Our Brand Partnership Manager Adam Walker caught up with Katya Escala (PR Lead) and Roxy Baciu (Head of Community) at giffgaff to learn more about their ambitions for the business, and what it takes to change the industry from the inside out.

It’s rare that a business is able to change the shape and style of an industry as much as giffgaff has. Since launching in 2009, the self-named ‘people’s network’ has gone from strength to strength whilst seeking to transform everything about what you expect from your mobile network, from products to how they talk to their customers. Our Brand Partnership Manager Adam Walker caught up with Katya Escala (PR Lead) and Roxy Baciu (Head of Community) at giffgaff to learn more about their ambitions for the business, and what it takes to change the industry from the inside out.

Adam: So, very top line, if you could just give me a bit of an overview of what your roles are within the business.

Roxy: My role varies so much day to day – I think that’s part of why I really love it. I’m the type of person that likes to do a lot of things and being in the community team at giffgaff offers you the opportunity to do just that. As PR led, I get involved in everything in the business- the only limit is how much time we have in a day!  

We do a lot of things from the practical side, thinking about service issues or things that affect our members, projects that we can do on the development side, even engagement stuff. We ask ourselves; how can we just do something fun with our members? A cookbook, an Easter egg hunt, it just jumps from one day to the next to the next to the next.

Katya: I lead on all things PR at giffgaff, which is very vast because PR at giffgaff is not PR as I’ve known it in my other roles – that’s a good thing. We’re very lean and agile at giffgaff. I work across every area of the business. I speak to different teams all the time to understand what they’re working on what they’re developing. I’m responsible for giffgaff’s brand reputation, so even though I’m part of the brand and marketing team, I’ll chat to our props team. I’m very close to our leadership team to see what’s going on under the hood and what the plans are with the design and product teams.  

Adam: Is it hard to keep track of all that?

Roxy: It is, but you never get bored! There’s never been a moment where there wasn’t something that I could do. There’s so many things, you can explore ideas. The only limit is what you decide to focus on – and how much time you have in your day.

Katya: I’m always chatting around to see if there’s any new news we can talk about. If there isn’t, then what’s going on culturally? giffgaff have a really unique culture. It’s something that I always find quite difficult to describe. A great culture isn’t something you can often put into words, you just feel it, it’s sort of splashed on the proverbial walls. A bit like Roxy, no two days are the same. Sometimes I’m writing an article sometimes I’m doing interviews, sometimes I’m strategizing, which I love doing. I think the best thing about giffgaff is how we work, as we started as a disruptive brand. We’ve had 10 years of innovation and disruption. And part of my role is asking what the next 10 years look like when it comes to innovation? How can we keep doing mobile differently?

“A great culture isn’t something you can often put into words, you just feel it, it’s sort of splashed on the proverbial walls.”

Adam: That has to be tough. When you’re growing as a business and you’re in that challenger brand mentality, you can afford to take those risks a little bit more, can’t you? At this point, you’ve made a name for yourself as pretty much the exact opposite of a typical telecoms company.

As you’re looking ahead to your brand in the next 10 years, you’re going to transition into a much, much ‘bigger’ company. How can you keep your brand identity down to earth?

Roxy: This is what the culture is all about. We tried to make it very much like a start-up. We’re all in the same mindset and we all try to encourage one another to think outside the box to really fill the giffgaff values.  

As you go bigger and bolder, those values will stay exactly the same. It’s just the way you go about it will change slightly differently. Even now we’re looking at ‘run by you’ and what that means. It’s exactly the same concept. We still want to be ‘run by you’, we still have that passion. You need to take into consideration competition and other things, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. It just means it’s going to take us a little bit of time to figure out what that means in the new world.  

Really, that’s what drives us. If you go into our office, we always have reminders of ‘together with our members, anything is possible’ and not just by having them on the wall, but by bringing our members in all the time.  Through this we know what we need to do in order to maintain that flame and keep it alive, and it motivates us to try and find the answer to: okay, what does this look like? After we’ve grown from a tiny little business, what’s next?

Adam: There’s so many brands that try to come across as relatable, but it’s just been face value. How do you avoid that? We see with giffgaff that there’s obviously so much more effort that goes into that post-acquisition, is that something that’s just been ingrained within the brand?

