Profile: Ed Watson, head of PR, Debenhams

The head of PR at Debenhams is using his creative talent to build a PR strategy that taps into the psyche of the nation, finds Kate Magee.

Ed Watson
Ed Watson

Have you ever seen a giant alligator in a supermarket car park, urging you to recycle your aluminium cans? If the answer is yes, chances are you have already met Ed Watson. He has come a long way since his first job in PR, and now heads comms for one of Britain's oldest and best-known high-street retailers.

But as he poses among the mannequins for PRWeek's shoot, causing many customers in Debenhams' flagship store on Oxford Street to stop and stare, it is clear he still understands how to gain the attention of consumers.

Three weeks ago, Debenhams generated widespread coverage when it used non-airbrushed images of models to launch a swimwear range. Body image has become a theme for Debenhams in recent months - in February it hit headlines for using size 16 mannequins. Watson admits he is using the brand to 'be quite evangelical about making women feel good about themselves,' as it did when in the same month Debenhams became the first high street retailer to use a disabled model for a shoot.

Watson's talent for creating quirky consumer-trend stories was honed during his ten years at Asda, and is now injecting personality into the Debenhams brand.

During his two years as head of PR for the department store chain, he has overhauled the comms strategy from focusing on two separate areas - fashion and corporate - to taking a more 'holistic' approach. 'Not everyone reads the fashion or corporate pages. The new strategy is to create PR that gets into the psyche of the nation and creates a talking point,' he says.

He claims the brand now gets similar media coverage to Marks & Spencer.

'It's easy enough to come up with creative ideas, but Ed manages to make them relevant so that they resonate with his target audience every time,' says Brian Beech, MD of Biss Lancaster.

Beech, who met Watson several years ago when he was his manager at GTPR and now counts him as a client, adds: 'They are the stuff that water cooler conversations are made of - fun, factual and always fascinating.'

Watson says these ideas are created by thinking 'like a journalist'. He trains his team to operate as a newsroom. 'At our annual bra fitting event, we noticed that older customers were looking for younger styles. We positioned it as "cougar mania", showing that older women were happier in their bodies. This delivered coverage at the front of the paper, but the story then moved back to features and fashion,' he says.

In the future, Watson believes retailers will start acting as a wider source of information for customers. 'We get nearly two million hits a week on our website. That's higher than most national newspapers. Consumers will begin to look to the brands they are shopping with as a source of information because it is convenient to get everything in one place,' he says. He adds this approach is also being used by some media brands that are putting links to retailers on their site.

'I'm not saying we will start writing long City updates on our site, but we may include weather, news and trend reports that are relevant to our audience. We will become more than just a transaction site,' he explains.

Watson, 41, began his PR career at Brahm (as an alligator) after a two-year spell at an advertising agency. He worked at several regional agencies on brands such as MFI, Portakabin and Bass before joining Asda, his employer before Debenhams.

At 6.40am on a Monday morning, Watson will usually be on a train from Leeds to London, eating a bacon sandwich, racing through his emails and attempting the crossword in The Times.

He goes back to Leeds on Tuesday night, spending Wednesday in stores, before returning to London on Thursday. Having time to be in-store is vitally important to Watson. 'It's easy to become trapped in your little PR bubble. You know the market research, the socio-demographic groups, the age breaks. But nothing hammers it home as much as being in-store and speaking to the people you are trying to communicate with,' he says.

Waitrose's comms director Christine Watts worked with Watson at Asda. She says: 'I sometimes see Ed on the early train from Leeds on a Monday morning and can never believe how bright and wide awake he is. But that sums him up - full of creative energy and fantastic ideas, which he has the skill and experience to turn into reality. He's got an instinctive sense, too, for what's appropriate for a particular brand.'

Throughout the interview, Watson has an infectious energy. For now, so does Debenhams' comms.

 

ED WATSON'S TURNING POINTS

- What was your biggest career break?

Dressing as a green alligator in a supermarket car park for six months. That got me into PR.

- Did you have a notable mentor?

At Asda, it was Christine Watts, now comms director at Waitrose, and Nick Agarwal, Asda's current comms director. It was the training ground for my development into the PRO I am today. Also, Biss Lancaster's MD Brian Beech, for proving you can be yourself and still work in PR, and Alan Sleator, MD of Wonderful PR.

- What advice would you give to anyone climbing the career ladder?

Take your work seriously, but not yourself. There's a perception that people in PR are a bit pompous and it is either a bit pinstripe suit and red faces, or air-kissing. But it is about hard work. Also, don't be too proud to ask if you don't know the answer to something.

- What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

Being down to earth and open to advice and constructive criticism.

I am very concerned by how many people I interview and, when I ask why they work in PR, hardly any of them say 'generating coverage'.

Tell PRWeek about your career turning point.

 

CV

2008: Head of PR, Debenhams

2007: Head of PR, Asda and George

2005: Head of PR, George

2001: PR manager, Asda and George

1999: Account director, Citigate Smarts

1997: Account manager, Alexander King Associates

1995: Account manager, GTPR

1991: Account executive, Brahm

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