Profile: Sally Cowdry, marketing director at O2

Sally Cowdry, marketing director at O2, is leading the brand's innovative plans, including mobilising an army of phone gurus. Interview by Ed Owen.

Sally Cowdry, marketing director at O2
Sally Cowdry, marketing director at O2

By far the funkiest headquarters in a line of rather unprepossessing buildings along Slough's 'Silicon Alley' belongs to O2.

Marketing director Sally Cowdry is similarly unafraid to stand out from the crowd. In the car park, one can spot her hybrid vehicle among the more macho 'gas-guzzlers'; she is very much a supporter of O2's green philosophy.

Cowdry joined O2 a decade ago - when it was still BT Cellnet - fresh from launching BAA's Heathrow Express service.

At the mobile brand, she has presided over countless product and service launches, and was part of the team that fashioned one of the most improbable marketing turnarounds in recent years: turning London's biggest white elephant, the Millennium Dome, into something nobody thought possible - a much-lauded success.

Cowdry says she cannot take any credit for appropriating the Dome, but is happy to be associated with the subsequent strategy - namely, introducing priority booking and the roll-out of branded O2 Academies in big towns and cities across the country. This has associated the brand strongly with entertainment and, in particular, music.

Entertainment is a big part of Cowdry's own life by necessity. At home, she claims that she is forced to exercise her two sons, aged two and five, 'like Labradors' to stop them 'tearing the place apart'.

When not pondering her energetic progeny, Cowdry's talk is all about O2 and its latest strapline, 'Always thinking about you'. Images from the campaign adorn her open-plan office, bringing a Narnia-esque quality to the decor.

Clad in Diane von Furstenberg, Cowdry is sassy and bubbly and feels like a marketer at the top of her game. Responsible for O2's consumer-facing communications, she is a contender for The Marketing Society's Marketer of the Year gong. As an agency chief put it in his pro-Cowdry citation: 'Success is one thing, but sustained success is an altogether more difficult thing to achieve.'

Given such accolades, one may question whether she has eyes on higher rungs of the O2 corporate ladder. Diplomatically, she claims to have 'the best job in the world'.

Certainly, Cowdry has the drive and seriousness one would expect of a telco marketer. Adept at repeating the O2 philosophy, 'helping people connect with the things they love', Cowdry also lets slip some social opinion when talking about prepay cards: 'They mean you never overspend. This is the complete antithesis of what the banks want you to do.'

Mobile is a fast-paced business, and Cowdry has witnessed that change first-hand over the past 12 years. 'I don't know a time when things were settled. First, it was all contracts, then disrupted with prepay. There were black-and-white screens, and it was disrupted with colour screens. We forget how in a very short space of time there was that Motorola phone (the Razr) which was, like, 'wow', and now we have phones which are computers.'

The complexity of handsets is one area O2 aims to tackle. An army of technology geeks, called 'Gurus', will soon be a fixture in O2 stores and on its YouTube channel, Guru TV, launched last month.

Some 350 clips of advice have already been posted, with another 160 in production. Cowdry plans about 1000 in total - with the target audience aimed beyond just O2 customers.

The Gurus are trained from existing staff as well as new appointments. 'We also find, once there is a Guru in the store, that the whole staff becomes more knowledgeable,' adds Cowdry.

Another focus area will be the introduction of mobile payments systems, allowing consumers to pay for goods with a flourish of their phone.

Cowdry says O2's proximity marketing business, O2 More, which earlier this year hit 2m registered users, and alongside O2 Money, will be powered by the mobile, broadband and new wi-fi service. The businesses have been carefully coordinated, with O2 trialling mobile payments since 2008, through London Underground's Oyster system. Services have been held back until now, but O2 believes its day is here, with the convergence of the right handsets, new points of sale and brands willing to take part. For O2 (and Orange, which will run the first services), it will also represent a fresh revenue stream.

'The digital and mobile worlds are converging, so we are looking at how we can offer different things to connect people to the things they love, using our core communications - mobile and broadband - as the base,' she says.

'Consumers now have high-speed internet on the high street and we can link media offers to where they are and offer a very rich, integrated experience.

'We are in a highly saturated, competitive market,' says Cowdry. 'But we are still looking to grow our revenues and deepen the relationship we have with our customers, tying in the new businesses with the core business. What we are doing, at the simplest level, is enhancing our communications experience.'

Cowdry believes consumers will find the transformation 'amazing', but does not underestimate what comes with a move into mobile payments - in particular, the mountains of data.

Located in the Czech Republic will be what Cowdry describes as the 'biggest business intelligence project in Europe. Evolving from a mobile to a digital communications company, Cowdry says, will vastly increase the data flow O2 must manage. Huge banks of servers have been installed to deal with the CRM analysis.

Even Clive Humby, co-founder of Tesco's data-analysis arm, dunnhumby, has talked to O2 about use of its data. Cowdry was impressed. 'Tesco's model is incredibly intelligent,' she says. 'It is not the data you collect, but what you do with the data to benefit (both) customers and us. It is all about personalising.'

Even with these business areas, Cowdry's claim that O2 is no longer a mobile operator, but a 'digital communications company', competing with Google and Facebook, requires a leap of faith.

However, Cowdry says innovation will not have an immediate impact. 'What we are talking about now will come through.

It is taking social-network experiences through to mobile - and with ecommerce, media, new and different ways to text and call. The market is about to change.'

Under her guidance, O2 is determined to pursue its role as industry pace-setter. Just as in comparison with dreary Slough, Cowdry is certain it will help the brand outshine even the funkiest of rivals.

Inside work
1991-1997: Various marketing roles, Stena Line
1997-1999: Marketing manager, Heathrow Express, BAA
1999-2001: Marketing manager, prepay, BT Cellnet
2001-present: Head of consumer marketing, rising to marketing director,
Outside work
Car: Lexus Hybrid
Handset: BlackBerry for work, iPhone for everything else
Most recent apps: Internet radio ('for me'), Happy Mrs Chicken ('for the
little one') and Lego ('for the bigger one')
Likes: Bold prints