Chris Moss has used a simple but well-honed tool to build billion-dollar businesses… radical thinking.
A legendary poster designed to promote an FT redesign under the tag line “We Live in Financial Times” reproduced the famous Che Guevara image with Richard Branson sporting a beret in a wash of deep red.
Well, if Branson was Che, the revolutionary entrepreneur leading from the front, there is little doubt that one of his most original lieutenants plotting victory for the Virgin insurgents was Chris Moss.
Moss – a marketing outrider who has built more billion-dollar brands than most of us have had hot dinners – has achieved hero status by applying leftfield thinking to win commanding positions in the theatre of battle.
Ask this self-proclaimed agent provocateur what is the secret to success, and he is more likely than not to respond by asking whether orange is a colour or a fruit – an answer that speaks loudly to his record as the man who created the Orange brand.
“I am dyslexic so I constantly look for different connections, and an interesting thing about Branson is he’s dyslexic too,” says Moss. “What does that mean? In his case, it means he’s a really good connecter – he meets lots of different people, and brings them all together.”
Moss took the first steps on his revolutionary road masterminding the Atlantic boat crossing in 1986 that turned Branson into a household name. Before he knew it, he was plotting victory for the entrepreneur’s new airline.
“When I joined, it wasn’t an airline – it was an aircraft,” Moss recalls. “Virgin was known as a bit of a rock ’n roll business in those days: if you went into Virgin Records there was some guy who hadn’t slept the night before trying to serve you – they were crazy times. So how do you make an airline reflect something more positive?”
The big break came with Virgin’s move from Gatwick to Heathrow in 1991 and the opportunity offered by the merger of British Airways with Caledonian.
“At times you have to put yourself out of your comfort zone, and so the move to Heathrow was huge for us not just as a business, but as a culture, a brand. We were changing beyond our wildest dreams,” recounts Moss.
Even so, he had not imagined the growth that would follow. “We wrote a little document in about 1991 and it was all about our airline: What do we want it to be? We wanted to keep it small and beautiful, no more than 12 routes and 10 aircraft!”
Moss attributes much of the airline’s success to the unique personality of Branson. “He knows what he is really good at and what he is not really good at, and what he manages to do is get people to buy in – he actually makes you feel part of something, which for so many of us is much more important than just taking a pay cheque.”
After eight years at Virgin, Moss moved on, joining Microtel to launch a new mobile phone brand. Original thinking again secured his legacy. “When I got there the very first thing I said was ‘We probably need to change the name’.”
It took “a bit of persuading”: his proposal for the new brand was “Orange”.
“They thought I was completely barking mad, because here is this guy coming from Virgin who has never been in mobile phones before and wants to call it after some fruit. We had this huge debate which went on for weeks as to whether orange is a fruit or a colour.”
Two years later, and with massive success under his belt, Moss was on the move again – merging Lloyds and TSB, shaping the global satellite company ICO, launching the Opodo travel brand, and eventually joining directory enquiries provider 118 118.
A generous spirit, he can share many lessons learned from his journey, not least the importance of culture and visionary management.
“Culture kills strategy every time, so you can have the best strategy in the whole world but if the culture isn’t there to engage, implement and love the business there’s no point in having any strategy,” says Moss.
“Great management also have the ability to change their minds – I’ve seen Branson change his mind – and that’s fantastic, because they are confident enough to listen to others.
“You also have to put a great team together – and to get a great team you can’t just have a group of techies, you need to have a blend of personalities. Something Richard recognised early was that there were times when he needed to step back and let others take the lead.”