Shots: Brand Profile: giffgaff

giffgaff’s brand director Tom Rainsford does things differently.

giffgaff is a foreign country, they do things differently there… (apologies to LP Hartley). The mobile network’s brand director Tom Rainsford has been steering the company’s creative down an idiosyncratic path since its inception and is now smashing down more barriers and breaking more rules by not only bringing ads in-house but even directing one himself.

Danny Edwards talks to the client who knows his brand, its values and its members – don’t mention the C word! – back-to-front and is turning the usual client-agency model upside down

“At the very heart of it,” explains Tom Rainsford, brand director for mobile phone network giffgaff, “I am – and my team are – responsible for our brand. Someone walking down the street talking to their friend isn’t saying ‘Did you see that giffgaff ad? It was wicked,’ or, ‘It was crap,’ and then going on to say it was from such-and-such an agency, with production by such-and-such company and was directed by this guy. They’re simply saying that they saw it and really liked it, or really didn’t like it, and judging our brand.”

Sitting in an office in Covent Garden on a cold January morning, Rainsford is engaging company. Unlike many clients, who can be guarded and PR-trained to within an inch of their lives – and therefore fairly bland – Rainsford is open, forthright and relatively unfiltered. Nor does he look like how you might expect a client brand director and co-founder of a successful mobile network business to look, with his long beard, even longer hair and the air of a classic rock’n’roll star about him (which isn’t too far from the truth, more of which later).

But then giffgaff isn’t the usual mobile brand. Launched in 2009, giffgaff sees itself as an antidote to the corporate behemoths already in the sector. The company’s founding principle is based around mutuality (the word giffgaff is a Scots term for mutual giving), which translates into such details as no contracts tying you in for years at a time and no call centres to deal with. Instead, giffgaff members – they’re never called customers – help each other out with questions and problems.

The term ‘member’ isn’t used lightly. “My belief is that customers go into a shop to buy a can of Coke and the shop owner hopes that they come back to buy another can of Coke and maybe a Snickers, right?” explains Rainsford. “That’s not a relationship. All [the customer] wants to do is just get a drink and go away and it’s very unlikely that they’re ever going to come back.

Members, though, are people who join something, they proactively participate. That doesn’t mean that every one of our members is in a TV ad or on the community [site] helping out, answering questions. Some of them just get the sim card and talk to their mates and that’s all right, but a lot of them drive word of mouth, and lots of them do participate in the community or in ads or whatever else. So, it might seem like a mild distinction, but we’re very tough about it. If anyone mentions the C word…”

giffgaff has grown from a handful of people eight years ago to close to 200 employees today, and much of that progression can be put down to the brand’s successful marketing campaigns.

They have a habit of making unusual, interesting, high-production-value films that garner great attention online, but it wasn’t always so. Initially, giffgaff’s grand idea was to do no paid-for advertising at all, “which actually turns out to have been a really crap strategy”, laughs Rainsford. Wanting to follow their principle of bucking the trend of existing mobile companies who spend, well, a lot more than nothing on advertising, the brand aimed to involve its members in the advertising plan with a campaign called Tool Hire, which was basically a user-generated content idea, aiming to create whacky online videos.

“We had hundreds of videos,” says Rainsford. “The problem was that 99 per cent of them were crap. People loved making them, which was great, but watching 15 minutes of someone dicking about on a bike in High Wycombe… who cares, you know?” Various tweaks to the idea helped drive up the quality, but the main problem the company had was reach. “In 2009, if I put something on Facebook my mum would ‘like’ it, my girlfriend might ‘like’ it, maybe comment on it and share it, and my mates would take the piss out of me about it,” he explains. “Then what happens? Nothing.”

Remember when we used to hire films from a shop?

The company readdressed its approach and took their first steps into broadcast media by sponsoring hit TV show The Big Bang Theory on British youth channel, E4. The creative strategy was simplicity itself: “Let’s blow some shit up!” is the pitch Rainsford made to his CEO. giffgaff continued to include their members by asking them to suggest things to explode. A variety of politicians were the most popular suggestions, but giffgaff introduced a poll, rather than giving people carte blanche, which saw objects from huge jelly moulds to iPhones dynamited to oblivion.

