Marketing Week

How one digital specialist climbed the career ladder from Ford to Tesco to Thomas Cook

By August 19, 2019No Comments

Chris Chalmers, Marketing Director, Studio Chris Chalmers has always stood by the notion that once you learn the basic skills in marketing you can transfer them to any sector.

This philosophy means he is not afraid to change direction and seek out diversity in a career that has spanned car finance, grocery and travel, as well as home and fashion retail, working for a mixture of blue chip corporates and entrepreneurial startups.

Chalmers was creative at school and had a passion for art, but couldn’t decide whether to pursue a career in design or find a business role that offered a level of creativity. This led him to study marketing at Lancaster University, which included a year within the marketing department at British Airways.

With this experience under his belt, Chalmers embarked on an 18-month general management graduate scheme at Ford Credit, the financial services division of the car company. He became the first graduate to be placed in a field-based marketing role, which was essentially a sales role working with the Ford and Mazda dealer network.

“It was a great experience, but I hated every minute,” Chalmers recalls.

“I realised sales wasn’t for me and if nothing else it reinforced my passion for marketing. So as soon as I could I got back into [Ford’s HQ] to take on the senior European marketing analyst role.”

From there Chalmers carved out a career that specialised in digital, data and CRM. Having enjoyed mixing the highly regulated work of financial services with the consumer appeal of the car industry, Chalmers moved into the grocery sector after landing a dream job at Tesco, despite having no FMCG experience.

Tesco took him further into the world of data via Clubcard and gave him the ability to use targeting to drive performance.

A decision to move back up North saw Chalmers switch the corporate world for Portakabins at Leeds Bradford Airport as he took on the challenge of professionalising marketing at travel startup Jet2.

Working with a hands-on entrepreneurial leader and getting stuck in developing a single customer view database stood Chalmers in good stead for his move back to retail as digital marketing director at Asda. This role involved the merger of the supermarket’s stores and online marketing teams, propelling Chalmers forward as UK lead for Walmart’s digital community.

The desire to take control of the entire marketing P&L sparked an 18-month stint at Thomas Cook, before Chalmers jumped at the chance of bringing digital to the fore at value retail business Studio.

Chalmers is clear about the value of embracing variety, challenging yourself and being clear about your personal goals, as well as seeking out roles that balance the science and art of marketing.

Going pan-European

Senior European marketing analyst, Ford Motor Credit Company (2002-2005) 

Ford body image“Ford Credit had a proposition in Europe across 21 different markets, so it was all about aligning the markets on the key strategic elements from a financial services perspective.

“It was a steep learning curve. I found what worked in the UK wouldn’t work in other markets, because of the nuances of the regulations. From my perspective it was about getting that European exposure and having more context around those different markets, which was valuable experience.

“There was a team of analysts helping me on the trend analysis that drove the strategic five-year plan. At the time things like digital marketing were immature, but there were skills I picked up that clearly translated and helped me carve out a career underpinned by digital. They stood me in good stead for how the digital marketing landscape would evolve from a performance and search perspective.”

Exposure to agencies

Marketing manager financial services, PSA Peugeot Citroën (2005-2007)

“This was a new role to the business and another field-based position developing motivation programmes that rewarded the dealer network for sales of Peugeot Citroën financial services products.

“I was tasked with creating the programme alongside an agency and had a substantial budget to manage at quite a young age. Learning my craft in the budget management perspective was great, as well as learning how to manage agencies, because it was my first experience of being a client.

“I ended up picking up CRM and all the marketing of the motor insurance products, as well as renewal programmes, so I was starting to learn the techniques that underpin CRM. I was also involved in the rebrand of the financial services brand across the insurance proposition.”

Delving into data science

Grocery marketing manager, Tesco.com (2007-2009)

Tesco“I remember reading an article that said if you asked any marketer at the time which was the brand they wanted to work for it was Tesco. I didn’t come from an FMCG or grocery retailing background, so on paper I probably didn’t look like the best candidate, but I think they bought into the local marketing element that underpinned my previous roles.