Roxy: My team does exactly that on a day-to-day basis. That’s what we specialize in. In order to actually become that brand, you need to do it day in and day out. I think one of the most important parts is taking responsibility and ownership when things don’t go that well. That gives us that trust, and that credibility. We don’t shy away from saying, yep, we messed up. But we want to do it better. So, help us do this better. It takes a lot of time, a lot more time, but it’s what we decided to do. There’s no better feeling than coming back and talking to the people and seeing their reaction.  When you’re actually open and say we messed up, I’m here, I’m not running away. Then it is just totally on a different level.

“I think one of the most important parts is taking responsibility and ownership when things don’t go that well. That gives us that trust, and that credibility. We don’t shy away from saying, yep, we messed up.”

Adam: A lot of companies will make mistakes, especially when you’ve got the number of customers that you have. Companies like yourselves that hold their hands up and say, Look, we’ve messed up, but we’re going to do better, that really resonates with the customer.

Roxy:  If you want to be more scientific, you can call it the recovery paradox. When things go wrong, that’s when a brand shows their true colours. You get to see a glimpse of what they’re really about. It will present how much you actually believe in your values; you get the chance to show them and display them. And I think that just offers us the opportunity to prove that we’re here with them. We did it by standing by those values.

Adam: Would you class a lot of the business’s success as being down to the community that you’ve created there?

Roxy: Yeah, definitely. We had a community before we had a business. We started with the forum before we had any products or anything. I think that says it all.

Adam: Katya, you’ve only come into the business when it’s been the pandemic haven’t you? With this community, what have you both done to really kind of reach out to customers in such a such an isolating year?  

Katya: For me, as a PR professional, I feel like I have done less spinning in this last year of stories, or news or crises, or whatever you want to call it, than I’ve ever done before. We are so honest, as a brand, that it just makes my job easier. There are other challenges when you’re that honest, you open yourself up, you become very vulnerable. It’s not just about being honest, and saying: ‘Yeah, where we messed up’, it’s about how we’re going to fix it. You hold yourself accountable. You are trying to do better all the time.

From a PR perspective, it’s usually all “what’s the line we’re going to go out with?”. We don’t do that. At giffgaff, if anything happens, we would jump into what we call our war room in the office but now we call the virtual war room. Me, Roxy, someone from her team, the social team, any legal, if it’s needed, we’ll talk about how we can start the conversation and try and remedy what’s gone wrong, or why we’ve maybe messed up.

It’s just really refreshing, even though I’ve only been at giffgaff for a year, and I’ve been here during the most trying time, for brands, for people and just for the world in general. Still, it’s been the most refreshing time for me as someone in PR. It’s harder to sell a story and but we find that we get press coming to us for things that we want to talk about, we’re very, we’re very keen, since the pandemic, especially to focus on our purpose as a brand.  

By speaking to our members, by speaking to the wider public, we find out what their concerns are, what their passions are, what they care about. We’re trying to drive our business based on our customers and what the wider public need and want in such trying times.

“We’re trying to drive our business based on our customers and what the wider public need and want in such trying times.”

Adam: It just shows how much time and effort you’ve put into the communication behind the brand. You can always tell a little bit when a business is giving you a standard response, and it doesn’t give that authenticity at all.  

Who as a brand  do you admire in the way they go about things? Not someone that look to emulate but a really big disruptor in their own sector that you take inspiration from?  

Roxy: One of them would be Lush. I just love the boldness in their purpose. The way they go about it, they’re not afraid to just say it and then be held accountable for it.  

Katya: A brand that I’ve always had a soft spot for is Patagonia. They’re one of those brands that I look at that was actually built with purpose. It’s a purpose-born brand. Whilst giffgaff was an innovator disruptor, we weren’t built on that purpose. Patagonia was born from purpose. I would love to integrate purpose more in our story and our narrative, because it’s there. What are we saying? How are we sharing what we’re doing with our members and with people so that they can benefit?  

It boils down to our culture because we couldn’t be so caring towards the community and our members if we weren’t equally as caring to each other within giffgaff so it makes my job so much easier. Everyone is really trusted at giffgaff and I think if you’re not you just wouldn’t get the job, it’s as simple as that really. We hire like-minded people who are absolutely in our way of thinking and our skill set but importantly, good human beings.

Adam: It’s so much harder to recruit for that than you would first think. Has that always been the case for the business as it’s grown?

Roxy: I think that’s mainly the reason why I’m still here.  

