Our joint MD, Eoghan Phelan recently sat down with Business and Finance for their CEO Q&A feature. Read Eoghan’s interview below or at: https://businessandfinance.com

What are your main priorities and goals in your role?

We have recently split our business into two distinct, but complementary, agency offerings, V360° and VMedia, so my main focus at the moment is talking to existing and prospective clients about the range of services we offer under each agency. V360° was formed by integrating the services we previously offered through a sister company to create a multidisciplinary shopper agency, providing an end-to-end range of services from insight to execution, which is unique in the market.

This leads me on to a longer-term priority, which is to continually champion the importance of ‘shopper’ in marketing and commercial plans. Shopper marketing has been finding its’ feet over the past decade and has, in the past, tacked on to consumer marketing plans, sometimes without due consideration for how these plans engage shoppers and retailers. We are now starting to see a change in mindset, with shopper marketing being seen less as an activity and more as an approach.

Today’s increasingly complex and fragmented marketplace has created a requirement for a greater understanding of shopper needs and behaviour than ever before, and for simple, actionable solutions that drive profitable growth for retailers and brand owners. We are passionate about, and have seen first-hand, the results that can be delivered from solutions which are borne out of three-way insight into consumers, shoppers and retailers.

Lastly, an ongoing priority is to ensure we continue to deliver excellent service to our clients, and that we are constantly striving to raise the bar even further to deliver fantastic work which solve our clients’ business challenges by creating positive, enduring change in shopper behaviour.

What are your biggest challenges as CEO?

One of the biggest challenges is to ensure we continue to grow in a manner that is sustainable in the long-term. We have grown our services and our client base significantly in the past three-years and have ambitious plans for further growth. This requires a constant focus on our purpose as a business, creating long-term valuable relationships with our clients and partners and, importantly, knowing what opportunities to say no to.

Then you have the usual challenges most Managing Directors face of trying to juggle everything and knowing when to relinquish control. I am lucky in that we have an extremely strong leadership team and a fantastic support team, so it makes it easier to step away and get the time needed to focus on the important strategic areas.

How do you keep your team/staff motivated?

We have a truly fantastic team, mainly because we are careful to select and build a team who share our values. Although we are in existence for 15 years now, the launch of our two new agency offerings is something of a new beginning and I think one of the most important things is to share the vision of what we want to achieve and that people will feel part of the journey. As a multidisciplinary shopper agency, we have built a range of various skillsets and expertise from insight, strategy, creative design and in-store execution. Our 360° service has given the team a unique opportunity to contribute their specific skills and expertise, but also the benefit of developing their careers by learning from the other disciplines and skills in the team.

We are an independently owned company, and often find ourselves competing for business against international agency networks, so it’s important that we all believe we can achieve our goals by doing great work. We have ambitious plans for growth and we want to bring our team on that journey and help them develop their careers and achieve their ambitions with us. We have a strong culture of encouraging new ideas and giving people scope to develop these ideas further and take ownership of them. I think it’s crucial to show this trust in people and to empower them to achieve their potential.

What are the challenges facing the industry going forward?

The retail landscape is probably undergoing its most significant change since the birth of the supermarket and we are seeing continued fragmentation of shopping trips, which is only likely to increase with further disruption to the sector meaning an end to ‘one size fits all’ shopping. The major challenge for both brand owners and agencies is to navigate this increasingly complex landscape and ensure that investment is made in the optimum channels, outlets and activities to reach their prioritised target shoppers and deliver long-term profitable growth.

Proving the ROI of any marketing or trade investment is rightfully going to become even more important, as brand owners have an increasing amount of retail outlets in which to invest in and are coming under more pressure to deliver lower prices. The past few years have seen deep discounts and promotions at unprecedented levels, which are unsustainable for long-term growth. While the pressure to deliver these discounts will remain, there will need to be more emphasis on activity which creates enduring change in shopper behaviour.

From a retailer perspective, the challenges are numerous, and in many cases coming from digital disrupters. Retailers must find ways of providing a seamless omnichannel experience and must optimise their bricks and mortar stores, creating an environment where shoppers choose to be, because they no longer have to be there.

What new trends are emerging in your industry?

It’s hard to know where to begin with this one. The ‘FM’ in FMCG means fast-moving in so many ways. The rise of digital networks has completely transformed the shopper decision journey. While traditional online grocery shopping in Ireland only accounts for 1.5% of grocery spend, this will increase in the coming years and much of this growth may be driven by disruptive models.

