Canadian-born Ira Dubinsky is in charge of Christmas. And it’s not just any Christmas, but the M&S Christmas.
So what is Dubinsky, a nice Jewish boy whose full title is head of marketing for Christmas, doing in such a role?
He laughs and says: “Christmas is a very critical part of the M&S calendar and, after I had done a number of other roles, they asked me to take it on. It’s really exciting.”
He joined M&S in 2013 after completing an MBA in marketing at London Business School and has nearly 20 years’ experience of marketing and communications.
Along with retail in general, it has been a difficult time for M&S recently. Dubinsky remains upbeat despite M&S announcing that it would close 30 UK clothes and homeware shops and convert 45 others into Simply Food branches after falling sales.
Does he think M&S will survive? “Absolutely,” he affirms. “It’s a dynamic company; there are lots of really smart people from different backgrounds. I have huge confidence in our chief executive, Steve Rowe. I think he’s got the right vision.”
I speak to him on the day Drapers reported new research suggesting more consumers will shop at M&S than any other retailer on the UK high street this Christmas.
“That’s really welcome news. We’re always an important destination for people at Christmas,” he says, adding cautiously, “but we have to have the right products at the right place at the right price and really engage with our customers. We don’t take anything for granted.”
In the battle of the ads, it seems M&S might have trumped other department stores. Its #LoveMrs Claus offering features Santa’s glamorous wife, who saves the day for a young boy while channelling a Bond-style rescue (of hopes) and keeping the mystique of marriage alive.
The M&S Christmas message, Dubinsky says, is about “love and family and togetherness and celebrating all of the special moments that we have in our lives and that are particularly important at Christmas”.
“The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive both from colleagues inside the business and from customers as well as the industry,” says the 36-year-old, who lives in Walthamstow with his wife, the National Portrait Gallery’s head of corporate development, and their 15-month-old son.
Customers have also voiced their approval on social media, he says, acknowledging that the advert was a new direction for the company.
“In previous years, our advertising and marketing has been about our products and we’re very proud of them, but at Christmas we realised we needed to go a slightly different route and tell a little more of a warm story.”
But whether it will translate into sales is the question on everyone’s lips. “With this type of campaign, where you tap into emotions and you try to resonate with people, it takes time to have an impact,” he says. “So far, things look good for us to have a good Christmas, but it’s too early to share any results.”
Judaism is a “very important part” of his identity as a modern Progressive Jew, having grown up in the Dorshei Emet community in Montreal, and he now attends New London Synagogue on High Holy Days.
While Dubinsky himself does not celebrate Christmas, he did stock up on M&S food for an early Chanukah party.
For those who are honouring the festival, he says M&S food is often at the forefront of people’s minds. “We have an incredibly popular Christmas food ordering service, where you can get turkey and all the
trimmings ready to go.
“There are also some really lovely things people tend to gift from M&S, like gloves, scarves, cashmere jumpers and socks as well as puzzles, toys, books and beauty products.”
His role is to ensure the customer experience is always on-message – from the TV advertising to window displays and product packaging, to the look and feel of the stores and the digital marketing campaigns.
It involves much creative judgement and working with different agencies and stakeholders – “so there’s a lot of managing different opinions, critical paths and deadlines”, he acknowledges.
So how does a British Christmas differ from a Canadian one? “Christmas has a special meaning about family and community here, more so than perhaps in North America or in other parts of Europe,” he says, citing the fact public transport shuts down in London on Christmas Day.
“Religion aside, it’s the one time of year when you’re really supposed to be with your family and loved ones no matter what. The streets are quiet, and everyone’s inside, having their meal together and there’s something really nice about that.”
Perhaps this season’s M&S advertising slogan, ‘Christmas with love’, is a perfect fit after all.
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