TfL's Chris Macleod on marketing's battle against Olympic gridlock

The Transport for London marketing director's preparations for the London 2012 Olympics are finally coming to fruition, writes Gemma Charles.

Chris Macleod: marketing director, Transport for London
Chris Macleod: marketing director, Transport for London

It must be up there as one of the toughest marketing challenges of the year – persuading stubborn Londoners to alter their commutes when the capital stages the Olympics this summer.

This is the task facing Chris Macleod, the marketing director of Transport for London. "You are very much in the public eye with this role", he admits, reflecting on the scale of the job in hand when we meet in his Victoria offices.

Since 2005, when London won the right to host the Olympic Games, public opinion has polarised between those looking forward to it and naysayers decrying the event as a waste of money.

What everyone seems to be united on, however, is a belief that the transport system will be a living hell when officials, athletes, spectators, the world's media and other hangers-on descend on the capital for the start of the Games on 27 July.

Grumbling about public transport is a pastime perfected by Londoners, and this prospect has provided them with yet more ammunition.

Horror stories have abounded about hour-long waits just to get into Tube stations, while some newspapers have whipped up a sense of moral outrage about the controversial Olympic Route Network (ORN).

This network of roads connecting key venues has been caricatured as hundreds of miles of 'Zil lanes', created to enable big-spending sponsors to whizz around London in limos while everyone else is left to fume in gridlocked traffic.

So it is without doubt a difficult climate into which Macleod this week launched the 'Get ahead of the Games' marketing campaign, funded by the Olympics authorities and several transport bodies.

Designed to inform travellers in the capital of the problems they might face during the Olympics, and offer alternatives, the campaign will be implemented in four phases.

It starts by building awareness of the likely "hotspots", such as London Bridge and Kings Cross St Pancras, before moving on to inform travellers of what action they can take.

In its third phase, the activity will urge people to act on their newly acquired knowledge, while the final stage is intended to maintain high awareness of problems that could arise during the Paralympic Games.

While the focus is on London, the activity will also run in places outside the capital that are hosting events such as football.

The work has a gently humorous theme. One outdoor execution, for example, features illustrations of queues forming behind a horse and rider on an escalator, while another shows a traffic jam caused by a wheelchair basketball game taking place across a yellow box at a road junction.

Should the campaign not have opted for shock tactics to get people off the system completely? Macleod disagrees.  

"The message is positive; we are not trying to scare people", he says. "A large proportion of people won't be affected. We want people to take considered action and to recognise that London is still open for business. There's a lot of mythology we have to dispel."

Underpinning the advertising is what Macleod describes as a "big centrepiece" website. Promoted through the ads, the site will enable spectators and commuters to plot a wide variety of routes and inform them of alternatives where necessary.

He is confident that people will begin to use the site. "Londoners have a checking mentality, it's ingrained into a lot of people."

"Get ahead of the Games" is, in effect, a "super version" of the long-running "Check before you travel" campaign, according to Macleod. A Twitter feed, @GAOTG, will also launch, to provide background information rather than social engagement.

The process of ensuring that London does not come to a standstill during the Olympics is a long one, of which this consumer-facing campaign is the final push.

TfL has undertaken detailed work with businesses in key affected areas over the past year in an effort to persuade them to keep their employees off the public transport system at bad times where possible, take holidays during the Games or work from home.

Macleod is also keen to point out that London transport has benefited from £6.5bn-worth of improvements to upgrade and increase capacity ahead of the event.

Diverse remit

While the primary travel challenge for the year is the Olympics, there is so much more that Macleod oversees. "You would be pretty hard-pushed to think of anywhere else with this breadth", he says.

The marketing output of TfL covers a dizzying array of topics, ranging from the Congestion Charge and fare evasion to road and minicab safety, the latter two aimed at teens and women, respectively.

TfL has also recently started to discourage drivers from leaving their cars idling while parked, with an eye-catching outdoor campaign featuring internal organs affected by air pollution.

Another new push introduces the line "Every journey matters", which looks suspiciously like a riposte to commuters fed up with fare rises, but seeks to explain the improvements that have been made to the system over the past three years.

This positioning is one that Macleod will be developing for the long term.

He highlights the provision of the "best information in the most relevant ways" and being "easy to do business with" as two of his key strategic aims.

To meet these ambitions, the organisation has embraced technology and digital innovations with gusto.

A £75m contactless "wave and pay" scheme, developed in partnership with payment card-providers MasterCard, Visa and American Express, is due be introduced on buses this year, before being rolled out to other modes of transport.