The inclusion of members in the creative idea process is very important because that’s how the brand differentiates itself from bigger competitors and you can’t, Rainsford is keen to point out, say one thing and do another. “You have to deliver against [that principle],” he stresses. “People have to be able to see tangible evidence that you’re doing that. It’s much, much harder to deliver authenticity than not, but I’d rather do that than simply stick a balloon outside a mobile phone shop.”

When giffgaff launched they worked with agencies to create their advertising campaigns. Initially, Albion held the account, which went to Fallon in 2013, but Rainsford, while admitting that both agencies did some great work with them, feels that the traditional client/agency approach isn’t always the right one. “I think for some brands it works and I think for others, including ourselves, it doesn’t,” he says. “What we wanted to do was break the model, bring it in house and pull on different experts to create work with.

And that breaks down all walls, all existing barriers and all the client bollocks that exists within that model and other models. I just think you should know what your brand stands for, you should be able to know what your brand represents and what you want to do with it because otherwise what’s the point?”

Rainsford believes the business of advertising – though not just advertising – and people in general simply don’t like change. “When we launched in 2009 Blockbuster was one of the biggest, if not the biggest, video rental place in the world. But in 2017 it seems insane to leave your house to go to hire a movie. Blockbuster didn’t evolve and it died. To buck the trend is difficult and I don’t know if many people have the appetite to do that [in advertising].”

giffgaff is trying to buck advertising trends by keeping much closer control of its output. Rainsford admits that some of it is trial and error, that they learn from their mistakes and get better as each year passes, but they feel they know their market and their members better than anyone else. They sometimes work with outside creative teams, as well as different production companies and directors, but everything flows through Rainsford and his team.

Feeling the fear of a bad idea and doing it anyway

Halloween has become one of giffgaff’s key calendar moments. Fallon did some nice spots around that holiday including 2013’s Don’t Be Scared and 2014’s Chain of Scares and giffgaff has kept up the momentum. In 2016 Rainsford even took the unusual step of pitching an idea to direct himself.

“Abi [Pearl], our head of advertising, told me that pitching was the worst idea she’d ever heard, but I told her I was going to do it anyway.” Rainsford was kept out of the loop of that year’s potential work but eventually won the pitch and directed The Music Box, a clever journey through classic horror scenes meant to illustrate the horrors of two-year phone contracts. Was it odd being the client, the director and, essentially, the creative? “Well, it was a completely different way to approach it.

Will we do it like that again? I don’t know, but it felt right and, if our principles are all about being disruptive with no barriers and no rules, then there really have to be no barriers and no rules. Do I think all clients should start directing their own stuff? Absolutely not, but in this instance, it worked.”

The 36-year-old Rainsford is a natural creative force. When he was younger he was on the fringes of full-time professional football with Crystal Palace, before playing in good, but not hugely successful, bands got in the way.

“They were probably ahead of their time,” he smiles. While playing music Rainsford also got into contemporary dance, so much so that he completed a degree in the subject and, after graduating, got work experience in various dance productions. Then the stark reality of needing to earn money came to the fore and, after some traditional marketing positions that taught him the basics of the business, he ended up at T-Mobile. Then, in 2009, giffgaff’s CEO Mike Fairman got in touch looking for help to launch the new brand.

Rainsford aims to keep giffgaff true to its principles while still creating bold, creative work within their own walls. A recent series of documentary shorts called Perspectives, co-created with VICE and based around the topics of housing, mental health and the economy, was well-received. “We’re looking at doing more of that,” comments Rainsford. “It delivers the ideology and ethos of doing things differently, being David versus Goliath, without being explicit and without being an advert.”

Doing things differently is exactly what Rainsford sees for 2017 and beyond. giffgaff, he says, is a brand that sets its stall out to be a challenger and, while he realises that the bigger the brand gets the harder it will be to navigate those waters, sometimes it simply comes down to attitude and desire. “As a client,” he concludes, “if the majority of the conversations you’re having are about cost, headcount and timesheets, then you’ve probably already lost. If you’re talking about your members, your campaigns, your creative and social output, you’re probably doing all right.”