The right idea at the wrong time: Meet the marketer always on the cusp of the next big thing

Marketing

Mark Gordon, director of communications and partnerships at Power to Change Trust has, by his own admission, often been behind the right idea at the wrong time. He says nearly every business he’s worked at has been ahead of its time in launching the next big innovation.

“I’ve often done things which were too early, to be honest,” he says. Travel reservations business Galileo International “was like Expedia”; he describes SimPay, a joint venture between T-Mobile, Orange and Telefónica, as a precursor to Apple Pay; while smart card business Mondex, designed by NatWest as an ‘electronic purse’, was one of the first brands trying to get people to move towards a cashless society. 

“It was completely along the right lines but the world just wasn’t quite ready for it,” he says.

During his time at Mondex, Mastercard bought a 51% stake in the brand. Sensing “life was going to be less fun” at Mondex as a result, Gordon took an opportunity to work at Disneyland Paris, where he helped transform the theme park’s reputation, which until that point had been viewed as the poor cousin of Disney’s American success stories.

While he enjoyed his time at Disney, Gordon says there was no opportunity for career progression, so when he was was headhunted by T-Mobile he jumped at the chance. The brand had just spent billions on 3G licensing and was keen to bridge the gap between telecoms and entertainment, so was “hiring like crazy”.

Disney wasn’t the best at succession management. It was such a privilege to work there and I really wanted to stay but there wasn’t really anything I could move to.

Mark Gordon

Gordon’s run of bad luck with new inventions came to an end when an ex-Disney colleague called him out of the blue with a proposition: large, upscale tents. The pair launched Feather Down Farms in the UK, which sent the press and the middle-class families of London wild and inspired the introduction of the term ‘glamping’ – glamorous camping – which can now be found in the dictionary. It was the first time Gordon was right on the money.

Does he regret past missed opportunities? Not at all. “I’m cool with that. I love the journey and the challenge and all of these times I had a sense that we could change the world or make it a better place through business.”

Making the world a better place is top of Gordon’s agenda now through his role at Power to Change, where he looks to help small companies and charities build sustainable business models.

Having worked in the public, private and third sectors a sense of purpose is what ties his vast career together.

“That’s the thrill for me. Why you’re doing it is important rather than what it is or how you do it. I know purpose is an overused word nowadays in marketing, but I have a sense of purpose, like a man on a mission, each time and I have to believe that what I am doing could change everything.”

Embracing complexity

Galileo International, various roles (1989- 1994)

“Galileo was a joint venture between some of the world’s biggest airlines, including United Airlines and British Airways. I worked in head office but quickly became one of the first people to be sent abroad to be the number two for the distributor team in Belgium.

“We had to buy out the distribution rights for Belgium’s national airline Sobelair. They had a dominant [position in the market] but were haemorrhaging market share and I was brought into stop that and grow market share, which I successfully did in my two years as sales and marketing director.

“Moving countries was fabulous. I realised I liked complexity, [working with] multiple parties, joint ventures and crossing cultures and borders.”

Culture shock

Mondex International, head of global marketing (1994-1997)

“Mondex was only supposed to be temporarily based in London; it was going to move to Holland but it never got there.

“The biggest shock was getting off the train in the morning and everybody looking the same. I worked in the city and the culture was very different compared to being on the continent and working in leisure. If I were to say it was conformative it doesn’t sound good, but everybody wore a black or blue suit and I like to be a bit different so I found that difficult.

“I had a visionary boss who made up for it, though, and we were doing interesting things. I was travelling around the world trying to sell this concept to banks across the world.”

Changing perceptions

Walt Disney Company, general manager of Europe, Disneyland Paris (1997-2001)

“I remember being on a trip and revealing to a colleague at the time that I was about go to Disney and he said, ‘Oh my god, it will be like a cult’ because of the rumours that you had to wear name badges and couldn’t have a beard. But the funny thing was once I got there I felt really comfortable, which is perhaps the definition of a cult.

“Disneyland Paris had a troubled opening in 1992; they had overspent on the park and the prices they set to get the money back were not getting traction.