“At the time online was a small part of the business, around 2% to 3% of total revenue, and it was just after the launch of Tesco Direct, [its now defunct] general merchandise business. I was responsible for grocery, managing the full marketing mix.

“What Tesco gave me was a deep experience in data and insights via Clubcard. So not just the context of grocery retailing, but how you can be smart with your data to target customers and drive performance. The retail sector was like nothing I’d ever experienced before, from the pace to your ability to trade and stimulate demand.”

Entrepreneurial experience

General manager, digital and direct marketing, Jet2.com and Jet2Holidays (2009-2012)

“I met my then girlfriend, now wife, who was based in the North, so I started looking for jobs and got the Jet2 role. I went from a British corporate to a fledgling entrepreneurially-led business working in Portakabins outside the runway at Leeds Bradford Airport.

“As a seat-only airline business, Jet2 was growing quickly and the holiday business was only a year old when I joined. My task was to bring what I’d learnt around data marketing techniques and improve the sophistication of its digital marketing.

“That took me outside my comfort zone and I had to learn quickly, while also championing direct marketing and CRM. That meant commissioning the build of a single customer view database from inception to build in six months.

“The founder Philip Meeson was very hands on. It was interesting to see how one person champions the business to perform, which comes with a good degree of pressure. Equally, when you performed he was humble and appreciative of the effort you gave.”

Business transformation

Digital marketing director, Asda (2012-2017)

Asda“I always had my sights set on joining Asda and I was fortunate to be poached from Jet2.

“When I joined, I was focused on building the capability for Asda’s online businesses – George, Asda Direct and the grocery business. Then in 2014 the online and stores businesses merged, meaning the marketing functions merged. I became responsible for digital, direct and content for both the online and stores businesses.

“My task was to educate the broader teams, work with agency partners and look at how we best leverage the data sets, as well as investing in econometrics to show the value of digital channels in driving the stores’ commercial performance.

“I also championed the UK business from a Walmart perspective. There’s an international digital community within Walmart and I was the UK lead who helped foster that digital agenda across Walmart’s digital businesses.”

Taking charge of P&L

Marketing and ecommerce director (UK & Ireland), Thomas Cook (2017-2018)

“The decision to leave Asda was a really hard one. It was thinking of setting up a tech incubator and wanted me to lead it. But my career had been underpinned by digital and direct marketing, and I wanted to get some further breadth.

“I was always the digital and CRM guy, and I wanted to be the marketer that led all elements, from offline to online to content and creative. And I wanted to do that for an iconic British brand in a sector that I knew.

“I was based in Peterborough at the UK head office Monday to Thursday and that took me away from home and a young family. I was quite bullish and thought that would be easy, and the truth is it wasn’t.

“I loved the Thomas Cook business, but I had to prioritise my family. When you hit a certain level of leadership, it’s very difficult to be absent for a period of time and drive a team’s performance. I didn’t believe I could perform that job by being absent from the office, otherwise I would have stayed.”

Owning the value space

Marketing and digital director, Studio Retail (2018- present)

Studio Retail“I really bought into the company’s vision to own that online value retail niche, especially having lived through the impact of Aldi on Asda’s business and the disruptive element of the discounters.

“I thought Studio’s business was really interesting because it had a heritage in catalogue retailing, combined with high-growth online and the ambition to own that online value retail space.

“The underlying shift to mobile in Studio’s business is so extreme. Therefore, we’ve got high growth from a demand perspective and it’s about reorientating the business away from the spiky demand catalogues create to the more balanced level of demand online.

“The digital ambition was a real draw, but the biggest draw was being able to disrupt the general merchandise sector in the same way Aldi did in grocery. I’m passionate about delivering that vision.”

Chris Chalmers’ CV

Studio Retail, marketing and digital director (August 2018- present)

Thomas Cook, marketing and ecommerce director (UK & Ireland) (2017-2018)

Asda, digital marketing director, (2012-2017)

Jet2.com, Jet2Holidays, general manager, digital and direct marketing (2009-2012)

Tesco.com, grocery marketing manager, (2007-2009)

PSA Peugeot Citroën, marketing manager financial services (2005-2007)

Ford Motor Credit Company, senior European marketing analyst (2002-2005)

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