove the company has something meaningful to say in its advertising, Jansen says he never has to face boardroom battles to drive his budgets through. His board is passionate about customer communication because it can't afford not to be, he says.

As the strategy and commercial director, as well as the managing director of its Premier Energy division, Jansen has a broad brief - marketing, sales, strategy, pricing and buying are among his responsibilities - within a leviathan that, despite its bulk, tries to get up close and personal with its customers.

And there are a lot of them. British Gas has a relationship with 12 million households - almost half the UK total - as well as one million businesses. It employs 28,000 people, 4,000 of whom work under Jansen, and has revenues of £13 billion.

"Our positioning is that we know people's homes are their world and that we'll keep them warm and working," he explains. "That's even more important at this time, when people are spending more time than ever at home."

It's good news on pricing, though, that British Gas customers want to hear most. Making sure that when people telephone they get to speak to somebody trained and knowledgeable and ensuring problems are sorted within 24 hours is fine. Even a January campaign promoting the company's commitment to wind-produced electricity is laudable. But it's the size of the upcoming bill that trumps all this.

Explaining this via advertising is no easy task - and one made more difficult, Jansen claims, by a media that doesn't always understand the complex issues involved.

"Gas is globally traded but electricity is a local market," he explains. "We always have a mix of buying ahead and buying daily to smooth our demand. Gas prices doubled last year but our customers' bills didn't.

"How do you explain that in an ad? You can't. So we're having to be much cleverer in how we speak to customers."

Investing in TV

That doesn't mean TV won't continue playing a central role in delivering the company's message. "Not only does it remain a great way of communicating with mass audiences, but the medium is the cheapest it's been for decades," he says. "The TV boys don't like it - but that's the way it is."

Nevertheless, the company is putting greater emphasis on online activity and has invested in making its website better and faster.

"We send out 100 million communications a year to our customers," he adds. "We have to ask ourselves if we could be doing more of that communication online and investing the savings back into pricing."

In tandem with this, there is a £2 million-a-year deal with British Swimming that will run up to the 2012 Olympics. Not just because British Gas heats an awful lot of swimming pools, but because swimming is the UK's biggest participation sport. "It has a strong community feel about it," Jansen says. "We're not looking for brand awareness, just to be associated with good things."

Procurement in its place

There's no doubt that British Gas' preoccupation with price and value for money has been carried forward into the relationship with its marketing suppliers. Among them are CHI, the lead creative agency, Carat, which handles its media buying, and Ogilvy, which looks after below-the-line activity.

Nevertheless, Jansen is adamant that the focus on value for money - the fees paid to CHI haven't changed in three years - has to be balanced by mutual respect.

"I don't have our procurement people negotiating deals. That's the job of our marketing department," he says. "We trust our agencies and have strong relationships with them. But they also know that were we to find any evidence that we were being overcharged, the relationship would end."

Not surprisingly, he isn't a fan of agencies offering solutions beyond their core disciplines. "Carat handled our swimming sponsorship but its main task is to buy media as cleverly as it can," he declares. "It doesn't have creative expertise and I don't expect it - but nor do I expect CHI to be buying our media. Agencies are in danger of diluting their expertise as they broaden their profiles."

As for the future, Jansen expects the recession to cause a few skeletons to fall out of cupboards. "If there are relationship issues between agencies and clients - particularly if agencies have been overcharging - then this economic climate is going to expose them," he warns. "And then there will be fallout."


First job

Chris Jansen, the one-time boss of Air Miles, has travelled far since he set out selling Max Factor cosmetics to pharmacies in Scotland.

It was all part of his early training at Procter & Gamble. And, like many before him, his experience working for the household products giant has almost defined his career.

Early influences

He was much influenced by its good business models, its ethical behaviour, its customer focus and, especially, by its advertising. "Its campaigns never just told you to buy the product," Jansen, who was involved in the marketing of such brands as Fairy Liquid and Wash & Go, says. "They always gave you reasons for doing so."

Despite leaving Cardiff University with an economics degree, Jansen wasn't drawn towards banking. Much more influential was his father, who ran a building materials company.

BA and beyond

A seven-year stint at P&G was followed by a senior marketing role at British Airways. This proved to be a test of nerve and innovation when, a few months into a relaunch of BA's executive offerings, the 11 September attacks on the Twin Towers put the airline industry into a tailspin.

In 2007, after more than two years as the managing director of Air Miles, then part of the BA empire, he quit to join British Gas.