Chris Moss: In Conversation.

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Last week we enjoyed a Like Minds breakfast with our partners SJdB where alum Chris Moss was back at Like Minds and taking time to talk about rejecting OK ideas. Here’s what happened:

Chris Moss, a specialist in start-ups and brand creation, has been behind the brand development of Virgin Atlantic, Orange and 118 118; three start up businesses, each now valued at over $1 billion. “I’ve loved every minute of my working life,” he said at the start of his talk, and went on to name some of the crazy days of working for “a funny bearded guy with one aeroplane”. With only a tiny marketing budget, relatively speaking, for an airline – Virgin had £1million to spend worldwide, when others were spending £100million – they were forced to think creatively. Hence sending their chairman out on a speedboat across the Atlantic, or sending him out in a UFO balloon (which resulted in scrambling the MOD’s airwaves with Chris nearly arrested).

During a clear out of his garage recently, Chris found letters from Apple in 1989, pleading to meet up with him and show him their exciting new portable computer (“more of a luggable”). He also found a battery from when Orange launched almost 18 years ago – it only lasted two hours and was the size of an entire phone today. “I love how quickly things are changing.”

He also found a 118 118 vest. That brand campaign came about only after they had rejected hundreds of OK ideas from an agency: “I’m good at rejecting OK ideas.” After they saw footage of the American athlete Steve Prefontaine running they saw an intensity to his look – not to mention a handsome moustache – that provided the germ of an idea. Unfortunately, in using that look they mistakenly took on the likeness of British athlete David Bedford, who subsequently demanded £1 million for what he claimed was his inspiration for the campaign. They offered £118,000, which he refused. “But every time he complained, our sales volume went up. So we weren’t complaining about his complaints.” The most common response to the campaign was: “I can’t remember any other number.” And that was a successful brand story.

“But,” said Chris “brands can get overweight and need a bit of exercising. Orange’s parentage has changed and that has brought about frustrations.” (Chris himself left the Orange network after he received a £1600 phone bill, having not realised that a news app had been streaming data day and night. Their lack of helpfulness in resolving this meant his trust with the brand was finally broken.)

After spotting Walkman sets Chris got them put into Virgin planes, so people could watch what movie they wanted to watch. They also handed out ice-creams and popcorn. “It’s the little things that matter. So often it wasn’t genius, it was ‘why not?’. I love the word ‘no’,” said Chris. “I use it as a quest for more information.”

“Sometimes you need to work your way around the rules. Of a brand, ask the same questions you would ask of a new job: Can I do the job? Will I enjoy the job? Will they enjoy me?

Nor can any company rest on its laurels once it has become successful. Complacency is a danger. Companies need to innovate constantly. Steve Jobs said: ‘Stay hungry. Stay foolish.’ I’ve come up with some of the stupidest ideas ever…but some of them really work,” said Chris.

Andrew Ellis, our Like Minds founder, asked if companies have to reinvent their marketing strategy as they grow. “People think growth is the measurement of success,” said Chris. “But when you grow into other areas, you have to ask if that’s alright. Virgin is growing into lots of different places and will go through quite a few changes. Richard’s daughter Holly Branson is now getting closely involved but she’s not an adventurer like her father. So the DNA of a brand naturally changes.”

Tom Pellereau, former winner of ‘The Apprentice’ asked for Chris’s top tips on rejecting OK ideas. “I think it’s more a disability than an ability,” said Chris. “I struggle with words, I want the concept to be simple so that I can ‘get it’. Most people are afraid to look stupid and say they don’t understand something when an agency presents it. I don’t care about that.”

Edward Mason, Mason Campbell, asked if constant reinvention was the key to survival. “Yes,” said Chris, “but we as humans are naturally keen to avoid risk and it’s hard to reinvent a business. I find it easy because I do it often but businesses find it the most difficult thing to do. At school we are told to sit down, shut up and stop daydreaming. And yet that’s probably the complete opposite of what you need people in business to do. People in offices are all behaving themselves – we need them to misbehave and come up with crazy ideas. That’s missing in so many places. We should encourage our children to be more creative.”

About the author

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Founded Like Minds in 2009. Andrew is a serial entrepreneur and angel investor. He founded design agency Icon in 1983 (sold to AGI Media) and Eyetoeye, one of the first digital agencies in the UK, in 1994. He advises start-ups and digital agencies on business development and is an Evaluated Consultant for Finpro, the export arm of the Embassy of Finland. He was elected a Fellow of The Royal Society of Arts in 2000.