CMOs You Should Know: Tony Wells, 24 Hour Fitness

Ex-Marine and Auto-Marketing Executive Says Key Is Doing a Lot With a Little Marketing Budget

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- In his three years leading marketing for 24 Hour Fitness, Tony Wells has approached his job much like he would command a battleship: in an aggressive, but calculated fashion.

Tony Wells
Tony Wells
"My marketing philosophy has been informed by what I learned as a Marine," said Mr. Wells, a lifelong marketer who clocked time at Nissan, General Motors and Visa USA before he was brought aboard at the gym chain in 2007 and quickly promoted from senior VP-marketing to CMO. "I'm a big believer in blocking and tackling -- meaning the day-to-day execution of the marketing plan. I'm not a big go-long, 'Hail Mary' person; day-in-and-day-out execution wins at the end of the day, and I really believe that a big part of success is your ability to make decisions quickly."

That attitude has helped prompt a swift turnaround for San Ramon, Calif.-based 24 Hour Fitness, which has 450 clubs across 17 states, some 20,000 employees and revenues of $1.5 billion. "Two years ago our better business rating, quite honestly, was an F," said Mr. Wells. "Today, it's an A." The drastic improvement in the gym's reputation with consumers is due in part to Mr. Wells' commitment to bringing sales, marketing and finance teams closer together to elevate service for members. Earlier this year, Fitness Magazine praised the chain as one of the country's best for its hours, sprawling locations and quirky classes like Hot Hula, a Polynesian-style dance workout with live drumming. (Mr. Wells prefers his workouts with a personal trainer at a 24 Hour Fitness location about a mile away from headquarters.)

"The thing that struck me about Tony when he came in was that he was very, very objective," said Jeff King, CEO of Kansas City, Mo.-based Barkley, 24 Hour Fitness' lead creative agency. Even though Barkley was brought in by the gym's previous CMO, Mr. Wells not only kept them on, he expanded their responsibilities. "He didn't come in with any predisposed impression of us and he really evaluated the work we were doing and approached the agency with an open-minded position," said Mr. King. "He tends to operate from a standpoint of not letting emotion getting in the way and is focused on driving the business from a numbers perspective and making it the best experience for customers."

At 24 Hour Fitness, Mr. Wells has a marketing department of about 75 people reporting to him, and manages relationships with a varied agency roster which in addition to Barkley includes is sports marketing firm IMG, PR agency Edelman and San Francisco-based digital shop Silverfox.

"We want to look larger from a brand perception level and awareness level than we are," said Mr. Wells. "We do a lot with a little, in terms of our marketing budget." Rather than big brand campaigns, the gym has focused on partnerships with the U.S. Olympic team and professional athletes, as well as strategic partnerships with major consumer brands such as Coca-Cola, Dial and Everlast. For the past nine seasons, it has also partnered with NBC's popular reality TV show "The Biggest Loser." Other initiatives ushered in under Mr. Wells' watch are rewards programs to keep members coming back, recruitment of fitness experts, and investing in the retail locations themselves to maintain a promise of clean, friendly and well-maintained locations.

One persistent problem Mr. Wells, with the help of the ad industry, would to tackle? The lack of marketers of color.

"I fundamentally believe that it's something that we really need to do a better job of," he said. "The fact of the matter is I can go to conferences, events, meetings and very seldom do I run into a black, Hispanic or Asian CMO. In a day when you have an African-American president, it's hard to say there's not a level playing field [in the marketing world]. It's unfortunate and we need to look like the customers we serve and until there's greater commitment to that we're going to be struggling with that issue."

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