We’re all guilty of looking to each other too often for lessons about how to improve media businesses.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the fact I can sit in my newsroom 18,960 kilometers away from New York and still be tapped into the amazing lessons and insights from the INMA World Congress. (It would have been better being there, of course.)
But I also like seeing how other business have grappled successfully with change. And one of my favourites is Gucci — the nearly 100-year-old Italian company that was on life support just three years ago.
Ask anyone in the fashion world which brand they admire and they’ll generally fire back Gucci and its long, lean, and impeccably dressed CEO Marco Bizzarri.
Bizzarri, 52, has mastered the art of mashing up old and new, young and old, traditional and digital, commerce and cool, celebrity and street.
In a delightful quirk of fate, Bizzarri’s son lives in Perth, and our well-connected events manager Danielle Greene convinced Bizzarri to interrupt a family holiday to speak at one our business lunches.
Quite a coup — and it was quite remarkable listening to his story.
Gucci had dropped from the world’s second-biggest fashion brand to fifth by the time Bizzarri took over on New Year’s Day 2015. “In 2015, everybody looked very much the same, and I think people started to be a little bit bored about fashion,” Bizzarri told us, wearing a trademark Gucci dark suit, polished loafers, and bee tie. “They went into the shops, they were looking at the same pieces, the same products. Everybody was trying to copy everything.”
So what Bizzarri did next was quite breathtaking.
First, he ignored the accountants (OK, that’s enough everyone, stop cheering).
Second, he told his staff to be bold and creative. “We put creativity at the centre of everything, and we didn’t look at figures,” he said.
Bizzarri’s a fashion businessman not a fashion designer, so he needed a daring wingman, equally as brave.
He found that person not among the queue of well-known creative directors emailing their CVs but in a relatively unknown, long-haired staffer named Alessandro Michele.
Bizzarri gave Michele the best brief a designer could wish for: Respect the famous Gucci logo and history but modernise it by dreaming big.
“If you put limits on creativity then you start creating boundaries and creativity, by definition, cannot be put in a cage,” Bizzarri said.
The pair announced themselves to the world with a colourful and somewhat radical collection at that most traditional of fashion formats — a Paris catwalk show.
It worked. Michele suddenly became the hottest designer in the world, and Gucci was back on the map.
“Money no longer felt like the driving force, as pretty young things stomped down the runway seemingly wearing whatever they felt like,” wrote fashion critic Sarah Maisley. “The message was crystal clear: Forget how much it costs, and wear what makes you happy.”
Now this is where it gets really interesting. Not only did Bizzarri and Michele have to follow it up with what music business used to call the difficult second album, but they also needed to spread the word of their creative ambition.
They needed to find the perfect mix between old craftsmanship and new digital marketing.
Like media, the heart of the fashion business is extremely labour-intensive. Gucci began in Florence and still relies on a small army of locals just outside the town to make its products.
“Craftsmanship and artisanship is so important,” Bizzarri said at our lunch in Perth. “That is the difference between us and fast fashion.”
But there is no point producing great products if you can’t find an audience to buy them. Gucci still spends a fortune on stunning print ads (the latest Vogue ad has a tiger in a cafe), but it’s the company’s digital strategy that has been impressive to behold.
The core of any digital strategy is a flexible and beautiful Web site with slick e-commerce functionality. The new Gucci site was launched the end of 2015 in eight languages, less than a year after Bizzarri took charge.
Like media companies, the fashion business is all about telling stories. But whereas media companies tell other people’s stories (and are regularly flawed at telling their own), Gucci has refined the art of drawing readers and potential customers into their journey. Fashion is all about selling desire. And Gucci is damned good at it.
The company embraced every social media marketing tool and app available from Facebook (16 million) to Instagram (15.6 million) to Twitter (4.4 million) to Google+ (4 million) to Pinterest (100,000) to YouTube to Snapchat. But it hasn’t made the common media mistake of thinking the same piece of content will work across every platform. Instead, there is a consistency of look and feel to the company’s content, but you can see it is carefully created for each platform.
It’s classy, cool, and reeks of inventiveness. And it cleverly takes you behind the scenes as well. The social media team even dove into the potentially dangerous world of memes to sell its recent watch collection.
Gucci’s marketing strategy also involves lots of partnerships, with celebrities like Beyoncé, car manufacturers, art museums, and influencers.
Internally, the company has mixed up the staff, getting young and old to bounce off each other. “No is not an option anymore. You have to be super flexible and listen to people,” Bizzarri said.
He also has a counter-intuitive approach to customers, especially in a world where customer data and behaviour is so important.
His problem is he needs to predict the future because of the time it takes to get new products to market. Gucci is in the business of creating trends, not following them.
“We don’t listen to customers too much,” he said to gasps from the lunch audience, “because they are thinking about today, not 12 to 18 months’ time.”
Bizzarri’s bold approach is also reflected in his ambition for the company. He has no interest in linear growth; he’d prefer exponential growth like the unicorns out of San Francisco. “If you look at the business today of fashion, it is about €150 billion. We are €4 billion, or less than 2%. Why should it not be 5%? And if you think in this way, then you change the perspective.”
So who does Bizzarri look at around the business world for inspiration?
Not anyone in the fashion business.
“I think Elon Musk is truly inspiring. He wants to go to Mars. That’s ambition.”