Helping distrusted companies gain acceptance

Wednesday 24th May

Last night at the 2017 Sabre Awards we were delighted to take home the Consumer Marketing Award for our successful launch of IQOS in November 2016. Pagefield CEO Oliver Foster reflects on the campaign, explaining why we took the challenge on and why it was such a success.


At Pagefield, we actively recruit people who are open-minded. As an agency, we always strive to see both sides of any situation or argument – it is our job, to understand first, to advise second. However, if there’s one thing I’ve always personally struggled with, it is cigarettes and smoking – I’m always telling friends, including Mark Gallagher, Pagefield’s Founder – to stop.

But this approach only works to a point. Our libertarian streak means we believe better outcomes for people are more likely achieved through innovation rather than dictating through regulation; by bringing all interested parties to the table rather than preaching from the outside.

Working for a tobacco company is always a contentious decision for agencies like ours, especially when the role involves reputation management. Too many consultancies – if they take on that work – are only too happy to conceal the work they are doing.

We did the opposite from day one of our three-year partnership with Philip Morris’s Reduced Risk business.

Up on our website went the Philip Morris logo. Three years later and as recently as last night, we won an international PR industry award for our work launching the groundbreaking IQOS – a reduced risk, heat-not-burn product which is 95% less harmful than standard cigarettes. Getting shortlisted against far less contentious brands was a victory in itself. Winning for work with a tobacco brand was a massive achievement and a pleasant but not complete surprise.

We were in a fortunate situation. First and foremost, we had already made the decision that if we were to work Philip Morris, it would be because it was creating viable, safer and scientifically-proven alternatives to traditional tobacco products.

When they approached us to help lay the groundwork for the launch of IQOS, it was an easy decision.  This – alongside the business’ move towards reinventing itself – made for a worthwhile and fascinating brief.

So, what lessons have we learnt from this campaign that are applicable to other distrusted companies planning to launch a significant, transformative new product or business model?

Firstly, the work we all do for our clients is essentially about developing a robust argument. This does not need to be in the confrontational sense. It can be a strident view, a case or perhaps just a story. But central to all of these there is usually a position which is designed to convey or convince, with evidence in support. Essentially, this is all about putting across the position of our clients in the most interesting and convincing way – but most crucially, always remaining loyal to facts and values.

Second, equally important is the purpose (or values) behind the transformation. For the first time Philip Morris was prepared to commit to a smoke-free future. Purpose was put ahead of product and that made for a more captivating story.

Third is the power of transparency. In a highly regulated market where advertising of tobacco products is illegal, it was crucial for Philip Morris to open up as much as possible. Historically, tobacco businesses have been evasive and reluctant to do this. We therefore made an early decision to push to be as transparent as possible. What better way to do this than giving The Today programme full access to the story and Philip Morris’ headquarters and research and development centre in Switzerland.

Tobacco businesses, like other businesses in controversial sectors, will never fully escape their past and earn the halo that less contentious businesses can earn. But if they are finally trying to change and are investing billions in creating products and scientific solutions that will eventually consign cigarettes to the past, then why shouldn’t people know about it?

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