“It was regarded as a poor cousin to Disney World in Florida. We developed this line ‘The magic is closer than you think’, which we used extensively in campaigns. It was basically saying we respect the fact that you might go to Florida as you perceive it as the real thing but if you want to get a top-up, for a short break just hop on the Eurostar.

“One of the first things I did was ring up the travel editors at the main newspapers and listen to them about why they had it in for the park and what we needed to do. I didn’t make any promises but kept them close and invited them at the right time so they could see [how things measured] against their perceptions.

“Then it got better press, which in the 1990s, before social media, was all-important. When I arrived, the UK was the third or fourth market going to the park and by the time I left the UK was the second market. There were some external factors in our favour like exchange rates getting stronger but I am really proud of what I did.

“Disney wasn’t the best at succession management though. It was such a privilege to work there and I really wanted to stay but there wasn’t really anything I could move to. You stayed within your division and that’s the way you move up but I would have had to move to Paris and at the time I wasn’t up for it.”

Crossing borders

T-Mobile International, brand and communications director (2001-2005)

“T-Mobile had just spent billions on 3G licensing at a government auction as it was viewed as a turning point for telecoms companies to become entertainment companies. As a result, it was hiring people like me from entertainment businesses. It was hiring like crazy.

“T-Mobile was an international company that had its head office in Germany but I was located in Hammersmith, London. One of the things I am good at is crossing cultures, so I would often translate what Germany wanted from the Brits and vice versa, because I was trusted by both sides and could literally speak the language.

“I was also seconded to work on this joint venture between T-Mobile, Orange and Telefónica to develop mobile cash system SimPay, which is kind of what Apple Pay became.

“I was bridging organisations and cultures and pulling it all together to develop a brand identity. SimPay didn’t get to see the light of day because one of the partners pulled the plug on the whole thing, but it confirmed that I was good at pulling those complex things that go across cultures together.”

A hotbed of talent

Central Office of Information, strategic consultant (2007-2009)

“I wanted to take bit of time out to think about what to do so I thought, OK, let’s do it. It was a great time to be at the COI, which was the government’s communications arm. There was a lot of new government arms being set up and they needed a name and an identity and a mission so I advised on that.

“It was immensely rewarding. It was like a hotbed of really bright people, which was stimulating. We were all on a mission to do good for the country and I very much enjoyed that.

“It doesn’t exist now as it was one of the first things abolished by the Coalition government, which was a mistake in my opinion.”

The birth of ‘glamping’

Feather Down Farms, Managing director (2006-2014)

“Feather Down Farms was set up in Holland by an ex-Disney colleague called Luite Moraal. He designed one of the original glamorous camping concepts and got it going in Holland and he thought the next place it should go to was the UK, so he rang me up out of the blue after five or six years. I told him to come over so we sat around the kitchen table and he showed me.

“I believed in him and thought this could work as it captured the spirit of the times. He was a very creative person and I enjoyed my time there immensely. In many ways I am a good number two for those who go off like that [creatively]. I am a bit more grounded and can do the more basic stuff, run the company and keep people motivated.

“The press went crazy for it and invented the term ‘glamping’ off the back of it. It was just of the moment.”

The perfect combination

Power to Change Trust, director of communications and partnerships (2015-present)

“Power to Change is my favourite role because it’s got a lot of the the best bits of what I’ve done before. If it had been a pure charity it wouldn’t have been for me; instead it’s about using business solutions to approach societal issues.

“This is the only way that parts of Liverpool and Plymouth [for example] will get out of where they find themselves, thanks to years of austerity and the fact the private sector is not interested in them any more. The only solution is to do it themselves and that’s through trading and business solutions.

“It’s a fantastic combination of many things: I understand government thanks to COI, it’s got business, which I know from the corporate world and it’s got this crusading element. It feels like we’re off on a mission establishing this category of community business.”

Mark Gordon’s CV

Power to Change Trust
Director of communications and partnerships
2015-present

Feather Down Farms
Managing director
2006-2014

Central Office of Information
Strategic consultant
2007-2009

T-Mobile International
Brand and communications director
2001-2005

Walt Disney Company
General manager of Europe for Disneyland Paris
1997-2001

Mondex International
Head of global marketing
1994-1997

Galileo International
Sales and marketing manager
1989-1994

International Leisure Group
Marketing manager
1983-1988

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