For me, it’s always been the case within the business. There’s no rulebook for running a business like this. It’s a blessing and a curse because you can do whatever you want, but you need to be responsible and make sure that you plan things in a certain way. Because we have such an amazing culture, everyone knows their position. Take me and Katya right? In a normal business, I push one way and she would push in a different way. What we do is actually is that we understand the roles we play, and we come to the table with that in mind, and we’ll have a beautiful debate which leads us to a middle ground. Asking questions such as, is this the best place for both members and the business? I absolutely love that.  

Adam:  Do you think everyone in the business is as bought in as yourself? How do you really get everyone to contract into giffgaff’s brand identity?

Roxy: Well, I can tell you a little bit from my side as we spent a lot of time looking at the recruitment process and the interviews. What we decided is that we’re going to look for motivation and values, those are the two things we’re prioritising. We recognize that what we do at giffgaff is unlike any other business. We wanted to make sure that we go into the recruitment process as realistically as possible when it comes to ‘Hey, we’re not going to find exactly what we’re looking for, because it doesn’t exist’. What we DO know is we can make anything work with the right person, right?  

What is the right person? The right person is someone that gets a kick out of helping others. For example, we give a lot of development courses at giffgaff, which you can sign up to and you can be a part of, and we had one with a gentleman that was a theatre director, actually. We got to have a very good relationship. And at one point I sat down and asked myself: How can I get to the right people by asking the right question? Now in my interviews, I always have a question asking: What does your Sunday look like?

Adam: That can tell a lot about a person!

Roxy: Exactly! That’s because you want to know what people gravitate towards when there’s no restrictions? That’s where they get to show their passion. They get to show what they really want to get a kick out of. And it’s not about right or wrong. It’s about how do you go about things when you don’t have a blueprint?  

You don’t need to abide by any rules. What are you really like? We get an interesting reaction when you ask that question.  

Adam: To move on to your agency partners, would you align them the same way as you do your recruitment? How do you go about kind of identifying that?

Katya: We actually reviewed our whole process of working with agencies towards the second half of last year. I was really involved in this because we work with different creative agencies, PR agencies, and we wanted to sort of switch things up a bit and try and get a little bit more bang for our buck.  

I have an agency background as well; I’ve worked in PR agencies and also some advertising agencies. So, I know what we as giffgaff are looking for in agencies – we’ve actually written our manifesto of what we would look for in other agencies. It’s something that we’re constantly reviewing and working on with our procurement team.  

What we’ve come up with is a certain line of questioning. Whenever we brief our agencies or look to work with new agencies, we ask for their D&I policy, how they keep diversity and inclusion top of mind and how they champion inclusivity in the workplace. Do they champion diversity in their recruitment process? How will they ensure diversity and inclusion within the team that will be working on giffgaff? That’s a requirement. For any brief we send out, an agency has to provide that as well as a response.

“Whenever we brief our agencies or look to work with new agencies, we ask for their D&I policy, how they keep diversity and inclusion top of mind and how they champion inclusivity in the workplace”

We also work with quite a few creative agencies who work with other purpose-driven brands and brands that we respect as giffgaff. We tend to avoid the bigger, shiny agencies because we don’t want to be part of that cog in a machine – lots of bigger agencies do some great work, absolutely but for brands, it feels very formulaic. We want to go down a route that is more unique, and something that our members can identify with.  

Every brief we send out to agencies, we ask them top line; how can we hear our members voices in this next campaign? Our members are at the forefront of everything we do, even when we work with external agencies. Beyond that, what we normally do have quite a few agencies on our roster – whoever comes back with like the strongest idea, we will go with them.

Adam: I’ve not heard that response before, especially when we start talking about the D&I side of things. A lot of brands are in a similar mindset to you – there’s a perception of it feeling a little bit cold now these days, and it’s becoming a lot easier to set agencies up if you’ve got a strong background. You’ve worked on both sides of the coin now, has it made it easier or harder?

Katya: My advice to anyone in the creative industry, communications or PR would be to work at an agency at some point in your career – preferably the earlier part of your career – and then work for a brand because then you will understand the chaos.  

This is me being completely honest, agencies have been around for years and years, but it seems they still thrive and run on this level of chaos and I’ve seen it first-hand. I was almost there myself at one point.  

Now I find that working brand side, I have the patience and understanding of what agency life is really like so, I respect that. What I find really useful having worked agency side is that I can often get a whiff of the spinning of stuff, I know when to push back to them or when not. I like to have Zoom chats with our agencies quite frequently, maybe even two times a week. That way they can hear it from me, and they can see my reaction. There’s always a balance between the positive feedback and saying actually this is wrong for our brand.

