Leila Khoury’s Q&A With Tony Hirsch

I sat down recently with a longtime member of our [BLUE BOX] community, Tony Hirsch.  Before sitting down with him I didn’t know the breadth of his career achievements, and I was captivated by the bold and career-defining moves he has made as a brand storyteller, marketing executive and entrepreneur.

Q: You spent a good portion of your early career developing brand and marketing strategy for some heavy hitters such as Procter and Gamble, British Rail, Toyota, Sony, Pizza Hut, Time Warner and Virgin Retail Group.  What corporate experience did you have to enable you to communicate with these mega clients?

My corporate education started at Shell Oil as a member of their London scholarship program. Miraculously, I was one of the eight selected that year from several thousand applicants after an interview that consisted mostly of a discussion around the English cricket team’s numerous and consistent failures.  Consequently, I was given the opportunity to rotate through every division of the company in order that I might one day understand what makes Shell the company it is. During this process I was exposed for the first time to the extraordinary and seemingly illogical bureaucracy of big business. One particular example affected me directly. All employees had an assigned grade and those grades dictated, among other things, what chair you sat on, what quality of artwork hung on the wall, and even the amount of carpet underneath your feet. Given that my allotted grade was aligned with the department’s typists, my allotted chair, designed especially for said typists, didn’t fit under my desk. Much to my dismay, it turned out there was no way for me to change the configuration of my workspace and I was left hanging three feet above the desk in front of me. This example of corporate bureaucracy gone mad shifted my entire career path mindset. I thought, how can this kind of intransigence, this kind of illogical structuring, lead to anything remotely good?

I pivoted to the newly established Saatchi & Saatchi agency, where the whole vibe couldn’t have been more different, and the demographic was younger and a lot prettier and collaboration and creativity were the focus. The client base already included heavy-hitters such as Procter & Gamble, my first account, where annual budget meetings were seemingly designed only to intimidate and terrify. Having spent a sleepless week in a rainy, grey Newcastle in lockstep with P&G’s brand manager for Ariel, a very unglamorous, biological detergent, I remember juggling acetate slides on a purposefully wobbly table in front of a long boardroom full of cigar-smoking middle and upper management from around the PNG universe, all of whom seemed to be tasked with asking the hard questions. Although these interactions with corporate management were hardly my favorite moments in the brand building business, they nevertheless helped me develop a love affair with brands, the rules and disciplines behind successful brand development and the roles brands play in consumers’ lives.

After a number of formative years at Saatchi, I got my dream move to Boase, Massimi, and Pollitt (BMP) where I was responsible for creating and executing the national marketing and brand plans for companies such as British Rail, Toyota and Sony. As part of creating wonderful campaigns, BMP were the first to invent the process of planning in advertising which in my experience has seldom been replicated to anywhere near the same effect today. Hiring the smartest intellects – primarily out of Oxford and Cambridge – each account had its own planning director who worked closely alongside the account director. Often the planners knew the client’s business better than the client themselves and consequently were able to help create far more effective marketing and brand plans and resulting advertising campaigns. Rarely do agencies today provide the same sort of thinking or discipline.

Q: What is the campaign you are most proud of? What was so powerful about it?

I had the privilege of working with a larger-than-life creative from that golden age of British advertising named John Webster on several campaigns, including one of my favorites, the Sony Trinitron TV Designed to Last commercial. Large production budgets often mask a lack of ideas and a singular proposition, but this low-budget commercial, designed to communicate a single thought– that Sony Trinitron TVs were designed to last– is an example of how to get it right. For a few £££s, Sony were hugely successful in getting the Trinitron reliability message across to the UK consumer.

Another lesson learned at BMP was the inadequacy of typical focus groups and their role in providing (often misleading) comfort and cover to brand managers and management teams in support of expensive campaigns. BMP insisted on pretesting of all major campaigns but with a significant difference – the moderator was the planner on the account – and because planners at BMP were brilliant thinkers who came with an encyclopedic knowledge of the marketplace and the product, they typically had an ability to far more accurately interpret the information and guide the conversation effectively.

Q: When you were brought on to the team at HMV, Britain’s oldest music and entertainment retailer, how did you breathe life back into the brand?  How did you take that new image and translate it into a successful expansion into Canada and the US?

I was recruited back into the client-side at HMV because of my Sony relationship and was asked to join the leadership team as marketing director by Ian Duffell, a former exec at Sony who had been responsible for launching products such as the Walkman and Compact Disc. I took the job because it was rock ‘n’ roll, after all, and because the HMV brand and the music retail category hadn’t yet recognized the opportunity – in fact the disconnect – between rock ‘n’ roll (and the emotional content of music) and the retail side of the business. So it presented a huge opportunity to have fun and make a difference. We reimagined stores as a truly experiential and event-based marketing opportunity, connecting people to the music, the emotion and the artists and creating an energy that just didn’t exist prior to the first new generation HMV superstore on Oxford Street. Featuring music videos (!), stages, DJs, oversized works from urban graffiti artists (well before Banksy), in-store radio stations, recording studios for sound and video and so on, we managed to reconnect the retail experience to the power of rock ‘n’ roll. At the same time, we recognized the need to always remain consistent in our brand story with the artists and events with which we aligned.

