Story of my CV: Former Paddy Power marketer Rory McEntee, who is now marketing director at ‘anti-gym’ brand Gymbox, is not afraid of taking risks, either in his ideas or his career choices.
Rory McEntee describes himself as a bit of a risk-taker. Throughout his career he has made decisions that have taken him very deliberately down certain, perhaps less trodden, paths but he has always had a very clear view of the bigger picture and his ultimate end-goal.
His first big risk was deciding to start his career agency side, despite knowing he eventually wanted to work for a brand. And while it was a move he chose to make in order to get a breadth of experience across multiple brands, he says it was more of a challenge than he expected to make the initial transition to client side.
“I felt there was this perception that if you’d been at an agency you weren’t as strong a candidate. I had a lot of rejection initially as they said they wanted someone with client-side experience; I had to prove my worth in brand management,” he says.
“At the time when I was going through the interview process I did think, ‘have I made a mistake, am I going to be stuck in agency world forever?’ But that was just a short-term view. When you meet like-minded people, which I did when I went to Everyman, things change. They actually wanted someone who had that experience working across creative, presenting to stakeholders.”
McEntee was only at Everyman Cinemas for a short-time before he went travelling, but it gave him the client-side experience he needed to land a job at Paddy Power on his return, in its recently established ‘mischief department’, a role he says has been integral in developing his style as a marketer.
“It was an amazing opportunity to be given that platform to be disruptive and push the boundaries and not have someone say you can’t do that; it was just really refreshing,” he recalls.
McEntee headed up retail marketing, so rather than have someone hand out flyers when a new store opened Paddy Power would get a church choir or a town crier to stand outside a nearby competitor’s shop. “It was almost like being back in school but the culture of the business encouraged it. We wanted to get as close to the line as we could.”
After two and a half years at Paddy Power, McEntee wanted to expand his skills in digital but felt there wasn’t the opportunity to do this at the betting business. So he made what he says was his second risky career move by deciding to leave Paddy Power and take on a number of interim roles in order to gain digital expertise quickly.
Roles at Papa John’s and Cineworld followed, before a third interim role at Pizza Express turned into a full-time position.
“After a year of doing interim roles I craved that responsibility again. I missed the challenge of really owning something,” he says.
McEntee helped the pizza chain overhaul its website and transform its digital offering to steer the business away from its “treadmill of discounting”, before he was head-hunted by the MD of cafe chain Benugo, who had seen him talk about the work he’d done at Pizza Express at a conference.
McEntee believes it’s important to have a real interest in the brands he works for – which is why he didn’t choose to start his career at one of the big FMCG firms, because he couldn’t get excited about marketing butter or laundry detergent. So when the opportunity came up to become the marketing director at disruptive fitness brand Gymbox, which positions itself as the anti-gym, he jumped at the opportunity.
He feels he’s returned to his roots of working for a “rebel, challenger brand” that isn’t afraid to do something different.
“If I have one regret in my career it’s maybe leaving Paddy Power as early as I did because I was having so much fun doing ground breaking marketing and I never really got back into roles like that after,” he explains. “I would do the same again to get digital experience but what I was lacking was that fun marketing that pushes the boundaries and makes people turn their head.”
“When I was looking for my first role in Dublin, everybody around me wanted to start their career on the graduate programme of one of the big FMCG companies, but I didn’t want to take that traditional route through marketing.
“I’d always had that desire to work at an underdog, a challenger, and I think that has really impacted my choice of role throughout my career. I’ve always been involved in food or sport or entertainment – things I like personally. The thought of working for a laundry detergent or a butter brand – no disrespect to those guys, but it never really excited me.
“I also just felt that by going agency side initially I’d get to work on a number of different brands and would be able to see where my interests lie. It has also helped me in later years really understand working with agencies and getting the best from them.”
“After two years working in Dublin I decided I wanted to come to London. Even though I’d worked on a couple of interesting brands I wanted to work on a hero brand that would look good on my CV. I got offered the opportunity to work on McDonald’s at The Marketing Store and the fact it was a big multinational brand was a real draw.
“I worked on the Monopoly campaign, which had been running for a number of years but it was getting bigger and bigger, and it was the first time the big prize had actually been won – somebody won a house.
