Putting a new spin on an old sales pitch

Putting a new spin on an old sales pitch
(Credit: The Bulletin)

In September of this year, supermodel and paparazzi favourite, Kate Moss, was unceremoniously dropped by H&M for "shock drug use" (H&M apparently never realising that drug use existed in the modelling world). Kate also lost lucrative contacts with Channel and Burberry within a few weeks of this incident. And while other managing directors around the world prayed that their celebrity spokespeople would remain model corporate citizens, the managing director of telephone audio production company, Messages On Hold, was headed in the opposite direction. Defying convention wisdom, Kym Illman was about to team up with a new spokesperson that had been dropped by previous sponsors for being risky and unpredictable. Messages On Hold bought Shane Warne.

It was a decision as bold as it was controversial. Was this move sheer stupidity or, in fact, the greatest piece of spin seen outside of a cricket ground? Illman suggests it was a little bit of both.

The story begins, as they often do, in the men's toilet. It was November 2003. At a function with the legendary leg spinner, Illman remembered being impressed with Shane's passionate, energetic style, believing these traits made the cricketing personality the perfect face for his company. Illman scribbled a proposal on a card and suggested that, for a sum of money, they might do business together. Either he never read the card or the figure was lower than Warne's batting average. Either way, Illman received no reply.

Clearly the time wasn't right for Warne to join the Messages On Hold team, but Illman wasn't daunted. The seed had been planted, and for the next 18 months the Adelaide-born businessman continued to push the idea with Warne's manager (and brother), Jason. Finally, in October 2005, Warne and Illman came to an agreement. Shane signed a long-term deal with the business, and the year's most attention-grabbing endorsement contract was born.

While the star power of Mr Shane Warne is indisputable (he was recently rated number 3 in Alpha magazine's list of the "Most Influential People in Sport"), just what do the two parties have in common? Upon first inspection, the 'messages' connection is obvious - until you realise it's nothing of the sort. Shane may have been famous for sending one too many messages in his time, but Messages On Hold has nothing to do with texting.

Established in 1988 after Illman was sacked from Channel 9 (so perhaps they do have something in common?), Messages On Hold was started from the spare bedroom of Illman's modest Scarborough flat. He began writing and recording audio productions for businesses to play back to waiting callers on hold.

The concept was canny enough for others businesses to warm to, and when it was combined with an unparalleled commitment to customer service (Messages On Hold's clear competitive advantage), it proved a runaway success. The company went international in 2002, and today is the largest provider of On Hold Messages in the Asia-Pacific region. However, this doesn't change the fact that the service has nothing to do with text messaging or mobiles. Perhaps this is just as well. Even with the exquisitely planned national PR campaign (with assistance from Sydney's Markson Sparks), Shane's credibility in this particular playing field is dubious at best. His behaviour, put simply, just isn't cricket. Synergy was built instead upon Shane's personality. Like Messages On Hold (famous for ambush marketing everything from the 1996 and 2000 Olympics to the ambush king himself, Richard Branson), Shane Warne is cheeky, brash and passionate. Shane is also the best at what he does - an achievement Messages On Hold is more than happy to associate itself with. It's this latter trait that the company chose to promote, and was integral to the campaign launch.

Kym's existing spin doctor, Greg Tingle (from Mediaman), was already creating groundswell about the pending launch in November. Around this time, Illman then brought PR veteran Max Markson (of Markson Sparks) into the fray. Having already worked with Shane on the Advanced Hair campaign, Markson was the perfect man for the job. His philosophy was simple - keep the past in the past and Shane's profile (currently at an all-time high following the Ashes) would do the rest.

The objectives were clear - to launch the campaign with as much media coverage as possible, and to create public awareness of Messages On Hold (both the company and the concept). The result was electric. Interest was widespread around the country, nowhere more so than in Melbourne where the press conference was to take place.

To capitalise on this, on November 11th (the day of the launch), teams of chalk artists daubed Messages On Hold logos on street corners around Melbourne and Sydney to further pique the public's interest and build awareness of the company. The press conference itself took place that morning at Melbourne's Junction Oval, with Shane fielding questions from the media alongside Illman. Photo opportunities then followed, as Warnie played a game of cricket with models dressed as Messages On Hold receptionists. Select one-on-one media interviews were scheduled immediately after this, and a nationwide videoconference drew the day's activities to a close.

The press launch over, Messages On Hold then got down to the business of big business. As the media packed up their cameras in Melbourne, telemarketers in the company's Perth office began playing pre-recorded sales offers to prospects around the country, voiced by Warnie. A viral video did the rounds and signed Shane Warne memorabilia was suddenly up for grabs to both new and existing Messages On Hold clients. Shane Warne had successfully swapped the cricket pitch for the sales pitch.

Not surprisingly, the reaction from press and public alike was huge. Most major papers in the country (and many overseas) featured the story; it also made headlines on radio and TV news bulletins around Australia. The press couldn't resist making the connection between Shane's messaging past and Messages present, and though the media was quick to realise there was no real connection, the level of interest was high enough to make the story hot news.

Weeks later it still is, with columns and panels alike debating the controversial nature of the partnership. However, thanks to a cheerful admission regarding the ironies involved and Shane's good-natured acceptance of some ribbing from the press, the media's take on it was universally a positive one.

Let's be honest. What makes this case study so interesting is the danger inherent in it. We've followed the story with nervous excitement, as if it were a natural disaster or terrorist outing. At the end of the day, however, the media loves Shane. He's always news (even when that news isn't good) because he never gets upset at them. Shane knows to let the press get their story without taking it personally, and in their eyes that makes him a larrikin not a liar, a champion not a cheat. Always one to play the game, he keeps the journalistic beast at a respectful distance, which in turn allows agencies like Markson Sparks (and through them, Messages On Hold) to ride that beast to their own ends.

Messages On Hold counted on this shaky relationship to take their business into every home around the country, and it's paid off. Less than two weeks on, the company has enjoyed more than half a million dollars worth of publicity. What if though, as many have asked, history repeats itself and Shane is embroiled in yet another scandal? Suffice it to say, Illman's PR agency has damage control measures at the ready. As Illman says, "There is a level of risk in sponsoring any athlete or celebrity, but no business gets to where we are today by playing it safe. I guess time will tell if the decision has been a good one."


Messages On Hold

Shane Warne

Kym Illman

Markson Sparks!

Greg Tingle