CLOSE-UP: NEWSMAKER/JOHN BOTIA - Lager marketer shows courage in his convictions

John Botia likes to take a no-nonsense approach to marketing.

As exhorts of "'ave it!" rang out across the nation last year, it was clear that for the first time since "whassup?", another advertising catchphrase had entered the vernacular. This was music to the ears of John Botia, Scottish Courage's brand director on Foster's and John Smith's, and a happy man following the brewer's double scoop of Campaign's Advertiser of the Year, and Campaign of the Year. "Winning two was beyond expectation," he beams.

Botia bought the Peter Kay campaign, created by TBWA/London, for John Smith's. There's no doubt Scottish Courage is on to a winning formula, having caught Kay just as the cult success of Phoenix Nights blossomed.

The fact it has signed him up for three years shows its confidence in his longevity.

And Botia was also behind the decision to axe John Smith's cardboard man, which previous marketers had defended on the grounds it delivered high awareness figures. But while the cut-out created a distinctive brand, his time was clearly up. "There was a growing realisation he'd done as much as he could," Botia says.

Botia wanted to reconnect with the brand's core proposition - no nonsense. "There was a slight concern he'd started to move into areas that had become nonsensical themselves," he says of the final TV ad, which had seen the cut-out in the setting of a paradise island.

Starting as a graduate trainee at Elida Gibbs in 1989, Botia's five years there included spells on the toiletries brands Timotei, Pears soap, Ponds and Vaseline.

But keen to move out of London, Botia took a marketing job at Beck's, based in Edinburgh. He says he knew his product: "I certainly drink a lot of it." He joined Scottish & Newcastle Breweries in 1994, a year before it acquired Courage. His ascent has been rapid: in 1996 he moved to Kronenbourg 1664 and Holsten Export as marketing manager, where he stayed for one year before moving to Foster's and relaunching it in 1998 with the "Honorary Australian" campaign.

Traditionally, the lager and ale markets have been separate. But with the realisation that Foster's and John Smith's - both market leaders - had more in common than other lager and ales in their own categories, the department was restructured into power and challenger brands. Scottish Courage had faith in Botia and handed him the Foster's and John Smith's power brands to manage.

In part, Botia's success comes down to his ability to get on with his agencies. He controls the process without getting overly involved. TBWA's Paul Silburn, the creator of the Kay campaign, says: "He doesn't try to interfere, and we feel we can openly discuss ideas. He likes to be involved, but keeps a respectful distance while we're writing."

Botia is a straight-talking client. His philosophy is "to keep it simple. I try to boil things down to what's going to make a difference to the man in the street. I'm keen that our partners feel totally committed to what we're doing. We're partners. If it's not in our mutual interest to go forward, my view is it's not going to happen."

Matt Shepherd-Smith, TBWA's joint managing director, adds: "He's incredibly clear and articulate about what he thinks a brand stands for, and very quick to decide what is right or wrong."

And the beer market is facing its fair share of problems. The ale category is fast losing ground to the premium and bottled lager market, declining at a rate of 7 per cent a year, according to Nielsen Media Research figures. Nevertheless, John Smith's is growing at 1.4 per cent per annum in share. Botia's strategy differs from that of his rivals in that it recognises that young drinkers are not its target market. While other ale brands chase younger drinkers, he maintains that's not the audience for John Smith's: "It feels like when you see your dad dance at a party."

He has also overseen a massive rise in sales of Foster's. While Nielsen Media Research says the lager sector is still in growth by 4.6 per cent per annum, Botia says Foster's is outperforming that comfortably.

Internal sales data says total trade volume is up 6 per cent, and 17 per cent in off-trade. However, on-trade is up only 2 per cent, because of the enduring headache of the brands' inadequate representation in pubs.

With less than 50 per cent distribution, there's still plenty of opportunity to reach more consumers.

This year Botia says he's looking to invest in, and build, the Foster's brand. Its Grand Prix sponsorship, pit girls and Australia Day activities helped boost its profile - which, Botia indicates, creatively still has places to go: "The challenge on Foster's is to take a very good campaign and make it a great one."

And with the ale market's continuing slump, Scottish Courage can only aim to stem the decline as much as possible. "It's tough to try to stop that," Silburn concedes, "but advertising's going to play an important part."

While for both brands the commercial challenge is not just to grow share, but also volume, they've set an uncommonly high creative bar - something not lost on Silburn. "This time around we'll come under tougher scrutiny to keep up the standards," he says.

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