BComm ’85, MSc Marketing ’86, MBA ‘06
Reflecting on his 20 years’ of international marketing experience in the airline, travel and technology sectors, director of marketing at BMI regional Colin Lewis reckons his “sweet spot” is an ability to take an existing brand and bring it to the next level internationally.
About Colin Lewis
Awarded ‘Marketing Leader of the Year’ in 2008 by the Marketing Institute of Ireland (MII), as well as a fellowship from the institute in 2012 for his contribution to marketing in Ireland, Lewis has worked with blue chip brands such as 118 118 Directory Enquiries, Aer Arann, Thomas Cook and Iona Technologies, and is currently a lecturer in digital marketing.
“I want to get people to think that combining their experiences gives them their own unique ability. It provides the direction, confidence and capability to create much more value for themselves in the long term, rather than a one dimensional straight-line career path that everybody says is what we should aspire to. In truth, we all zigzag through our careers, finding nuggets here and there – we just need to integrate them,” he says.
Growing up Lewis says he had “absolutely no idea” what he wanted to do job wise, although as a car fanatic he had harboured notions of being an engineer and designing cars.
“I realised you need to be good at maths to be an engineer and I’m not theoretical. While doing a BComm at University College Dublin I decided the most creative thing I could be doing in business was consumer facing, marketing related stuff. At the time this seemed right for me.”
Straight after the BComm, Lewis did the marketing development programme (MDP) in UCD, which was managed by Eamon Ryan, who went on to become minister for communications, energy and natural resources – Lewis says Ryan had the same collaborative management style that he subscribes to himself, which he also experienced while working for Thomas Cook in Australia.
“There are a couple of things I still use to this day from the MDP. One is to believe what you actually see customers saying and doing rather than you choosing to believe something as a business person.
“During the MDP, I had to visit supermarkets to see what was happening on the ground as part of a research project. I realised that what I saw was not what the client was telling us they believed to be true.
“We have been talking about this exact topic recently in BMI, having spent two months revamping the on-board customer experience. Using the crew as a proxy, we asked what they thought the customer wanted, which was the opposite to what customer research revealed. For example, the crew believed customers wanted ‘healthy choices’, but reading into what customers said, it became clear that what they really wanted was ‘treats’.”
Lewis worked as a marketing executive for the Rehab Group for a couple of years after the MDP. He then went travelling in Southeast Asia and went on to land a job as product manager for Thomas Cook in Australia – a move that was to see him shooting up the ranks very quickly and gaining invaluable international insights.
“I was a humble guy off the boat from Dublin, wet behind the ears, and within six years I was working for the global CEO travelling to Egypt, Indonesia, Japan and Hong Kong. I was head of marketing for Australia by the age of 28. Thomas Cook trains people well and looks after its staff. Its corporate culture matched what I’m like as an individual and played on my strengths.
“I learned from my time at Thomas Cook the importance of having the courage of your convictions, as I needed a slightly different approach to similar projects in Japan compared to Cairo for example.
“I never had direct experience of working for the likes of Proctor & Gamble or Unilever, but I did work for massive international companies, as well as start-ups. I think it’s a good idea to start a marketing career by working in a large firm as they tend to have good processes and systems and you gain an understanding into how they think.
“With start-ups you gain fantastic hands-on experience as you’re never quite sure if the way you’re doing something is the right way, and you’re continuously trying to establish is there another way of doing things.”
Lewis’s foray into the start-up space happened in 1998. “I had a desire to move back to Ireland as I felt I’d achieved a heck of a lot in the previous eight years. I had to reinvent my whole life. I asked myself ‘what’s the thing to do in Dublin?’ and decided it was to work in the tech sector as it was burgeoning.”
He got a job in Iona Technologies, which he describes as “the poster child for tech firms in the late 1990s’, just after its initial public offering.
“You couldn’t get a more different business [than Tomas Cook]. Iona was fast growth and lived from quarter to quarter rather than year to year. From there, I was headhunted to join a business-to-business start-up Marrakech, whose e-commerce solution was sold to Tesco. During this time, I drew from previous experience such as looking at things from the customer’s viewpoint, but realised too that you have to have agility to change course very quickly. Iona’s position changed two or three times while I was there. In technology the concept of brand is less important. You might make decisions in a start-up that would be detrimental to a brand but positive in terms of revenue generation,” he says.
Having wanted to do an MBA in Smurfit Business School for many years, eventually the opportunity came up for Lewis in 2006 and he did it on a part-time basis over a couple of years.
“My rationale at the time was that I had gained a lot of good experience, but maybe I needed to refresh the way I was thinking and find out if what I learned was ‘the real thing’. I wanted to corroborate what I’d learned.
“The MBA did exactly that for me. Working on projects with people from different sectors really gave me insights into the ways people think and reinforced my ability to think in terms of frameworks.
“One of the best things the MBA did for me though was force me to think about my strengths and unique abilities. It helped me to decide to combine my love of international travel with the foresight I gained into the technology sector. The airline business, which is driven by online technology, was the perfect fit.”
He was recruited by Aer Arann in 2006 and within a couple of years had won the marketing leader award from the MII for his achievements there.
“It was a great couple of years – I launched the brand in the UK as well as seven or eight new routes in a year, competing directly against the big boys and getting the brand on the main stage.”
This was the moment Lewis’s “sweet spot” was sealed and he went on to replicate it at Air France subsidiary CityJet and 118 118 Directory Enquiries, still adding new skills along the way.
“The CityJet job was on a much larger scale than Aer Arann and the brand was relaunched within 18 months. I was headhunted by executives from Conduit in Ireland, which operates as 118 118 Directory Enquiries internationally, who told me they had a $25m budget and wanted to spend 90pc of that on TV across six European markets.
“When I got the offer I realised the one thing I was missing was TV experience and took the job as a career building thing rather than working in an area that I loved. I shot 20 TV commercials and got very well paid for it. 118 118 was in maintenance rather than growth mode and I found very quickly that if the international growth aspect is not there it feels like there’s something missing for me.
“Two and a half years after I started, BMI management called me up to tell me they had a new investor and wanted to bootstrap the brand back to where it was and run marketing campaigns across Europe. This was exactly what I was looking for and I took up the position last December.”
One of the things Lewis says he takes out from his career to date is that sometimes things happen which you think at the time you’re not getting a lot from.
“Careers move up and down and a certain times you can find yourself doing things that you feel you’re being forced to do, but the bigger picture is at hand without you realising it. Now I feel I have a complete play book of things to work with, and am starting to transfer that knowledge through lecturing and pulling together the DMX Dublin Digital Conference last March at the Aviva. I think it’s really important to give back to other people and mentor them.”