Let’s face it: most CMOs just don’t get it. Twenty years too old to feel the need to authentically join the conversation, or so focused on brand promotion that they fail to deliver content with care, their answer to the call to Facebook is to build pages that collect fans, tap into news feeds and maybe gather a few statistics.
Not Justin Cooke. He gets it. Taking his deep user knowledge of Facebook and everything he’d learned at Burberry – where his VP of PR role put him right in the mix of developing and delivering that brand’s front-edge approach to social media – Cooke made his grand entrance on the global CMO stage with Topshop Unique SS13. A live stream of the Brit fashion powerhouse’s Unique show at London Fashion Week, Topshop Unique SS13 took a big and bold wide-angle approach to what could be done on Facebook. With ‘Customise The Catwalk’, the user could view the designs in different colors as models wore them down the runway and purchase and receive them within 48 hours, along with style tips from Topshop’s in-store beauty bar. They could purchase music from the show and beauty products that put the finishing touches on the models. They could capture and share live show photos with the ‘Shoot The Show’ tool, and review the show in a Tweet-off competition where winners scored tickets to the next live show. That’s a lot of ‘coulds’, but that’s the point. When you know Facebook from the inside out (Cooke is 31, duh) and you get the connection between your category and consumer (with pre-Burberry tours of duty at Stella McCartney and Gucci, he does), how could today’s CMO not imagine a social media experience designed to push the limits beyond simply amassing fans and trolling for data?
MISC: Any advice from mentors before you accepted the CMO job at Topshop?
Justin Cooke: I called James Seuss, the CEO of Tourneau. He was CEO of Stella McCartney when I was there and a previous managing director at Tiffany. He said, ‘Look, you’re young, you’ve got great ideas. It’s a digital age, and you were clearly driving a lot of that behavior at Burberry. If you believe you can do it, how many people are going to give you a chance to be a CMO at your age?’
How was the transition from the luxury world of Burberry to the High Street of Topshop?
In my career I’ve either worked for companies going through huge change and exciting innovation or a start-up. If you’re in the first category, it’s like a start-up mentality anyway. I worked at Gucci in the days when Tom Ford, Domenico DeSole and Stefano Pilati were there and Christopher Bailey was one of their designers. I learned early on in my career that if you’re around inspiring people you learn a lot just through observation. Sometimes what you learn there is more powerful that what you are formally taught. After that I was at Stella McCartney, then I joined Burberry, back when the company was in shambles and the office was a mess. This company is already very successful. It’s not like it’s in trouble, like Burberry was when I joined. It’s got a lot of love from customers so the challenge is just scaling it. Sir Philip is renovating the offices here, and they’ll be modernized with lots of technology. All the plans are in place for an evolution rather than a revolution. That seems to be what happens at the companies I work for.
So not a bumpy transition?
It’s such a different business. It’s all about speed, excitement, newness and the energy created through continual innovation across everything. It feels almost effortlessly natural and fits really well with my vision for what the marketing and communications should be. I guess what I’m learning pretty quickly is that this customer is really unique. I really believe that we’re going to be the first brand to unlock social into commercial, because everyone else just has tons of followers. They’re young enough and can afford the product, so they’re going straight to purchase.
By ‘unlock social’ you’re referring to Topshop Unique SS13 event. Tell us about the origins of the idea.
It took me about a minute to think up the idea. I have a book of ideas that I write down that will last me another ten years. I was on holiday doing lots of fun things, and it’s that time when you don’t have hundreds of people emailing you and dozens of meetings that you have the time to dream. That’s something I really value and I want to instill in my team. You’ve got to take that time to step out and fly really high. When you work in a powerful company like Burberry you have a lot of work to do; it’s hard to balance the working and dreaming out. So I knew right away what I wanted to do with and it took me about a month to plan it all out.
There are parallels between what you’ve done at Topshop and what the team at Burberry has been doing with its virtual trunk show.
It’s engagement plus sales: commerce, community and content rolled into one, which is what everyone always talks about as the goal. I hope we’re going to be the first ones to really roll that out. The Unique Show is our highest price point, around £200-£250, but it’s still affordable. You bring customers into that space through the aspirational items, they engage with that but they can still buy a £20 top. From there, we see people buying a lot of the beauty products because that’s a big part of the show.
Was this the ‘big win’ that C-suite people need coming into a new job?
