The conversation: O2's Bibby & VCCP's Vallance on losing your cool and cultural differences

VCCP and O2's relationship spans 15 years, back to when the agency launched with the mobile brand as its first client. And since she joined in 2013, O2's chief marketing officer, Nina Bibby, and VCCP chairman and co-founder Charles Vallance have been having frank conversations with each other. Campaign met them at Telefónica's London HQ to find out why the occasional temper tantrum doesn't do any harm.

NB: Do you remember ‘markergate’?

CV: It’s fair to say you were cross. White heat. Incandescent temper.

NB: We were having a meeting with a whiteboard and none of the markers were working. I sent out for new markers and they didn’t work either. It was a bit of a toys-out-the-pram moment.

CV: It was a very high-pressure situation, which you often get in marketing. But I like those sorts of meetings; I much prefer people to lose their temper than just to be passive-aggressive or a bit complacent. I don’t think it happens enough; there’s not enough agitation in business. 

"Being prepared to be outspoken, provocative and confrontational  are becoming undervalued qualities"Charles Vallance

NB: Or being too polite – we don’t have time. We have too much to do. So, yeah, I had a tantrum about those whiteboard markers.

CV: We knew it wasn’t really about whiteboard markers. What you were furious about was that we hadn’t all communicated properly. There were three different groups in the room, all on slightly different parts of the relay, and that is extremely annoying on an important subject. But that will always happen. No matter how much you try to create an open culture and a free flow of information, pockets of information will gather, and you just have to be on your guard for that permanently. 

Generation timid

CV: Being prepared to be outspoken, feisty, provocative, emotional and confrontational are becoming undervalued qualities. I’m not sure a lot of great ideas come in an entirely innocuous environment. 

NB: We’re an emotional sector – we’ve got to be passionate. We’re trying to inspire our customers, and we’re not going to get that by politely saying: "Oh dear, this whiteboard marker isn’t working." 

CV: This is a sweeping generalisation, but I think there is a generation coming up that seems timid. When was the last time anyone set up an agency with their names on the door? Is there enough ego going around? To add to the generalisation, I’d say it’s very true of men in their mid-twenties, who tend to hide behind a beard. That’s no way to stand out these days.

Creative differences

CV: So how would you characterise our relationship?

NB: One thing that’s really indicative: you always say "we". You never say "you" when you’re talking about O2. It’s always "we".

CV: I think that’s about not knowing where the client stops and the agency starts. I can pick up the phone and call you, be very open, and it’s a much healthier arrangement, because when we think a mistake might be being made, we have the nerve to speak up.

NB: Well that happened – we disagreed on the "Follow the rabbit" campaign, and you weren’t convinced that I was 100% behind it. We both knew from experience that if we were not going to unleash the full weight of the O2 marketing machine behind it, then it wasn’t going to be successful. 

CV: Yes, it was like watching something gradually disappear. We had this strong idea, but there didn’t appear to be the full amplification we needed through stores, venues and the website.

NB: A year and a half before that, we were doing the Rugby World Cup campaign, and your team had come in with our other agencies and put up this huge plan that took up the entire wall, with all the different touchpoints, week by week, down to changing the signage in our stores. That’s when we’re at our best. I think that because I wasn’t demanding all that [for "Follow the rabbit"], you rightly picked up that I wasn’t fully committed.

CV: So we had the rare occasion where the agency has to have a quiet word with the client, where I said: "Are you absolutely sure?" But I wouldn’t have done that if the relationship hadn’t been open and collaborative. 

Not thinking about ads

NB: So Charles, what have you found most challenging about working with me?

CV: Until you’ve worked for a mobile company, it’s difficult to understand how full-on it is. The danger with ad agencies is that they think the chief marketing officer is spending 73% of their time worrying about the next ad campaign, which isn’t quite the case. So the biggest challenge would be having enough of your time, which is heavily rationed.

NB: That’s true for all marketers, though. We think our customers are spending all their time thinking about our products, because we spend all our time thinking about them. But that’s not the way it works.

CV: And what do you find the most challenging aspect of working with me?

NB: Probably the same thing I said was a positive – you say "we", so I get calls from you saying: "Nina, we need to do this, we’re not doing this, how about this." You are passionate about our business and ambitious, which is great, but sometimes… 

CV: Time and place, I agree. Guilty as charged. But it’s very difficult to know when to open your mouth and when to keep it shut. You are spared a lot of it – as you know. It’s only when your team refuse to listen that I come to you. I think there are moments when your team can feel like we’re haranguing them, especially if there’s someone new. 

Oceans apart

CV: Nina, you’re originally from the US. What are the things you miss about living and working there?

NB: I miss the weather and the cocktails – that’s the trite answer. But also, the US is a huge market and the scale of it means it’s incredibly diverse. There’s so much inspiration and innovation that comes from the US, and I think there’s a lack of cynicism.

CV: There’s almost a naivety sometimes you pick up, when you’re following marketing culture in the States, or an idealism. I sometimes think advertising in the UK has got quite jaded and cynical, and also quite risk-averse. If you look at the past three to five years, what are the big breakthrough initiatives? I still look in awe, for all the flack the US receives, at what it achieves culturally and technologically.

Constructed reality

CV: So Nina, what keeps you up at night?

NB: My team, getting and maintaining the right people, and the pace of change – two new sub-brands have just launched [Voxi from Vodafone and Smarty from Three]. This industry is relentless. Changing technology as well – we do have to think about how do we build brands in a world of voice.

CV: It would be very interesting to see what questions you could answer in your stores with Alexa. I don’t know what the demographic is, but there are some people that do not have any inhibition with talking to voice – like my daughter, for example.

NB: And my son. It’s really funny listening to him speak because I keep on thinking: "Say please." He’s so demanding, it feels like he’s got his butler: "Alexa, what time is it? Alexa, play me…" That’s a generational thing, it’s completely natural to him.

CV: It massively changes how we react to people – no-one will really know the full repercussions of it. I think the way we actually construct reality is changing, and our psychological well-being is under pressure.