A background in stationery and supermarkets might not seem the most fitting for a career in fashion. However, Richard Cristofoli, now six months into his tenure as marketing director at Debenhams, has already made his presence felt, launching a campaign for autumn, complete with a fresh slogan.
The 'Life made fabulous' campaign, which broke this month, returns its tie-ups with designers to the forefront.
The ads, created by JWT, are the second tranche of a campaign that broke in the spring. The work, under the 'Feel fabulous' strapline, coincided with Cristofoli joining the £2.6bn-turnover retailer. To the suggestion that he has therefore merely inherited an existing strategy, his reply is clear. 'This campaign has my hands all over it,' he insists.
Although the differences are subtle to the casual observer, to Cristofoli, the addition of the word 'made' is key. 'It emphasises that the clothes are created by the designer for real people,' he explains. This is further highlighted in the ads, in which designers such as Ben de Lisi are shown working in their studios, the camera then panning to the item being worn. Cristofoli's modified strapline is intended as a long-term moniker for the brand.
When we meet, Cristofoli, 41, is decked out in Designers at Debenhams garb: a J by Jasper Conran suit and shirt, a St George by Duffer tie and Jeff Banks shoes.
The retailer currently works with 22 designers; this includes those with their own ranges and those who feed into Edition, a Debenhams collection that launched this spring. They create a substantial proportion of all Debenhams' 'own-bought' ranges, which in total account for 82% of sales; brand concessions generate the rest.
With so many creative people, there must be monumental diva clashes. 'Not at all,' retorts Cristofoli. 'In fact, I've been struck by how keen the designers are to work closely with us; it's a real collaboration. Couture is great, but working with us they suddenly have 160 access points. People in Bognor can buy clothes designed by Henry Holland. It's democratising designers.'
The expansion of Debenhams' Designers ranges is key to its strategy to stand apart from its main rivals, which Cristofoli identifies as John Lewis, Next, Marks & Spencer and House of Fraser.
He oversees a department of 90 that covers marcomms, PR and Debenhams' creative and visual department. The enlarged responsibility of this group role has propelled marketing to the retailer's board for the first time.
Since joining, Cristofoli has embarked on a major piece of econometrics research - a technique using statistical tools to test hypotheses using real-world data. He has high hopes that the results of the six-month project will come through in time to influence next year's spring campaigns.
'We are changing our relationship with customers, but need to get at that data to gain those insights,' he explains. 'It will inform our strategy by identifying which media is driving sales and where.' The project will also result in a reapportioning of budgets to fit the new picture of the Debenhams shopper and shopping experience.
As a major UK retailer - it is the biggest department-store chain in terms of store numbers and second to John Lewis in sales - Cristofoli says investment is critical. 'It is the role of anchor stores like us to invest in advertising to ensure broad appeal and make our stores true destinations. (We) can breathe life into cities and towns.'
Tales of woe from the high street now come almost daily; the business pages will be particularly full of them this month as quarterly rents are due and will, no doubt, push some retailers to breaking point.
Nonetheless, Cristofoli is adamant that Debenhams is faring well. 'We're opening stores and embracing multichannel - we can offer our whole range within a small footprint (via) in-store ordering kiosks. The high street is by no means dead.'
It is easy to see why Debenhams wants to become a fully multichannel retailer. Group sales for the retailer, which is due to report full-year figures next month, have been edging up, with like-for-likes up 1.1% in the 43 weeks to 25 June. Sales via its online, in-store ordering and mobile business (500,000 iPhone app downloads to date) grew by 77% in the same period.
While a fan of the big TV ad, Cristofoli is embracing digital - cautiously. 'There is a risk of box-ticking when you're a marketing director. For us, social media and other media streams are about brand-building, but we must have a degree of confidence they will pay. Having my ego massaged for the sake of it is not what I'm about.'
Within his team, social media sits with PR. Cristofoli believes this ensures it gets the personality in its voice. This came to the fore during August's London riots, when its looted Clapham store was a striking image.
On Facebook, nearly 50,000 fans viewed the pictures of support, including the 'broom salute'. The store reopened just four days after the riots. 'Messages were put on the store-front saying "Clapham loves Debenhams", so we put up a sign saying "Debenhams loves Clapham". It is a real buzz for a brand when your relationship with customers is shown to be so successful.'
Last week, Debenhams gained a new figurehead, when chief executive Rob Templeman retired after eight years and was replaced by his deputy, Michael Sharp. Cristofoli insists, however, that new leadership will not mean a major strategy review.
'Michael and Rob are different personalities, but they have worked together for three years,' he says. 'Michael is very much part of the current strategy development. This (is) not about revolution.'
Among his biggest achievements, Cristofoli cites being part of the turnaround at WH Smith, as well as developing its custom greetings-card brand Funkypigeon.com. Working on the launch and development of Sainsbury's Local format and fashion brand Tu were also key moments.
'If a company wants a marketer to come in and operate the business well, that's not me. If they're looking for someone to make a real difference, I'm the one,' he says. Some might read that as a career pitch, but that is not Cristofoli's way. 'I never go anywhere thinking this might be an 18-monther.'
According to recruitment firm Major Players, only 16% of marketing directors stay with a company for eight years. Having spent seven years at Sainsbury's and a total of nine at WH Smith, the signs are that Cristofoli will stick to his attempt to make Debenhams a touch more fabulous for some time to come.
1995-1997: Marketing manager, WH Smith
1997-2004: Category and marketing manager, Sainsbury's Local, rising to senior manager, non-food marketing and development, Sainsbury's
2004-2011: Group marketing director, WH Smith
2011-present: Marketing director, Debenhams
Hobbies: Reading, musical theatre
Last holiday: Tuscany and Boulogne
Drives: Audi A5
Favourite brands: Audi, Target
Alternative job: Lyric-writer for musicals