Definitely. I’m a 31-year old guy. They’ve asked me to deliver a lot. I’ve come in from an innovative company. I’ve been at the heart of working closely with Angela [Arhendts] and Christopher [Bailey] and the whole digital team. I would argue that my job was one of the most important ones because what Burberry did was very innovative. They needed to communicate that to the media and I was the person getting that story out there. There are a lot of innovative companies that aren’t good at telling people that they’re innovative. I wanted to take it up a gear and come here and bring something instant and innovative so people would see that. The Suitcase has really put Topshop on a global map, which is a big part of our business strategy. We had a huge US audience for the show. We’ve got over 500,000 YouTube views on the videos, which is way higher than any of our peers who are in the 70,000-80,000 range. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. We’ve got a big focus on mobile, a big focus on content, we’ve got great multi-platform, multi-channel behavior going in. It’s just about how we’re going to connect all the dots. It’s a very exciting time.
Any resistance to such an innovative initiative so linked in with other digital platforms?
I met with a few key people who I knew I needed help to land this project. I was sending wireframes to my digital guys here and kept asking what the experience could look and asking for everything, and I kept hearing ‘I don’t think we can do that’. That’s when I knew it was a good idea. It all came together. It was like a social experience. I wanted to be brave and have bold communications. A lot of people are very cautious about sharing a platform with other brands but our customers live between Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Google and YouTube, so why wouldn’t you include them in the journey? you’re heralding your own name. That’s the bold piece for us – how you make these platforms part of the experience and feel seamless. The more everything becomes mobile driven you are making that journey seamless for the customer. You’re making it feel intelligent, natural and right. If you’re clicking on a product why wouldn’t you want to check out your favorite song on iTunes?
Obviously it was a smash success. Are you happy with how it turned out?
I never said it would be the most perfect, polished experience in the world. We wanted to do it first. We were the first ones to ever customize it live. It’s the most watched show ever. What’s exciting for us is how we build on that. It’s like Siri; it’s ahead of its time and Apple keeps working on it. There’s nothing wrong with having great ideas out there in Beta and letting the customer give you the insight. We’re getting huge customer insight from the products and the show experience: we can what colors they want ahead of time, which dresses they enjoyed the most, what dresses they were sharing with their friends, even if they didn’t purchase It’s creating so much conversation around the brand. We were the most talked about brand during London Fashion Week. That’s a huge feat for a company like us competing against luxury brands and brands who spend a fortune in advertising. We lead with innovation, with something authentic that people could connect with and that people enjoyed.
What about those of us in North America who want to connect with and enjoy Topshop but don’t quite have the store access yet?
We want to open five or six stores in Toronto. We just opened 15 new stores in Nordstrom’s. Through Facebook and Twitter we organically grew by thousands of fans in Canada and many more in the States. That gave us some very exciting information for the business. It tracks with where we’re opening. Hopefully that will grow. From China to America to India to all over the world, over 190 articles on the show really pushed us to a new, global level of awareness. How we scale the experience of our Oxford Street store in London – one of the top five more productive stores in the world – as we open more stores and continue developing digital is the exciting challenge. That was something Sir Philip and I talked about when I first came on – how to replicate that buzz. That’s why the content, the music, the beauty and the clothes all came together.
Who’d have thought you’d be CMO of Topshop at 31?
I know. I don’t even have a university degree. Ten years ago nobody would have hired anyone under the age of 45 to be the CMO of a company making billions of dollars. I think the big difference between today’s CMO and the past is that I’m always on Facebook all the time. I download every new app or social platform and make it part of my life, not because I think it will help me in my job but because it’s just instinctive for me. It’s a new era, one of change. We’re at a point where we have to be using these platforms and living them. Of course, we’re always going to need the balance, wisdom and experience of older people, but I think there’s going to be a shift with a lot of younger people in power.
Are there any old school CMO habits you want to avoid?
I have a great track record and good instinct. I look at some data, but I try not to look at too much because I want to be guided by my gut and I want my team to use their instinct. It’s not like I ignore the data. After the show I was absolutely obsessed with looking at how many people clicked on what and what color they liked. But I don’t want to look at that traditional historical data that marketing people use to identify opportunity. You’ve got to let your customers guide you in that. You want to almost predict what they didn’t know was coming. You don’t want to lose the instinct. One thing that I really do want to stay away from is when people in a company start going, ‘Let’s have an innovation meeting’. Real innovation comes from a natural evolution of ideas, not when you sit down and try to figure out how to make something innovative. You’ve got to use your instinct to drive you.
This article originally appeared in MISC winter 2013, The Style Issue.