“I was presenting back to senior people in McDonald’s and really learning. Having that exposure was great. But being agency-side, I only owned a little part of that excitement and I felt like there was something missing. Call it greedy or call it ambitious, I wanted to own the whole process and the whole brand rather than one element of that particular campaign.”
“Having exposure to the full marketing mix rather than a specific area for the first time was a bit daunting. I thought, oh my god, I’m suddenly responsible for everything and the onus is on me to come up with ideas and solutions to deal with problems, rather than being at the end of a phone and tackling a brief. It was slightly overwhelming at first to be exposed to a new way of working. But having an interest in entertainment and film really helped.
When I joined there were six sites and now there are 30, so I came in at a time when the business was trying to ensure the brand was in a good place before expanding.
“Paddy Power almost had the feel of an agency within a client-side environment. It was a really creative, entrepreneurial place where you could come up with ideas and run with them quite quickly.
“But while Paddy Power has this irreverent, fun tone of voice to the outside world, it’s a business at the end of the day and all these crazy ideas needed to show return on investment. We had to prove that anything we did was ultimately going to drive sales or the brand. So there was method behind the madness.
“Budgets had to work hard and we had to be very clever with what we did. There was an end goal to all this that may not necessarily be seen by people externally, but we were very accountable for our actions.
“Ultimately all marketers need to have full accountability for ideas and what they deliver for the business and that’s something I learnt at Paddy Power, which has helped me put a commercial aspect onto brand campaigns.”
My old boss at Paddy Power, a guy called Andrew Gallagher, had moved on to Papa John’s. He took the Paddy Power mentality there and was turning the pizza ordering system on its head. He launched a campaign that connected gambling with pizza. It was called ‘score twice, half price’ and people would register online, select a team and every time they scored twice throughout the season people would get half price pizza.
He wanted someone he could trust to come in and run this project for him and he had a digital agency to help him deliver that. I didn’t have as much social media and digital experience as I would have liked at that point and felt I could learn both from the agency and from him. It was a really good opportunity for me to get my foot in the door of that digital world.
“Pizza Express was on this treadmill of discounting it couldn’t get off. The challenge the brand had was actually trying to get people to pay full price, so they brought me in to try and develop a website that would provide the right offers at the right locations at the right time so that we weren’t cannibalising sales.
“It was a real challenge trying to change the mindset of customers. I’m not saying it was 100% successful, because I think actually the industry has changed, but it was about trying to bring the brand into the modern era.
“I reported directly into a commercial director rather than a marketing director, which in itself puts sales ahead of marketing. So in the past where I’d been used to developing brand plans and then talking about how that would drive sales, at Pizza Express we’d talk about sales targets and then brand plans that would help us achieve them, so it flipped the table on its head a little bit, and cemented that every pound you spent was so important.”
“Benugo was so different from every other brand I’d worked for. There are now over 100 cafes but the business model was to make each cafe feel independent. It was interesting as well because the brand exists as a standalone cafe but it’s also in John Lewis, Topshop and pretty much every museum in London, but they are white-labelled or have individual branding. So the challenge was to almost manage and market 70 individual brands.
“The core brand led the strategy and it was about trying to be cool and do interesting collaborations with the V&A or the British Museum. It was less about traditional marketing. We were building cafes with Instagram in mind that people wanted to come to and be seen in. It was very soft-sell marketing, which was completely different to my days at Paddy Power.”
“From a brand point of view, Gymbox goes back to that mindset I had at the beginning of my career, of wanting to work for a challenger, rebel brand that does things differently.
“Gymbox is about trying to make gyms fun again. We want people to share their experience, so social media has become a huge part of our marketing strategy and we spend a lot of our time ensuring that we celebrate our members on social media. It’s very difficult to bottle up the excitement and atmosphere we have at our gyms in a poster or a newspaper ad so we’re trying to create a lot more stimulating content through video and photography on digital platforms.
“We’ve always done quite irreverent and tongue-in cheek-advertising. We want to be challenging and make people smile; we’ll always sail quite close to the wind but being boring is the worst crime we could ever commit.”