Other aspects of the brand – the largest selection of music (300,000 SKUs) combined with the most knowledgeable staff – were also something we had to acknowledge, live up to and evolve. We recognized that our staff and their often-encyclopedic knowledge of the category were as important to our brand as anything else. Consequently, their buy-in to the whole brand experience and their participation and collaboration in the vision was key and was in large part responsible for HMV’s huge global success.

Our momentum continued across the Atlantic to Canada and I moved as President with vague promises of full autonomy. HMV acquired two record store chains as a starting point (a total of 60 stores) and I was able to evolve and steer the brand and company culture as we rolled out across North America.

My experiences at Shell (and my work with other more traditional corporate organizations) had made me a fan of nontraditional hierarchies and in my quest to build a flatter organization I rolled out a plan to provide my typically youthful store managers with full responsibilities for their often multi-million-dollar businesses. I wanted them to be true decision-makers, complete with P&L responsibilities and an understanding that they played a significant role in the development of their stores and the company itself. My North American board were more used to traditional hierarchies and initially felt a high level of discomfort. Once the organization became more comfortable with the process, the company culture shifted significantly and as a direct result, HMV quickly became the number one music retailer in Canada, achieving that status for the next 17 years. The model was rolled out into the rest of North America starting with two huge stores in New York City.

The last chapter in my music retailing career saw me join forces once again with my old Sony and HMV friend and now head of Virgin retail, Ian Duffell, to launch the Virgin retail brand in the US.

Q: When did you get the itch to start your own business and why SkinMarket, a single-brand bath, bodycare and cosmetics retailer specifically geared toward a younger market?

I was raising a stepdaughter at the time. Walking into her bedroom one day I saw a seemingly illogical number of nail polishes on her dresser together with a myriad of accessories and bath products.  In fact, it occurred to me that her whole social life was centered around her bedroom – friends, makeup, music, magazines, Internet. Few adults, no boys. It occurred to me that this lifestyle presented an experiential branding opportunity somewhat similar to my early challenges at HMV and I decided to start a teen-focused retailer. SkinMarket’s brand was positioned as an authentic if somewhat edgy big sister of the teen consumer who could provide them support and comfort and, importantly, access to the latest and greatest in bath, bodycare and cosmetics, all wrapped up in a heavy dose of attitude. Feeling good about yourself was at least half the battle, after all. The stores were styled after that teenage girl’s bedroom and provided multiple experiences like makeover birthday parties, bespoke makeup, shampoos, body lotions and fragrances and groovy accessories from across the globe. Within about three years the company had a national presence of about 40 stores together with a busy online and catalog business.

Q: How did you transition from retail into spirits, where you currently reside?

Once I exited SkinMarket, I was approached by several entrepreneurs in and around my network with requests to help them build their businesses. I had experienced most of the issues surrounding early-stage business building and used that knowledge to start a company designed to provide management and brand-building services to young companies.

I dove into several projects in the retail and consumer products arena including Pixi Beauty, who I helped refine and deliver their brand across the globe. During this process in 2014, I reconnected with an old friend, a Scotsman named Steve Lipp, a man who had happily discovered his life purpose in Scotch whisky after being provided clues after two near-death experiences, and had carved out a niche in the alcohol space by providing premium private label spirits to Trader Joe’s, Costco and others. He had gone on after leveraging his buying power to create a wonderful Scotch whisky brand called Alexander Murray. I have been a part of the spirits world in numerous capacities and a part of the broader Alexander Murray family ever since.  Today the Alexander Murray business is the largest quality private label business in America.

Q: With your rainbow of experience, what would you share with our community as keys to your success?

I first of all learned what I didn’t like – and it’s mostly around culture.  I didn’t like large traditional hierarchies with all the games, politics and egos that typically go with them. I experienced places where kingdoms and fiefdoms were the order of the day and bullies ruled. People were unused, disposable. Unheard. Wasted. I didn’t like organizations that decided anything either by committee or dictatorship but  I did like places where everyone’s opinion mattered and which had a  sense of collective bravery, an ability to take risk and move fast, and a focus on always celebrating success and individual performance. I liked places that allowed me to foster a dislike of predictability and status quo. I liked, and still like, places where everyone understands and owns the vision – and at the end of the day, I’m always amazed at how a great culture unfailingly provides surprisingly good results.

From a “generalists versus specialists” perspective (the theme of [BLUE BOX] 2019), I believe that having broad business and management experience is always going to make for a better generalist. I’m certainly a much better brand builder now that my experiences include the full business landscape across multiple categories and marketplaces.