Marketeer John Donnelly to revamp Edinburgh image

John Donnelly. Picture: Greg Macvean
John Donnelly. Picture: Greg Macvean
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A MARKETING guru who helped launch T in the Park and was the commercial brains behind Glasgow 2014 has been appointed to spearhead the publicity firm promoting Edinburgh across the world.

Renowned marketeer John Donnelly, who dreamt up a ground-breaking Coca-Cola promotion that appeared on 400 million cans, has been charged with injecting a little fizz into Marketing Edinburgh (ME).

The 49-year-old will fill a seven-month void in the chief executive’s chair sparked by the departure of his predecessor, Lucy Bird, following last year’s much derided “Incredinburgh” Winter Festival campaign.

The former chief executive fell on her sword after the Christmas TV advert flopped and ME’s loyalty to the 
tagline – which spawned the wordplay “paint the town redinburgh” and “shop here instedinburgh” – was described by one city source as “one very long suicide note”.

Battle lines were drawn over the £300,000 advertising campaign after deputy council leader Steve Cardownie allegedly stormed out of a slogan briefing and then ignited a public spat with Irn-Bru ad executive Gerry Farrell, who masterminded the branding.

The top Scottish ad man branded the unhappy councillor “hissing Steve” on Twitter and accused him of sabotaging the marketing drive. He was later suspended from his post at The Leith Agency for two weeks.

But six months on, the new appointment is being hailed a “coup” by industry figures who point to his stellar CV and proven track record creating award-winning campaigns.

Sitting open-necked at his new Charlotte Square headquarters, Mr Donnelly is loathe to comment on past squabbles and stretches only so far to describe the doomed campaign as “bold”.

His one-year contract, he says, is sufficient to produce a three-year route map aimed at ramping up investment into the city, wooing the private sector and building solid foundations for a lucrative future.

So with a glittering resume and his own budding marketing firm to grow, why did Mr Donnelly – who devised Coca-Cola’s successful “Win a Player” competition that converted fans’ votes into a £250,000 windfall for their favourite football team – want to head up a body that is only now picking itself off the canvas.

“It’s a very good question and one I’ve asked a few times even going through the process,” he said. “There’s a number of parallels to what I did recently in Glasgow and what I’ve done in previous existences which is run marketing and advertising agencies.

“The idea of taking the brand and product of the city of Edinburgh and taking it to the private sector is a big challenge.”

Mr Donnelly insists one of his first actions will be to revamp the Marketing Edinburgh “website” – an uninspiring landing page with only the organisation’s contact details to view.

“It’s not a website and that is the first thing I’m going to change,” he said. “We are also going to examine digital opportunities to see where we can monetise it. We are looking at things like banners you can click and derive revenue.

“My focus is going to be principally about how do we make money for the city . . . to take heat off the council.”

Mr Donnelly’s appointment follows the addition of Nick Hudson, who was named as head of marketing following an illustrious career working with brands such as Heineken and Kellogg’s, and director of operations Sue Stuart, who has more than 20 years of experience in business tourism.

Lessons will be learned from cities such as Stockholm and Copenhagen that excel in self promotion, he said. But perhaps there is a role model closer to home.

Just along the M8, Glasgow’s marketing drives have been hitting the right notes for years. Its “Glasgow’s Miles Better” slogan is still roundly trumpeted while the new “People Make Glasgow” has been warmly embraced by the population.

Why then does Edinburgh struggle to coin a snappy slogan to which people can identify?

Mr Donnelly said: “The one thing Glasgow did was talk to people. If you ask any Glaswegians what makes the city they will say the people. I have been in Edinburgh for 21 years and not seen a real city campaign.

“From a marketeer’s perspective, what seems to have played out is very much tactical campaigns around a winter message theme as opposed to nailing down an ‘I am Amsterdam’, a ‘Visit Stockholm’ or the holy grail ‘I Love New York’.

“Incredinburgh was not a long-term city campaign.”

So what of the controversial Incredinburgh slogan – Marketing Edinburgh’s first big promotional push – that ignited a slow-burning fuse under his predecessor’s prospects at the firm.

“I thought it was a very bold campaign, I genuinely do,” he said. “I didn’t see it in its entirety and I’m not sure many people did. All we saw was a 340-second piece of work. It’s unfair to judge a campaign based on that.”

The way Edinburgh is sold internationally will change but the new chief executive was tight-lipped about forthcoming plans, although winter promotions will be extended.

He said: “Once Hogmanay is over the world falls off a cliff in January.

“We want to bring it forward to November and run it through to January, and that requires a different creative approach to how we are going to do this, so you will see a tangible difference there.”

It is understood future campaigns will be ruthlessly picked apart by beefed-up focus groups – and more of them. Previously, as was the case with Incredinburgh, there was just one test panel comprising a council official alongside private sector stakeholders and representatives from the universities.

But after 21 years in the Capital, John said he was looking forward to eulogising the city he loves.

He said: “I’ve lived in lots of different places but, for me, Edinburgh is by far top of the list. This is my home and I love it.

“Spreading the word about how fantastic this place is – its quality of life, the culture, the sense of history wherever you go – is something I’ve already been doing for years. It’s just that I can now do it in a professional capacity!”


BORN in Glasgow, John Donnelly graduated from Strathclyde University with a joint honours degree in accountancy and marketing.

With a flair for the latter, he moved to London to work for KLP where he rose to the position of managing director and managed large clients including Tennent’s and Clydesdale Bank. He helped launch T in the Park and the firm scooped Agency of the Year at a top industry awards bash.

He has managed several large agencies including The Marketing Store Worldwide, and is most proud of his “Win a Player” campaign for Coca-Cola. He recently set up his own firm having left his commercial director position at Glasgow 2014.

A music enthusiast, he enjoys everything from Motown to Primal Scream. He is married and lives in Stockbridge with his three children.

Conference calls

Marketing Edinburgh is the official destination marketing organisation dedicated to promoting Edinburgh to the world.

It encompasses business tourism and conferencing, overseas investment and selling the city as a film-making location. One of its most successful branches is boosting the Capital’s appeal as a convention destination having attracted 55,000 delegates worth £85m to the city in 12 months since April last year – a £10m increase on 2011-12.

Director of operations Sue Stuart hopes that figure will increase by five per cent to £88m next year, with the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) ranking Edinburgh as one of the world’s top conference destinations.

Marketing Edinburgh recently helped to win three world-class conferences, set to bring a combined benefit of £8.2m to Edinburgh. The International Paediatric Endosurgery Group Meeting and Autism Europe will both take place in 2014, whilst the International Congress on Cleft Palate & Related Craniofacial Anomalies will come to the city in June 2021.

It has also facilitated film and TV productions such as Sunshine on Leith and Case Histories. In May, it set up a new body to help attract film and TV productions.