INTERVIEW: John Donnelly, Marketing Edinburgh

‘If Edinburgh wants to be a premium city it has to behave like one’

John Donnelly 2

It’s the day before a touch of Hollywood glamour descends on Edinburgh. Everybody, it seems, has gone ga-ga over actor George Clooney’s attendance at an awards ceremony and visit to a sandwich shop that benefits the homeless.

If nothing else, it provides fleeting national, if not international attention on the city as his trip to Rose Street draws the camera crews and a clamour of giddy fans.

Free worldwide publicity is manna from heaven to a marketing man, especially one working for a local authority aiming to boost the city’s profile at every opportunity while looking after the pennies during a severe period of budget belt-tightening.

John Donnelly, chief executive of Marketing Edinburgh, knows he has to square this particular circle, making the best of a tight spending round to be creative and sell the capital to the world.

To offset the financial squeeze there are likely to be new sources of revenue – a festival or hotel bed tax – to raise money from tourists.

Even so, there is not a lot of money around to spend on big campaigns. Some possible future projects, such as a “City Brand”, will have to take their chance.

Donnelly doesn’t want to hedge his bets, but he believes that if it were to happen a new brand would provide a focus for his organisation’s activities and be good for the city.

“It gives you a rallying point, people get behind it and it helps in bringing investment,” he says, pointing to the enormous success of “I Amsterdam”, which is recognised internationally as the best City Brand in the world.

Apex hotelIronically, its play on words is not too different to the much-maligned “Incredinburgh” slogan, dreamed up three years ago by the Leith Agency and Marketing Edinburgh’s previous management. The city council disliked it and there was a public spat between Leith’s creative guru Gerry Farrell and the council’s deputy leader Steve Cardownie. The slogan was dropped both Farrell and Marketing Edinburgh’s chief executive Lucy Bird left their respective employers soon afterwards.

Since his appointment in July 2013 Donnelly has set about restructuring the way Marketing Edinburgh operates and putting the failed Incredinburgh campaign to bed.

“I didn’t see the brief, but clearly the process was not as good as it should have been, nor was it as inclusive as it should have been,” he says. “Undoubtedly people were hurt by it, but none of those people are here now. Unfortunately, it masked a lot of the good work the organisation was doing and is still doing.”

He points to £91.5 million of conference business brought to the city in 2014 and £4.5m from promoting film. But he admits that the failed campaign was damaging.

“When you are the city’s marketing organisation and your marketing campaign doesn’t go well it has a pretty negative halo effect.”

Donnelly came in with a reputation for getting things done and achieving targets. He was behind the creation of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games branding, setting up the commercial operations such as ticketing and sponsorship. Once that was done he moved into non-executive roles, until this job came along.

“There was a lingering malaise. No one-to-one briefings or opportunities to talk. Internal communication was not good. Morale was low. We had to rebuild relationships with key stakeholders.

“But nothing builds confidence better than good work and there was a lot of good work. I set about promoting the good things we were doing.”

A new campaign was launched – This is Edinburgh – to appease disgruntled shopkeepers and residents who had suffered disruption from the tramworks.

To prove there was no overhang of bad feeling over the previous flop, Leith Agency was invited to pitch, although the account was handed to The Lane Agency.

With a £1 million budget, the campaign aimed to attract people back into the city. It is on course to achieve its goals – a 2% increase in footfall above the UK average, and an above average increase in UK retail sales. It should produce £50m of additional spending in the city.

There will be no new campaign money for This is Edinburgh, but it will continue as an online promotional vehicle.

Ribbon hotel St JamesAttention just now is focused on the world heritage status of the city, largely because of controversial planning issues, including approval for the circular “ribbon hotel” (right) in the new St James’ development, and the yet-to-be decided future of the classical, but derelict, Royal High School.

“World heritage status is hugely important to the city. However, the city has to develop and grow,” says Donnelly. “We do a lot of work with the world heritage people, and they get it. It’s about developments which are empathetic. We are not Tokyo, but Edinburgh has to develop.”

He is unable to comment on the designs or merits of any scheme (RHS impression below) but he is certain of one thing: the city needs five-star hotels.

“We need them for conferences and tourists. The Chinese market in particular is growing in importance and when they think about Europe they think Starwood, Four Seasons. Edinburgh needs one of these. All the people I talk to say the high school should be a hotel, without doubt. It would add to the city market.

“A music school (the alternative proposal) will not add to Edinburgh’s attraction from an international point of view.”

Royal High School hotel 2

As for the St James development, he says: “I don’t think anyone would disagree that it needs tearing down. From a marketing perspective the new centre creates a new platform because Edinburgh doesn’t have a strong retail offering against the likes of Leeds or Glasgow.”

Donnelly knows both these developments are capable of transforming the city’s prospects, but he warns against making the wrong decisions by failing to think internationally.

“If Edinburgh wants to be a premium city it has to behave like one,” he says.

He was in Buenos Aires a week earlier as part of his role in the Best Cities Global Alliance, and he says the world speaks highly of Edinburgh, its architecture, educational establishments and its culture.

“We get that even though we don’t shout about it. Edinburgh is naturally reticent. I say that as a Glaswegian. We shouldn’t underestimate how well regarded Edinburgh is worldwide.

“But all these new developments that are planned have to add to the city, not take anything away.”



Birthplace: Glasgow

Age: 52

Education: Strathclyde University (Marketing and accountancy)

Career Highlights: Account executive, KLP; European director, Marketing Store Worldwide; Marketing director, BD Network; Interim head of marketing, Scottish Rugby; Director, Iris Worldwide; Commercial director, Glasgow 2014; Chief executive, Marketing Edinburgh

What’s your business philosophy?

Be honest

Who has inspired you?

Ian Ferguson at KLP and Lord Smith, who recruited me to Glasgow 2014.

You are a Glaswegian living in Edinburgh. Which do you prefer?

Edinburgh. By a mile. Would I live in Glasgow again? No. I love the quality of life in Edinburgh.


Main photo (top): John Donnelly (by Terry Murden)

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