Ensuring Aston Martin is known and respected around the world is the enviable but challenging task of Head of Marketing and PR, Simon Sproule. But then this motor-industry veteran has amassed nearly 25 years of in-depth knowledge and experience that few can match.
That automotive knowledge stretches from washing cars as a student to being a car salesman, public relations novice and finally a career in marketing and communications at some of the biggest names in motoring. Yet his arrival at Aston Martin had never been part of his master plan, even though he had fallen in love with the marque as a 13 year-old after seeing an Aston Martin V8 Vantage.
His journey to Gaydon was one that gave him exposure to some of the most iconic brands in the world. Yet his experience before joining Aston Martin in 2014 was primarily working for car companies selling cars in their millions. In the 104 years since Aston Martin was founded in 1913 in London, the company had only made around 80,000 cars. A large car company would produce that same number in just three days.
We have to grow our saliency and attract customers who would not have considered the brand before
He admits that, even though he had a good outside knowledge of Aston Martin, the adjustment from a large car manufacturer to a luxury company took some time. “It is the smallest company I have ever worked for — I was used to working for large multinationals. You quickly realise that you are operating with very different resources, but no fewer things to do. Life at Aston Martin is very intense; you get involved in so much more because of its size.”
Sproule particularly likes just how close Aston Martin gets to its customers: “Everyone in the management team regularly meets our customers and it serves as a constant check to ensure you are doing what is right for them. It also means I see the results of what I do first hand. When you work for a large corporation, you are much further away from your customers, whereas at Aston Martin it is an integral part of our business.
For Sproule, it is a welcome return to the days when he started selling cars as a 21 year-old, having graduated from the University
of London with a Geography degree. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do after university, but I had always loved cars and my grandfather was a car salesman, so I followed my interest and ended up with my first job at a Ford dealership.”
The young Sproule had a natural aptitude for the job, selling 30 cars in his first month — although he admits he was helped by it being the month of a new registration plate. He firmly believes that selling has been a major factor in the making of his career: “You do not truly understand the car business until you sell a car directly to a customer.”
Broadening his experience again, he moved from the retail side of the business to his first step in communications, gaining a job as a researcher for an independent television company that produced Ford’s internal TV channel, finding and telling stories about the car giant.
He was promoted to a full-time job in the Ford UK public relations team and rose swiftly through the ranks. His first car launch was the Escort Cosworth, but his fondest memory involved something more utilitarian, with the 30th birthday of the Ford Transit and getting the van featured on national television with ITV’s News at Ten’s famous “And Finally” slot with Trevor McDonald.
Sproule’s time at Ford saw him gain his first experience of corporate PR, including life at the sharp end of national pay negotiations between management and unions in tense, smoke-filled rooms. “They were seriously tough negotiations,” he recalls, “but it was a great learning curve.”
His appetite to learn was evident when he paid for a two-week “holiday” to Detroit, where he visited car museums and the Automotive Hall of Fame, which would name him “Young Achiever of the Year” in 2004. He then moved to Ford’s global operations in Detroit before switching to Jaguar in North America, which was then part of the Ford Group. He was given added responsibility for Land Rover and Aston Martin in America — his first hands-on experience with Aston Martin.
Sproule’s next big break came in 2003, when he joined Nissan North America as Vice President of Communications at a time when the Japanese firm was emerging from a major turnaround. Although the job was based in America, Nissan represented a major culture shock for Simon: “Everything was entirely new to me and I literally knew no one.”
Yet he made an instant impression, especially with Nissan’s charismatic boss, Carlos Ghosn who, after just seven months appointed Sproule Head of Global Communications for Nissan; at only 35, he was the youngest-ever corporate officer for a Japanese car company. He remembers the day vividly: “I was asked to attend a meeting with Mr Ghosn, but had no idea he was going to offer me the job. It took just five minutes and it changed my life.”
Sproule then enjoyed 11 action-packed years at Nissan, travelling the world with Ghosn and frequently meeting heads of state in a period of unprecedented success for the company. It was also at Nissan that Sproule added marketing to his portfolio and where he first met Andy Palmer, the now-boss of Aston Martin who was then rising rapidly through the ranks.
Yet neither was to know how their paths would lead them to Aston Martin and the greatest challenge of their careers. It was Palmer who contacted Sproule while he was at Tesla to entice him with the chance to return to England and the car firm of his boyhood dreams.
Andy Palmer is leading the company into its second century and “shaking the tree” at Aston Martin in many ways, including a series of firsts for the marque, such as its electric car, SUV and, of course, the Aston Martin Valkyrie hypercar. “Although Aston Martin is a global brand, there are places in the world where people don’t understand the company as well as we would like,” says Sproule. “We have to grow our saliency and attract customers who perhaps would not have considered the brand before.”
One of the ways to achieve this is to use the ever-growing influence of social and digital media. “I am less concerned about the sheer volume of hits and more about our ability to tell interesting stories,” says Sproule. “I want people to stay with us for more than 30 seconds online; I want them to learn about us. Aston Martin has a loyal and passionate fan base and digital is the best way to serve them.”
It’s increasingly important to find like-minded partners: people who understand our company
He also sees trusted brand partnerships — such as those with iconic James Bond or Hackett menswear — and new link-ups as a key tool in Aston Martin’s growth: “It’s increasingly important to find like-minded partners: people who are the best in their category and who understand our company and values.”
Sproule sees the recent innovation of Aston Martin Brand Centres, including its first brand experience boutique in the heart of London’s Mayfair, to be another strong asset in marketing the brand, with more centres set to follow around the world. “Our headquarters are somewhat remote, so we need a presence in major cities and the Brand Centres are a different way of introducing people to the marque.”
Sproule has no doubt, however, that Aston Martin’s greatest asset is the look of the cars themselves and their power to seduce. “We will always focus on the beauty of our cars: it is our bull’s-eye. We are in the want business, not the need business.” And his goal is clear: “Did I leave the brand in better shape? Is Aston more loved and more successful? That is the acid test of my time at this amazing company.