Magazine article Marketing

Style Offensive

Magazine article Marketing

Style Offensive

Article excerpt

FCUK founder Stephen Marks tells Alexandra Jardine about business beyond the f-word

"What is marketing anyway -- isn't it something a bit mythical? It's an advertising game, babe," says Stephen Marks, founder of French Connection, when I try to explain why he's a Marketing brand master.

Perhaps he has a point. There's no denying that advertising has worked wonders for Marks and his brand, which, from near collapse in 1989, has emerged as one of British retail's biggest success stories.

Think of French Connection now and you'll automatically think of FCUK, the controversial, edgy and attention-grabbing campaign devised by Marks and TBWA's Trevor Beattie. Wherever we've seen it, most of us have raised our eyebrows, and wondered 'how did they get away with it?'

"It's taken French Connection from the back of people's minds to the front of people's minds -- made everyone aware of FCUK. We have become a front runner," says Marks.

When he unveiled French Connection's latest impressive set of profits (up 20.7% in March) Marks publicly praised the FCUK campaign for driving the business forward. But is it just shock advertising that has made French Connection what it is today?

"Of course not," says Marks, "It's true that advertising has played a major part in our success in the past few years, but you can have the best campaign in the world and still get the product wrong. The past five years have been exceptional for us -- our designs are better, our executions are better."

Suave, and tanned from spending Christmas at his house on the exclusive Caribbean island of St Bart's, Marks looks every inch the multimillionaire -- he owns 60% of French Connection. But despite his jetset lifestyle, when it comes to retail he has a down-to-earth, no-nonsense approach. It's worth remembering that his parents were hairdressers and he started out sweeping the floor in a men's outfitters, aged 16.

Marks has a reputation for being a difficult interviewee, so I'm not surprised when, on the top floor of FCUK's Great Portland Street offices, he's irritated at our photographer's request to film him downstairs in the showroom. "He doesn't like being photographed," says his PR nervously, as I await his return.

But once it's over, he becomes quite charming -- albeit with an edge that suggests he doesn't suffer fools gladly. For starters, he's immensely proud of the fact that the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre has rejected the script for FCUK's latest ad campaign, 'Kinkybugger', and that the ad will therefore only run in cinemas. He is proud of the press and store front campaign that trumpets the ban.

He is also scathing about the Advertising Standards Authority, of which FCUK has fallen foul several times, most recently for advertising its Oxford Street store with posters proclaiming 'the world's biggest fcuk'.

"We had a record Christmas in that shop and we had one complaint upheld. One complaint!" he says incredulously. I point out that this is the way the ASA works -- what if the ad had upset one young child? But Marks, a father of three with another baby due shortly, is having none of it. "Listen, my daughter has just learned to read and she thinks it says 'FCUK'," -- he pronounces this phonetically. "If the ASA doesn't honestly think that what kids see on TV and elsewhere isn't worse...I mean, how come Page Three still exists?

"I don't set out in life to offend people, but if I advertised like 90% to 95% of advertisers, I would be pouring money down the drain," he says.

So does that mean advertising has to be controversial to work then? No, it just has to make an impact, believes Marks. "Budweiser's 'Whassup?' campaign is fantastic. My four-year old son is saying it all the time."

Some in the industry -- notably veteran adman David Abbott -- have berated the Marks/Beattie campaign for simply doing the obvious to be offensive. …

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