Profile: An inventive approach

David James, marketing director for consumer at BT Retail, is working to cement the brand's popularity in new areas. Interview by Adam Woods.

David James, marketing director for consumer at BT Retail
David James, marketing director for consumer at BT Retail

Picture this: David James, BT Retail's marketing director for consumer, shouting at his TV screen in a tone approaching outrage. He is gesticulating. He may even be slapping his own forehead.

If this were a scene from one of BT's recent Adam and Jane ads, the audience would be invited to decide what is perplexing James - and what should happen next. Perhaps James, a management graduate and one-time NatWest life and pensions adviser, is irate at news coverage on the state of the economy?

No. In fact, he is watching the second episode in the latest series of The Apprentice and deriding the quality of a beach bookstand knocked together by the women's team. After all, it's not half as good as the one he invented.

'I did come up with something very similar,' says James, officially only a month into his role. 'It was inflatable and you leant your arms on it in an ergonomic position. Of course, The Apprentice contestants only had two hours to make theirs,' he concedes.

Challenging markets

In a fascinating reversal of the reality-show archetype, James is a bona fide inventor who has set aside that calling, for now, to focus on his corporate career. If you have an ergonomic travel pillow called The JetRest - and many thousands of people do, as the product's revenues now run into the millions - you own a David James original design.

Yet here he is, in a definitively anonymous meeting room at BT's Newgate Street headquarters in London, describing the challenge of managing the consumer brand and driving volume targets. Prior to this, he was director of customer insight and intelligence - a role he still performs. Before that, he was in similarly strategic roles at Orange and ad agency Rapier, as well as dotcom jobs, pensions and - always, on the side - inventing.

'I have always had jobs I really enjoyed,' he explains. 'When you work for a corporation and enjoy it, it can be great. I feel particularly lucky to have my current job. And I don't think people realise how difficult it is to be a professional inventor. It's massively hard.'

Almost as hard, one might imagine, as it is to maintain BT's number-one position in a commoditised broadband market while pushing into areas such as web-connected television, super-fast fibre optic connections and personal wi-fi.

The consumer telecommunications market is barrelling into the future at quite a clip. From James' point of view, there is much to relish in this - not least because broadband sits at the heart of a great spread of emerging technologies.

To carve a relevant niche in the content space, BT knows that it must stay strong in its core broadband business. James' 120-strong team and £100m budget carry much of the burden for maintaining differentiation in this fierce market.

'We know that however cheap the market pushes the price of broadband, people always come back to the provider they trust the most, and our research says that's us,' he claims. 'We also know that more than 50% of decisions on the triple-play product (TV, broadband and phone calls) are driven by broadband, so we need to keep building that differentiation.'

BT is working hard, of course, to prove itself in TV and entertainment, where, in addition to its BT Vision internet TV service, it is a partner in forthcoming video-on-demand service YouView, which is scheduled to launch in the first half of next year.

'From a consumer's point of view, this is a really exciting time, with options for how you entertain yourself growing by the day,' says James. 'The challenge is to simplify that world and unlock all those options, and I think that's what BT does.'

James' BT roots in research and insight clearly have a profound influence on his approach to brand marketing, and never more so than in this area.

'TV and entertainment is where we have to stay ultra-close to the insight as that market is changing so rapidly,' he adds. 'It is amazing to see how much entertainment time is now spent online versus conventional TV. There has been an explosion, which, as a trend, I think, is destined to carry on.'

Speed is another important weapon in BT's arsenal of marketing messages. By the end of the year, its £2.5bn fibre optic network should have reached more than 4m UK homes; two-thirds of the country should have it by 2015.

That does not automatically constitute a competitive advantage, however, given Ofcom's ruling earlier this month that BT will have to share its cables with its rivals. So, the marketing has already begun, starting with a TV campaign for Infinity, BT's super-fast broadband offering, and the use of more proactive techniques.

'We are seriously rolling it out now, to the extent that we are contacting people as soon as their homes are enabled,' says James. 'Most people don't realise they need better broadband, but our international research has shown that once people have it, they never want to go back.'

BT's wi-fi offering, and its Fon community of about 2m hot spots, is the other major technological development in progress as broadband access gradually goes mobile. Yet too much talk about the future reveals the careful balance James needs to strike.

A technology fan - though not a zealot - he has the latest-generation iPod Nano and a BlackBerry, and downloads video from his BT Vision box to a portable Archos device. He recognises the danger of becoming 'too geeky' and attempting to hard-sell innovation to an uninterested public.

Consequently, he has no plans to alter the gentle approach of BT's ad campaign featuring characters Adam and Jane, which has been running for five-and-a-half-years, although he wants to keep it fresh. The activity was rapped by the ASA in August for giving a misleading impression of broadband speeds, but also drew 1.6m votes from consumers eager to decide what would happen next in the couple's story.

'Seventy per cent of people voted for (Jane to get) pregnant, which is a fair reflection of how people feel toward the family,' he says. 'We had 9m votes, due to high levels of automated voting. But when we removed those, we got down to 1.6m, which still blew the doors off our estimates.'

Any incoming marketing director would be happy to see such a level of audience engagement. In James, BT has a man with the practical know-how not only to put the doors back on their hinges, but probably reinvent them along the way.

Inside work

2000-2002: Various roles, including senior strategic planner and head of data planning, Rapier

2002-2007: Various roles, including head of strategic marketing and loyalty and director of consumer intelligence, Orange

2007-2010: Director of customer insight and intelligence, BT

2010-present: Marketing director, consumer, BT Retail


Family: Married with two children

Lives: Sevenoaks, Kent

Hobbies: 'Creating stuff'

Favourite holiday destination: Masai Mara, Kenya