I’m sure some agencies, they go away, and they’re like, giffgaff are so difficult, and they want us to find a voice for their members. We’re a very honest marketing team here at giffgaff. And we try to give really constructive feedback and we like to be really involved. I remember it was like God, the client is calling again, and they want another meeting!  

Still, we always get there with the idea and the agency always feels that they’re super proud of the work they’ve delivered with us. Having worked agency side has given me a better look into that world. I can read between the lines and the emails, and I feel that I’m in a position to negotiate with them and have really fruitful conversations.

Adam: You’d be amazed how many brands don’t give a lot of feedback. Whenever we do post-feedback is we try and get as much detail as possible. A lot of the time agencies are pitching for free, so we think it’s only right and proper that the brand give that full feedback and help them understand where they’ve gone wrong. They might not have been far off and just not quite made it, they might need to just polish the idea a little bit. Truly, a lot of brands potentially lose a lot of relationships when it comes to that.

Katya: Yeah, exactly. Recently, we had some agencies pitch us for something, and there were three that made the final cut. We made our selection with one, but we fed back to both agencies, and one was quite happy with our feedback. The other was not, they wanted to know more. So, we set up a call with them and we took time out of our diaries to do that. The main reason that they weren’t successful is because the agency we selected just had that edge, they had something and they just felt more polished in what they delivered to us, the idea they presented us with was almost exactly what we wanted.  

We fed that back to them, they went away, and they said, we really appreciate you feeding that back to us because it’s going help with our next pitching. There were a couple of things as well, there was a bit of a gap with their presentation as it wasn’t loading, I said, these are little things and technology is a bitch but practice, prepare, be ready. I hope they took all that feedback on board. But we took the time, and I’m glad we did.

Adam: It goes to show the same mentality that you have with the customers you have across the board. I think that’s a really good representation of the brand, which is fantastic. Not to blow too much smoke.  
To round off the chat, here’s a classic: If there was one thing you could change about your industry, what would it be?  

Katya: I would pass regulation that telcomms have to sell a certain percentage of refurbished phones. We have this obsession, I believe with the new and the shiny. I know you can’t have a circular economy if you’re only selling refurbished phones, you need those new phones. But does everyone need to be queuing up outside the Apple Store for the latest iPhone when your phone is only a year old? It isn’t just about the environment, which is a massive issue, but it’s also about digital poverty. The pandemic has brought it to the forefront. I was watching the news one evening, which I rarely do anymore. And one family of five, three kids, mum, and a dad. They had no devices to do their homework on during lockdown. They had to wait for dad to come home for his laptop so that they could all just get online and do their homework. I just think that is unacceptable in one of the richest countries in the world.  

There is so much digital waste that is just being put in landfill, why are telcomms not being more responsible?

Making sure that every home in the UK has a laptop, has internet service. It’s a utility now, it’s not a nice to have, not everyone can have the latest and greatest smartphone, but you don’t need it as long as you have the basics. Where is the social and environmental responsibility of these bigger companies? I’m not saying no one should buy new anymore. But how many people have old tech lying around at home? Lots of us, I’m sure. So how can telcomms not just encourage people, but incentivise them to do more with their old tech?

Roxy: Responsibly caring about the people that you serve. Acknowledging where we are when it comes to telecoms, everyone has at least one mobile phone or almost everyone. As a business that provides that service, I think we should all be responsible when it comes to how people use it, and the impact that it has on their lives. Trying to not make it a transaction but actually caring for the people that you serve at a deeper level.

Looking at everything that’s happened, especially with the pandemic, the gateway to this is connecting with others. It’s all about how you do it, what you do on it, and how you use it. It shouldn’t be to your benefit or to your detriment. I know that telecoms could never fully solve the problem, but at the same time, we should all try by doing the right communications. I think it all starts with communications, providing the right service and just being selfless. I might have been in a bit more of a privileged position just because my role day in and day out is to care for people, but I would absolutely love it if that were the case for everyone. Mobile services nowadays are a utility, right? It’s not a choice, you need to have it. The power that has to be recognized. And you know, with great power comes great responsibility.

You can connect with Roxy and Katya here and here, or learn more about giffgaff’s community work here.

Adam is Brand Partnership Manager at GO!, connecting tech brands with market-leading agencies. Connect with him on LinkedIn here or drop him an email here.

We love hearing about brands that are changing the game. If you’d like to participate in Against the Grain, you can reach out here.