Talking comedy with CMO of Boots, Pete Markey

'Improv has brought me much-needed levity to certain work situations'

In this interview MediaCat Magazine’s Editor Mike Piggott chats to the CMO of Boots UK, Pete Markey, about improv comedy and what it has taught him about being a marketing leader. 

Hi Pete, it’s been a while. Thanks for chatting. Our theme this month is humour, so I wanted to talk about your experiences with improv. We spoke about this a few years ago (when you were CMO at TSB Bank), but I thought we could set the scene again. What was your experience of improv at the time and what prompted you to try it out?

Pete Markey

I was in the queue to get a ticket at my local train station about five years ago and spotted a poster about improvised comedy lessons, with the brilliant Dingbats Improv in the Archway theatre (in north London) right next to the station. I’d been wanting to learn something new and didn’t fancy getting back into education after my MBA (which I loved, but it did have seven three-hour exams!) and this looked like a new challenge. Plus my son, James, is an actor and it gave me a chance to learn some of the skills he has honed, so we could compare notes. Ed Pithie, who runs Dingbats Improv, is such a great teacher, so it’s been a brilliant learning experience.

Do you still keep any of it up? Attend classes or improv shows or anything?

Yes, I regularly do lessons with Dingbats Improv, plus I take part in stage shows each month, performing in front of 50-100 people each time. I am part of a small improv group called ‘Hawaii Five No’, with the joke being there are only four of us (plus we wear Hawaiian shirts). We tend to perform a set of improv scenes in the first half of the show, along with other brilliant acts. And. next month. because I love a challenge, I am starting an improvised singing and comedy lessons programme. We perform in a live show at the end of that, too. 

Pete, with his improv group, Hawaii Five No

What lessons did you learn from trying to hone your comedic skills?

I do improv comedy and not stand-up, and the great thing about improv is that you are always on stage with other people, so the scenes work at their best when you build on and support each others ideas.

A key lesson has been to listen and build in each other’s ideas to enhance a scene; plus to appreciate within a scene what the audience are liking and when to end a scene. It’s a great lesson in self-reflection, self-editing and, ultimately, teamwork, as scenes only work if you work with each other — the audience have the most fun when all the performers really lean in and make the most of each other’s talents and skills. The greatest lesson for me has been about being playful and spontaneous and unleashing my creativity in the moment — it’s been liberating and a whole lot of fun.

What’s also been great is that I now have a much wider friendship group, made up of people from different background and experiences, and that’s made my life a lot more interesting too.

Did you use any of these learnings in your work, in the world of marketing?

It’s interesting, because I didn’t start doing improv comedy lessons thinking I could apply it to a work environment. It was just a fun thing to do outside of work. But I found straight away that I could be more creative in my thinking (at work) and more spontaneous in the moment.

In short, it helped me loosen up a lot. I was working for TSB bank at the time, in a very corporate environment, and it was great to be able to bring these skills into the workplace. I’ve been able to use them to think on my feet better, to bring new ideas to the table and to use techniques like ‘Yes and..’ (where rather than dismiss on someone’s idea you build on and strengthen it) to develop new and fresh ideas that have made a real difference. It’s also, I hope, helped me bring some much-needed levity to certain situations in a work environment that have needed it.

Four years ago I persuaded nine other CMOs to learn improv comedy, with eight weeks of lessons and then a show; where we raised £30k for Comic Relief. We’re now all firm friends and I know they all learnt a lot to take back to their work and wider lives. Improv is an amazing skill to learn.

Should marketers learn to write jokes? There’s the setup, timing, and finally, delivering the punchline. Essentially, it’s all a form of storytelling. Would working on these skills make them better marketers, do you think?

Well the great thing about improv is that it’s all made up. We never get to write material. I think the craft of creating an improvised scene from scratch in the moment, and bringing humour to it, building on each other’s ideas is a great skill. I’d recommend that to any marketer; being able to tell a story is vital. There’s no better way to learn it than having to think on your feet, often in front of a live audience!

Pete on stage recently

An area we’re exploring this month for the magazine is whether marketers have forgotten how to be funny. Do you think that’s the case? 

I am lucky enough to know a whole bunch of brilliant marketers, and they are all so different and all so brilliant. I think marketers in general are a great group and the CMOs I know especially are great fun, so I don’t think as a community we’ve forgotten how to be fun or funny. Most CMOs (when I meet them) ask me first about improv comedy ahead of anything Boots related; showing there is a keen interest amongst marketers to keep learning, which is a philosophy I fully support.

Last October The Drum asked whether marketers had cancelled funny by becoming too purposeful. Do you agree? And if so, do you think marketers are swinging away from purpose and back to funny as a result, or as a course correction maybe?

I think brand purpose is more important than ever post-Covid-19, and in a world where brands need to show more than ever how relevant they are; so they are actively considered by consumers.

For me, the best marketing today weaves a clear purpose message in, and humour definitely helps. It’s what we are doing at Boots and our purpose ‘With You. For Life’ and our most recent campaigns (e.g health and Spring), where we’re using observational, everyday humour, and its tested really well with strong campaign performance. My hope is there isn’t a need for course correction, but rather the focus on balancing purpose with clever comms techniques to increase brand salience. 

Do you think some industries find it easier to market themselves in a more humorous way than others? For example, it’s rare to see pharmaceuticals or automotive be particularly funny with their advertising and communications

I think if the script is right it can work well across any industry. Financial services is often thought of as being hard to inject humour into, but the most recent work from Nationwide and TSB demonstrates it can be done well, and the work Mark Evans did at Direct Line did this in a great way, too, for insurance. We’ve used humour in our latest Boots healthcare campaign, and it’s landed really well. The key is a great creative idea that connects with audiences, which is hard to do given the proliferation of channels we now have, so humour can often be a great way to do this.

In this era of cancel culture do you think brands are afraid to be funny in case they misstep? And if so, how can they get past that and make good things?

For me, the key thing is to demonstrate your brand purpose really well, and if humour is the best way to do this then great. I do think humour done well can be highly effective, but brands do need to be authentic and avoid topics that don’t highlight their brand purpose effectively. I also think consumers are super savvy so avoiding cringey, groan-worthy humour is clearly recommended — work should be more Fleabag and less ’80s sitcom!

To play devil’s advocate let’s say marketers are as funny as they’ve ever been, or that funny is still alive and well in marketing, at least. In recent years, are there any campaigns you’ve found that have really caught your eye when it comes to using humour effectively?

Keith Gulliver heads up brand at TSB, and he and the team have done a brilliant job with their most recent ‘Life Made More’ work with McCann, featuring a pink elephant called Tiny.

There’s humour around common financial worries (which we all have) played out in real-world scenarios, but it’s done in a funny and engaging way, and uses humour in just the right way. For me, it’s the best set of ads for a bank out there today. Really great work.  

To end, let’s put you on the spot. Can you tell me a joke?

I can’t take my dog to the park as all the ducks keep trying to bite him. My fault for getting a pure bread…

Thanks so much for talking to us, Pete.

Featured image: Pete Markey doing improv