Take Google Express, which allows shoppers to shop across multiple stores from one touchpoint, as an example. In Ireland, you have the likes of Buymie offering a similar service, with a growing number of partner stores on the platform. There is also a growth in ‘direct to shopper’ offerings, whereby brand owners are selling directly to shoppers online, enabling them to take back control of the shopper interface. This is somewhat linked to another trend, the growth in subscription shopping, which is further impacting basket size per shopping trip and can lock shoppers out of a category for a considerable length of time.

At the forefront of much of this disruption is the 800-pound gorilla, Amazon, who are giving every other retailer in the world sleepless nights. Another two trends, both of which are central to Amazon’s strategy, are worth noting. The first is the blurring of the lines between online and offline retail, with customers now expecting a seamless, personalised experience in both. The second is that of voice shopping, and the growth of voice-interface devices as Amazon’s Alexa devices or Google Home. These devices are completely changing the way in which we relate to computers and I think many people underestimate the impact this will have on how we shop in the near future.

Are there any major changes you would like to see in your sector?

As mentioned previously, a change which we are starting to see happen, but which has some way to go, is in the perception of shopper marketing. It should not be seen as just an activity that happens in store, but as an insight driven marketing approach that positively influences purchase and consumption behaviour at key touch points on the shopper-journey. It is important that ‘shopper’ is integrated into marketing activities from the outset and that there is an appreciation of shopper behaviour and motivations within organisations, enabling the optimisation of marketing programmes, and in turn profitable growth.

As an employer are you finding any skills gaps in the market?

I think there is a significant gap in the understanding of areas such as shopper marketing and category management at graduate level and more can be done to integrate these subjects into third-level courses. Understanding shopper behaviour is more important than ever before for marketers, but it is an area which seems to be largely ignored, with a few exceptions, at third-level institutions.

How did your strategy develop in the context of the banking crisis and economic crisis?

This period really intensified our focus on shopper marketing and retail media activities, as we saw the tangible returns these activities could deliver for our clients. The economic crisis resulted in marketing budgets being drastically slashed but spend on retail formats largely held strong due to the impact they have on driving sales. We were already operating in the retail media space, but it was at this time that we started to think about how we could further expand our shopper marketing services and how retail media formats could be improved further through a deeper understanding of shopper behaviour.

How do you define success and what drives you to succeed?

I think ultimately success is about being proud of the work that you’re doing and creating something that is sustainable in the long-term. In order to do this, we need to ensure that the work we do solves the priority business challenges of clients and helps them profitably grow. We’re passionate about getting to the ‘Why?’ of both our clients challenges and of shopper behaviour. A better ‘Why?’ leads to a much better ‘What?’ in terms of solutions. If we continuously help our clients succeed in solving their business challenges, this will mean we can be proud of this work and will be creating a sustainable business.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given, or would give, in business?

The importance of being agile. To be able to respond rapidly and with flexibility, both to customer needs and to market changes. The best way I’ve heard it described is “you have to learn to dance!”. One of our strengths, as an independently owned business, is the ability to make decisions quickly, which enables us to go for opportunities we identify in the market and to respond to our clients’ needs quickly.

What have been your highlights in business over the past year?

The highlight has undoubtedly been the launch of our two new agency offerings V360° and VMedia. A lot of planning went into the launch, particularly with V360°, as we were creating a completely new offering, which is unique in the market. The response we have received since launching V360° has been fantastic, and we have already built up a wide range of cases of where we have been able to help deliver sustainable profitable growth for our current and new clients.

v360 team

What’s next for your company?

We have ambitious plans for growth for both VMedia and V360°. From a VMedia perspective, our focus is on developing more digital shopper media networks, which will enable our clients to more effectively connect with shoppers at the point of purchase. From a V360° perspective, the immediate future will be about continuing to work with our valued clients to provide insight led strategies and solutions that drive profitable growth for them. We have also been working on a number of International projects with clients lately, and we see great potential for growth in International business and are exploring a number of different options in relation to this.

Secondly, we are getting more and more requests for our services outside of the FMCG sector, as other industries realise the importance of understanding the shopper journey, and the need to build relevant profitable solutions.

Where do you want your business/brand to be this time next year?

I’d like to think that the two new brand identities will have become firmly established, and that we will be the first company any retailer or brand owner thinks of when they have a shopper challenge or opportunity they need help with.