Mike Ashley and the cult of personality

The Sports Direct founder has shown his trademark boldness in acquiring House of Fraser, but does he have the creativity to turn it around, asks Superunion CEO Jim Prior.

by Jim Prior
Last Updated: 11 Oct 2018

Mike Ashley’s recent sacking of the senior management team at House of Fraser follows a commitment to turn the store into the ‘Harrods of the High Street’. It’s a boast reflective of the Sports Direct founder’s famously bold approach to business.

In a similar vein to Sir Philip Green a generation before him, Ashley is very much the public face of his growing retail empire and is clearly not shirking decision-making. Despite his statements of intent, the fact remains that House of Fraser entered administration looking like a busted flush. Its confused proposition lacks any real relevance or punch and feels anachronistic, in much the same as Woolworths did a decade or so ago.

To save the brand and return it to profit, a fundamental creative re-invention will need to take place. Creativity needs to play a role in every part of resuscitating the brand - from its product line to its customer experience, from what it stands for, to its staff culture.

Whether Mike Ashley is the right man to do this is a big question.

Whenever we talk about businesses perceived to be innovative and bold, those that spring most often to mind are those led by individuals who are charismatic and decisive, yes, but almost always an embodiment of creativity too. Think Steve Jobs at Apple, Jeff Bezos at Amazon, or Marissa Mayer at Yahoo. Brilliance, a dogmatic attitude and fearless leadership style make a very good recipe for success.

The ability to make innovative and disruptive decisions and to drive them through the organisation and out into the world without compromise is a tough ask, and few can handle its complexity. Ashley has confidence and a certain charisma, for sure, but does he have the creative skills this reinvention needs?

Of course not all organisations have creative leaders and many still succeed in driving creatively-led success. The BBC and Red Bull are both examples where creativity has flourished without a singular champion. IBM found a way to turn around a traditionally dull sector with their inspiring, purposeful Smarter Planet initiatives (I find their recent abandonment of that a great pity).

But these are companies that have formed themselves around very empowered cultures, where the value of creativity at all levels is appreciated and encouraged. They actively invest in it, take risks and accept the occasional failure. This certainly does not appear to be the culture of other businesses that Ashley has commanded thus far.

In Ashley’s case, the repeated approach of ‘burn it to the ground and rebuild’ may be evidence of a lack of creative thinking. I’m sure the Toon Army - who have seen Newcastle United fall down the ranks of the Premier League under Ashley’s stewardship - would love an injection of creative thinking for his team.

With a net worth of $3.3bn Ashley is clearly a very successful leader. His determined approach to business has seen him grow Sports Direct into a staple of the UK high street. But House of Fraser seems like a very different beast and, instinctively, it doesn’t seem to follow that his leadership style is right for that business and the challenges it faces.

He may well be starting out on the back foot as staff; customers and commentators are all likely to harbour similar doubts. That’s the problem with a reputation that proceeds you – if it doesn’t match the situation it can work against you. As Ashley tries to get people on board with this project I suspect he will face that challenge.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t work. There’s also an argument that Sports Direct is itself a creative proposition in that it ably fulfils a consumer need that is otherwise not addressed. Much great creativity comes down to the ability to distill a business proposition into a simply articulated idea – many businesses fail through strategic over-complication – and this is an Ashley strength: ‘Harrods on the High Street’ is a simple and very reasonable idea.

Decisiveness and strong personality can make a person unpopular as an individual but respected as a leader. Good ingredients. But without the addition of creativity I doubt it will be enough. Ashley will need to add to what we know of him if this is to be a success.

Jim Prior is global CEO of brand agency Superunion.

Image credit: Josh Sorenson/Pexels

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