The&Partnership's 20 years holding the flame for British Gas
The British Gas marketing director Andy Freeman and The&Partnership's CEO Sarah Golding explain an enduring 20 year partnership
02 March 2023
Nothing tests the mettle of a partnership than a crisis - and like all energy companies, British Gas has been at the forefront of the current one. At its side has been its long-standing partner, The&Partnership, through times good and bad.
In contrast to Andy Freeman's tenureship as marketing director at British Gas - he took the role in June 2021, having joined the organisation less than two years earlier - the relationship between the utility and its agency is one of the most enduring of modern advertising history.
The client/agency partnership stretches back twenty years. Given how energy companies, and the market leader British Gas in particular, have had to evolve their communications over that time - most notably since the Russian invasion of Ukraine prompted an energy crisis - that 'partnership' word might not be so inaccurate.
If Freeman is a relative newcomer to the partnership, The&Partnership chief executive Sarah Golding is not. In fact, she ran the pitch when the agency - then called CHI & Partners - first won it in 2003. And what's more she's "won" it three times since - Freeman stresses that these weren't mere repitching/hygiene processes, the last of which concluded last year and saw the business split from a full-service WPP unit called Nucleus into The&Partnership and OMD.
This is something that is not lost on Golding. "I think that's something that first of all, is a really good thing to kind of reflect on and celebrate in our industry, because I think it's quite unusual, really unusual, to have a client and agency work together for two decades. We must be one of a handful of client agency partnerships. And then over that time to pitch three times and retain it, that is actually an industry first," she says.
And having to repitch for it - errr, I mean re-win it - must exert the pressure even further. Golding agrees. "As we all know, it's incredibly hard to do that. And when we went through this process, the last time I'm constantly saying to Andy, but you know, everyone's gonna look really exciting next day, the person you've worked with for forever.
"But I think the secret is to always, basically listen hard to the client and not be afraid to change everything. And I think that's why we've stayed together. Because when things haven't been going as well as we might have wished them to.... we've not been afraid to, to quote, Ross in Friends, "pivot pivot pivot". And we have, whether that be changing the team, changing strategy, and I think really listening hard to what the client is saying or not liking, and having a really honest relationship."
Listening to what the client wanted obviously paid dividends in the most recent pitch, according to Freeman. "They absolutely won it. They smashed the pitch out of the park. What shone through consistently for everyone was, not only the passion, but the incredible knowledge that The&Partnership have got of the British Gas business; they've got more knowledge of our business than anyone else who works in our business. That's quite unique," he says.
So much for the love-in - but as in all relationships, you have to take the rough with the smooth. "Since Andy's been there, over the last three to four years, we've had some really uncomfortable conversations,” Golding admits. “And I think that is the secret of a great relationship. You don't just have the comfortable conversations, you have uncomfortable ones. They're hard to hear. And they're hard to respond to. But that's what we've done. And I think as a result of that, there's mutual respect. And I feel like we know where each other stands.
"So at any time of day or night, you can pick up the phone to each other, and you can have a conversation, things get actioned, and ultimately our aim is to take the British Gas brand to new, more exciting, more successful places. And I think you can only do that having those honest and uncomfortable conversations. So I think that has been the secret and will continue to be the secret."
The&Partnership's relationship with British Gas isn't just one based on superb account management or slick pitch theatre (although that probably helps). No, The&Partnership has become embedded deep within the organisation in a way that most agencies strive to but rarely manage. Freeman says: "No one has been working on the brand or in a senior management level in British Gas for as long as The&Partnership. I trust these guys, implicitly, I turn to them all the time."
So now we know the reasons why The&Partnership keeps winning the pitches - but why does British Gas keep calling them? Obviously three times in 20 years isn't excessive - but there has been a rapid change in how and what the utility provider needed to communicate. When Golding first won the business in 2003 she says it was a much simpler time. "I was thinking how different the world is. It was so simple - it was like wow, we need a TV campaign. And we need to advertise energy and services, it was so simple. And we want three or four 30-second television ads, and maybe some posters to talk about price. And now what we do is create content that is intended to create conversations, get the brand talked about, lead the debate."
The war in Ukraine - and the accompanying energy crisis that has seen a collapse of smaller players that were set up following British Gas' deregulation - has meant that the supplier has had to step up to lead the category, says Freeman.
“I think the tone has changed as well. You know, 10 years ago, I think British Gas talked to people like a big corporate. So it was quite paternal in its tone. And often we're leading positive change and positive debate. But I think it's really important that we wrap those messages up in the right tone of voice. And I think we have to feel very much ‘of the people’. The way in which we do that - as we did in the "Straight Answers" campaign, and we're doing it in a new campaign putting our people front and centre. We are a big company, but it's populated with passionate smart people who you let into your home to service your boiler, fix your heating, and your call centers are there when you've got a problem. And I think that is the difference."
Freeman adds: "I think what we've gained over the last six months is a confidence to embrace being the category leader. Look at our "Straight Answers" campaign, which launched in September and is still running now. It's based more than anything we've ever done on insight and data of what people are feeling, what they're talking about what they're looking for answers for. And so we've just seen a huge opportunity to step up as the category leader because someone needed to, and in the past we wouldn't have perhaps played that role."
But acting as category leader isn't all that British Gas has focussed on. By increasing its use of data it has launched campaigns to ensure that it redployed an over-supply of engineers during summer months, while also keeping people aware that their boilers could increase energy efficiency.
"So basically, in the summer, we had excess capacity of engineers, the business said, 'we've got engineers that are going to be sitting around, they're gonna get paid anyway. Can we do boiler services?'" says Freeman.
The creative solution from The&Partnership was to flip what would otherwise be a low interest (if important) service into one around home improvement - one of Britain's favourite pastimes.
Looking ahead, the pair had been working on a new brand platform for British Gas - but the energy crisis largely put pay to that. Freeman says: "For all sorts of reasons that doesn't feel like the right thing to do. So what we're taking is some of the key components of that. So you'll see the brand world that we're starting to build. There's a lot of positivity to this new campaign.
"We've also got our people, our engineers, who have got the skills, the tech, the experience, to help people to run the house more efficiently, more effectively, ultimately helping them to save money. So this campaign basically takes everything that's happened over the last few months and puts our engineers front and centre into a campaign that's full of energy. It's rooted in helping customers to save money."
This human element is also one that has kept the creative partnership between British Gas and The&Partnership so fresh, enduring and successful. Golding adds: "It is the human element. I think people - always back to people - whether that be client/agency relationships or customer relationships. And I think we do embrace that and the work embraces it, for sure.
"I feel like also the work is on a grander journey here. And I think what I hope we would see from this partnership across 2023 is more ambition, more bravery. More of us kind of sticking our head above the parapet behaving like a brand leader losing our fear, regaining all of our confidence, sometimes getting our elbows out, versus some of the cheekier competitors who say things before they've quite completed or finished some of the promises they are advertising. You know, we/I feel like this is the start. And we are very mindful of what is a very, very tricky environment out there. And I think you can get it really wrong, particularly given we are brand leader in the energy market. So we want to do it absolutely right. But we want to do it absolutely right for customers and for people," she adds.
As for any future pitches, which will inevitably come, Golding says that "we will continue to fight tooth and nail to be British Gas's partner". And given that the agency has been one of the few constants in British Gas's history over the past two decades, there's every chance that fight will triumph again.
Freeman concludes: "I think the credit has to go to The&Partnership for why it's worked... they're the ones who have the trust of people within British Gas, the passion for the brand and the knowledge of the brand."