The partner companies are expected to fund marketing campaigns to raise awareness of the facility once it has reached sufficient locations.

TfL also embraces an "open data" policy. In 2010 it lifted all restrictions on the commercial re-use of its internal data to give software developers the freedom to create applications.

Macleod says that the move has spawned 3000 apps, such as the acclaimed London Bus Checker.

While 2012 is a landmark for the capital because of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, as well as the Olympics, it is also the year in which London will go to the polls for the mayoral election. In a rerun of 2008, the May vote will pit Boris Johnson against Labour's Ken Livingstone.

Upon coming to office in 2008, Johnson promised to cut TfL's £60m marketing budget. This was also the year in which TfL was named Advertiser of the Year by Marketing's sister title, Campaign; however, the impending cuts meant the resulting write-up felt, in part, like an obituary.

Cuts have occurred at a corporate level, too. As part of 'Project Horizon', aimed at taking £7.6bn off the cost of TfL by 2018, Macleod has had to structure his department, leading to some – he declines to say how many – voluntary redundancies.

Asked how the change of administration affected his work, Macleod's response is measured. "The trend (in terms of marketing spend) has been broadly down, but I am not obsessed with the size of my budget, I'm interested in the outcomes, particularly in a digital world", he says.

Macleod points out that "a new mayor brings with them new priorities and opportunities". He highlights the examples of the push to involve brands in big projects such as the Barclays Cycle Hire scheme – commonly referred to as 'Boris bikes' – and the Emirates Air Line, a sponsored cross-Thames gondola link planned to connect the Olympic sites at Greenwich Peninsula and the Royal Docks.

"Barclays Cycle Hire Scheme was a great opportunity", says Macleod. "It's not very often you get to launch a new mode of transport. I hate to use the word iconic, but the bikes have become very much part of the London scene."

How is working with such a high-profile and larger-than-life character as Johnson? "Is this on-the-record, or off-the-record?" he asks with a chuckle, clearly trying to tease the PR person listening in on the interview.

Not surprisingly, there is to be no off-the-record gossip, only the understandably sensible, but infuriatingly anodyne response, "He's fine".

Livingstone was kicked out of office last time round by Johnson, and is now looking to return the favour. While the Conservative mayor has mostly enjoyed a comfortable lead over his old adversary, it has been shortening, and a recent YouGov poll even put Livingstone ahead. A change of priorities might once again be on the cards for Macleod.

With a restructured team to bed in, a high-profile campaign kicking off and possible political change, 2012 should prove an eventful year for Macleod.

Once the Olympic bandwagon rolls out of town, if Londoners' abiding memory of the summer proves to be a wonderful period of sport and celebration - and not annoyance at a gridlocked transport system – he may consider it a successful year, too.

Click here to watch Marketing's Video interview with Macleod.


Personal file

Family: Married with two sons.
Lives: Queen's Park, London.
Originally from: Newcastle. "Moved south when I was young, but I can still do the accent if I have to."
Last film seen: The Artist, "charming and different".
Favourite brand: Amazon, "I hate shopping. With Amazon I can do it all in one place with a great user experience – and it delivers".

Chris's CV

Deputy managing director, rising to chairman, CDP (1996-2002)
Managing partner, McCann Erickson (2002-2003)
Marketing director, Papa John's Europe, then various consulting roles, directorships (2003-2007)
Head of mktg comms, rising to marketing director, TfL (2007 to present)

Three challenges facing Macleod

  • Changing the behaviour of travellers during the London Olympics and Paralympics
  • Producing effective campaigns against the backdrop of across-the-board public-sector spending cuts
  • Embracing a new vision for TfL should Ken Livingstone topple Boris Johnson in the mayoral election

The campaign: Get Ahead of The Games

Get Ahead of the Games' is designed to make travellers aware of the likely congestion "hotspots" during the summer's Olympics and, if necessary, ready and able to change their journeys.

Created by M&C Saatchi, the work will also run in places outside the capital that will be affected by the Games, too, such as Weymouth, where sailing events are to take place.

Macleod chose illustrations over photographs of real people as it was felt that these could achieve greater standout in a media landscape packed with images of athletes.

Neon pink London 2012 signage to direct spectators around transport networks and from transport hubs to venues was also unveiled this week.

Stat attack

  • 9m: Olympic Games spectators
  • 2m: Paralympic Games spectators
  • 3m: Extra journeys in London on busy days during the Olympics

Source: TfL