My first job at PRWeek’s owner Haymarket Media was back in 1999 on a title called Revolution, an internet business magazine that flourished during the dotcom boom and perished just as quickly when the bubble burst in 2001.
Revolution’s editor, and my boss, used to write about his mom all the time in his columns. She soon became as big a star as her son, regularly being used as the example of an everywoman Jane Doe or voice of commonsense in relation to explaining some of the crazy things that were going on during this unique time for technology and business.
He was proud of his mom and she became a great character in the ongoing stories Revolution told to document an extraordinary period.
I had the utmost respect for my editor and learned a lot from him. He was a great writer, editor, and ideas person. But I resolved not to follow suit in writing about my mom should I ever find myself in his position: and with the odd exception I’ve pretty much stuck to my guns on this.
But I’m about to break that resolution in a spectacular way. The reason is because internal communications and brand ambassadors have been much on my mind lately.
PRWeek has just completed its 2014 Best Places to Work initiative and you will be able to find out the winners of this process on December 1. The values of collaborative working, team building, work-life balance, and corporate citizenship are top of mind in the companies and agencies that will be honored.
I was also very taken by a story in October about an employee at Wells Fargo called Tyrel Oates who emailed his CEO and asked for a $10,000 raise for himself and his colleagues, copying in 200,000 other staffers and comparing John Stumpf’s $19 million a year salary with his own $15-an-hour compensation.
I won’t dwell on the details of this story; suffice to say that it placed Wells Fargo’s comms team in something of a no-win situation in the way it responded, which probably explains its slightly bland statement and approach to the incident. The key in these scenarios is to not do something that will make the situation worse.
But it did set me thinking about communicating with staffers and encouraging them to be advocates for your company or brand.
My mom worked for Marks & Spencer for the best part of 35 years on and off through the 70s, 80s, and 90s, on the shop floor and in the warehouse at the iconic British retailer’s store in Folkestone, our hometown on the south coast of England near the White Cliffs of Dover.
She had worked at one of another iconic British fashion brand Jaeger’s flagship stores in London in the late 50s and early 60s, before settling down with my dad in Folkestone to start a family that began with me and eventually encompassed four of us: three boys and a girl.
While she was bringing up the family she would make money working from home sewing dresses and other garments for friends and contacts. As the family got older and four hungry kids needed feeding, and she wanted to reassert her independence, she took a part-time job at M&S in town. At various times, that would become a full-time gig.
Marks & Spencer was considered a gold standard of retailing. It’s where men went to get their socks and underwear. Women could get fashionable but affordable clothes that aped designer styles without costing designer prices. The food section was a cut above your normal supermarket produce, and M&S food still has a stellar reputation.
Good quality at value prices was its core brand value. It was what Guardian fashion editor Jess Cartner-Morley last year called the height of "clothing consciousness" in the UK, filling a gap between "high fashion" and "department store" wares.
Despite the fact that it has fallen on harder times in recent years and struggled to adapt its identity in a much more competitive retail environment, "as a nation, we still identify strongly with M&S," added Cartner-Morley, "it is a part of Britishness in a way no other brand is."
And my mom was a proud purveyor of the values of this great British brand. She knew pretty much everyone in Folkestone, because pretty much everyone visited M&S at some point in their daily lives. Any trip into town with my mom would result in her being stopped every few yards on the high street by people she knew from doing her work.
She was the best ambassador for Marks & Spencer you could ever imagine. Saying anything negative about the brand in our house was strictly forbidden. And she would enthuse proudly about new ranges and products when they arrived in store – to us and to her legions of friends and contacts on the streets of Folkestone.
If we ever traveled to other towns in the UK, a trip to the local M&S to see what they had in stock and how they arranged their store was compulsory. Her four recalcitrant children, including me, were dragged around more M&S stores than other kids had hot dinners.
It became a standing, but affectionate, joke in our family. "It’s not like M&S," we would tease her when talking about other stores’ products.
Mom must have done something right in passing on the retailer’s brand values though, as my sister ended up working at Marks & Spencer head office in London in a senior executive role, having started as a Saturday girl on the shop floor in Folkestone.
Everyone who worked in the Folkestone store was proud of "their girl," who was now working at head office in the big city. A little bit of the luster had filtered down the M20 motorway to our seaside town from the capital city. Eventually, my sister was poached from M&S by Victoria’s Secret to come over to the US and reprise her role there.
Later in my life, when I was editing MediaWeek in the UK, I happened to meet the then Marks & Spencer CEO Stuart Rose at an industry function. I explained to him the story of my mom and how proudly she represented the M&S brand, despite now having retired.
I told him that mom and some of the other retired workers from the Folkestone store would even take a day trip to London each year for the annual Marks & Spencer shareholder meeting, before doing some shopping – at M&S of course – and then getting the train home.
Rose was delighted to hear this and asked that I pass on my best wishes and thanks to her for her service. She was absolutely thrilled when I told her as Rose, a British retailing legend who was knighted for his service to the industry, was a hero to her. (Incidentally, he was paid over $1.5 million per year as executive chairman of the retailer as recently as 2010, before leaving the year after.)
People in marketing and communications often talk about fostering internal culture and inculcating staff in their companies’ mission, but you can’t buy the authenticity that induced such loyalty in my mom and her friends. It’s a precious commodity that should be treasured.
You can imagine how distraught mom was in 2006 when head office decided to shut down the Marks & Spencer store in Folkestone after 94 years of trading in the town, under pressure from out-of-town outlet stores and changes in shopping habits. When she walks through the high street in Folkestone now, with its plethora of discount stores and shabby street stalls, you can tell it hurts. (By the way, everybody still knows her and stops to say hello.)
But it hasn’t dented her love for the Marks & Spencer brand and her investment in its mission, an investment that I’m sure will endure for the rest of her life.
She visited me in New York City last year and I asked her what she had done during the day as I had had to go into work. At 73 years old she had walked all the way up to Central Park from my Chelsea apartment and checked out the fancy retail outlets on Park Avenue, Fifth Avenue and its surrounds. "I couldn’t find a cab so I decided to walk," she said. "They’re good, but they’re no M&S."
I happened to ask her what her finishing salary was at Marks & Spencer when she retired in the late 90s/early 2000s. I was astonished and, I admit, a little angry, when she told me it was in the region of just $20,000.
I reflected that wished I had known that when I met Stuart Rose. But then, I figured, would I have mentioned it to him anyway?
Either way, I can’t think of a better brand ambassador for Marks & Spencer than my mom – whatever they paid her for her near 35 years’ service. And I can’t think of a better argument for companies to engage their workforce as their first line of brand ambassadors.
That’s why I make no apology for devoting this one column to my very cool mom.