Steve Sharp is not just chairman of Collen & Clare, Imagineer London Ltd and Imagineer Events. He is also senior non-executive director of Adnams Plc, director of the Government Communications Board. Fellow of Chartered Institute of Marketing, Marketing Society and The Royal Society of Arts. Professor and Doctor of Glasgow Caledonian University and the British School of Fashion in London and New York. I think it’s fair to say he’s a man of many talents.
How did you enter the world of marketing?
I’m dyslexic so my education was not a normal one. I didn’t go to university but studied catering and hotel management. I’m a bit of a foodie and loved the industry and the people but early on I took an interest in marketing; I was drawn to its creativity and power as a business tool. I see advertising as art but also as a commercial benefit to an organisation.
My first break was to join a gourmet food company called Alveston Kitchens. It was here that my boss was a great marketing guy called Mitch Fisher who was my first mentor.
The first part of my career was spent in food, culminating in my role as marketing director for ASDA. The next part was in fashion with a plethora of high street names from Debenhams to TopShop. Finally, the two industries came together at Marks & Spencer that is uniquely divided 50/50 into food and fashion.
Tell us a bit about your long and prestigious career as M&S marketing chief?
I joined M&S to defend a bid by Phillip Green with my friend and colleague, Stuart, now Lord Rose of Monewden. The deal to join M&S was cooked up in the kitchen of his house there.
During the defense I used the term ‘Your M&S’ – it’s now embedded in the hearts and minds of the British public. The phrase stuck and became the branding. Once the bid was won, we set about transforming the business. My job was to rekindle the nation’s love affair with M&S and to get the customers back with us.
What in your career are you most proud of?
I guess the two obvious ones are Twiggy, and the melting middle chocolate pudding. Not something you’d expect to see in the same sentence! Actually, the pudding came first. A piece of TV advertising featuring a simple Sunday lunch, narrated with the sensuous Irish tones of Dervla Kerwan. As the pudding splits and oozes chocolate, Dervla oozes the words ‘This is not just food, this is M&S food’. A phrase which led to the opening of another factory for the puddings.
Sometime later, my wife, Lesley and I were having lunch in The Crown in Southwold when Twiggy walked in with her husband, Leigh Lawson. Lesley recognised her immediately, which was surprising since she was very wind-swept and was wearing a woolly hat and pig tails. She went on to star in the first clothing commercial which was a dressing-up box idea with Twiggy and her friends, Erin O’Conner, Laura Bailey and Noemie Lenoir.
As a loyal customer and unofficial mentor to Collen & Clare what initiated the jump to Chairman?
Lesley and I were fans of Collen & Clare right from the start in their little shop and watched them grow into the now familiar store in the marketplace. Vanessa (Collen) and Clare had a great eye and created a wonderful atmosphere in which to enjoy shopping.
When Clare needed to make a lifestyle change, Vanessa needed a new partner and I was delighted to join her. We developed a new plan to grow the business in its East Anglian heartland and opened another store in Aldeburgh.
More recently we’ve added a larger one in Burnham Market and relaunched our website, www.collenandclare.com. All of these ventures have been really well received by local customers and visitors alike, whilst our Southwold store remains our flagship and goes on from strength to strength.
My role as Chairman is to develop the business and support Vanessa and her team. I have been known to work on the shop floor and visit suppliers on buying trips but I tend to leave that to the experts! And it’s not all glamour. On opening day in Burnham Market, I was up a ladder at the former Groom’s Bakery at 6am cleaning the windows!
What advice would you give to young aspiring marketing and PR agents?
The world of marketing is much more diverse than might appear. It offers opportunities in everything from research and analytics to creativity and production so there is massive scope for an exciting, rewarding career.
Can you sum up your career in three words?
Lucky, lucky, lucky!
What is next for you and Collen & Clare?
Consolidation. We have been busy expanding our reach further into Suffolk and Norfolk and literally to the world online. For now, we’re enjoying getting to know our new customers and making sure our loyal friends are getting the exciting clothing and the warm welcome they have come to expect from us.