New HTC CMO Scraps 'Ask the Internet' Campaign, Returns to Robert Downey Jr.

Idris Mootee on Virtual Reality, Xiaomi and the Difference Between Samsung and Apple

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Idris Mootee has a tough job. In February, he was appointed global CMO of HTC, the once-dominant, now struggling smartphone maker. He is faced with a frustrating marketing dilemma: a product, the One M8 smartphone, revered for its quality but sluggish in sales.

And now he has two new categories to handle. At Mobile World Congress last week, HTC unveiled the newest iteration of its flagship smartphone, as well as two partner devices: Grip, a fitness tracker with Under Armour; and Vive, a virtual reality headset that tethers to a PC, with gaming company Valve.

Mr. Mootee, who has been consulting with the Taiwanese company since June, is also upending its marketing. He nixed its U.S. ad campaign, "Ask the Internet," which steered viewers to positive device reviews, in favor of an emotional spot reminiscent of Google or Apple.

Ad Age sat down with Mr. Mootee at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Decked in bright orange, round glasses, which matched his smartphone case, the globe-trotting exec speaks with refreshing candor about rivals, his own company's earlier advertising and why Apple conquered the mobile world. He says his role is to tackle the "central problem" at HTC.

Idris Mootee, chief marketing officer, HTC
Idris Mootee, chief marketing officer, HTC

The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Advertising Age: What is the 'central problem'?

Idris Mootee: There are many. When I first met with them [HTC], I said, 'Having a great product is not enough. You have to have a great story to tell. And telling a good story is not enough; you've got to have a strong core, so that your story is very anchored; you're authentic. There's one really successful company in this world, one trillion-dollar company.

How can you compete with the big companies? Everybody asks the same question. The thing is: we don't compete. Nobody competes with those companies in terms of spend. I think competing in spend is not the right question. It's one of many equations in term of competition. Apple did not have the money to spend to compete with IBM.

Ad Age: The premium smartphone world is ruled by Samsung, which spends considerably on marketing, and Apple, which, comparatively, doesn't. Where does HTC fit in?

Mr. Mootee: In the current state, it's about: how do you create the emotive connection between this product (he points to his HTC phone) and the individual. [That] is the most important thing. I think Apple has been quite successful -- not quite, has been very successful, not very, has been super successful -- in connecting people to something that's just an electronic product. They stand for something bigger -- bigger than the brand. The other company, which is a massive brand and enterprise, doesn't stand for anything except for profit.

Ad Age: Do you mean Samsung?

Mr. Mootee: Yea. Or, "the other company."

Ad Age: In the U.S., you've been promoting the One M8 with the "Ask the Internet" campaign. Will you continue that?

Mr. Mootee: No. Unless Google is paying me, why am I sending people to the internet? Who doesn't ask the internet? Who do I ask? I don't ask my Mom. The strategy itself behind it -- there's some good thinking around it, but I don't think it makes sense at all. We were the first to create a campaign based on the world's, I dunno, probably the most expensive and popular artist -- and create a disastrous campaign. It is not easy to do.

Ad Age: So, it sounds like you're taking a whole new direction?

Mr. Mootee: I would say, yes. Compared to the last two years, a whole new direction. Compared to five years ago, not a whole new direction. So we spent a long time thinking about who we are.

It helps to communicate the aspiration of the company. Often, people think this company is just a manufacturer or a technology company. We have a culture of a very quiet company; there's not a lot of salesmanship or showmanship. Today, we need to do that. We try to tell these stories, without losing the essence, the core of who we are. We don't want to go out there and shout loud, but we do want to tell a very authentic story.

Ad Age: You debuted the new creative work for the One M9 this week. Talk to me about the strategy behind that.

Mr. Mootee: We hired the world's most expensive, most popular star, Robert Downey Jr. And then I called him. 'You're going to have to help us.' He said, 'Again?' 'Yes, again!'

In the studio, I said, 'I don't want to show your face.' He said, 'Oh, great.' We don't want the view that we're trying to commoditize an artist. It's not a celebrity endorsement. Somehow, I don't know why, it happened in the past -- it feels like someone paying him to say something. It never works. It's not like we're selling beer or whiskey. So, we create a story. It's so poetic. It's very, very different. Nothing fancy. Just to tell our story.

Ad Age: Did you work with an agency for the shoot?

Mr. Mootee: We worked internally. There's more of a centralization happening. It's a global brand. We have to run it as global. We have to look at how we do more things ourselves, so we're more agile, efficient. We cannot do more of a traditional way of advertising. I don't think the traditional way works for us. So we want to try harder. We want to have a much more global integration, we want to be more social and we want to have more engagement.

But these words are overused. It doesn't mean anything, I know. I hate to say that, but it's true. Engagement means different things. For some people, looking at a TV commercial for 30 seconds means engagement.

There's also emotive engagement when people feel like someone is attacking a brand I like. There's almost, for one second, an urge for me to defend. That's different engagement. People love us; that's why we're still around today. But I don't think enough people do. How do we build that emotive connector?

Ad Age: What about the new Vive product. What's your strategy to market that?

Mr. Mootee: I don't think we're going to mass market yet. This company used to fly with one product. Are you a fighter pilot? If you were, you would know what would happen if you fly with just one jet engine. How dangerous is that? Schwoop. So we have to fly an F16. You need at least two engines or more. The second engine will be the VR. It's way more exciting than any of the wearables. It's very early days.

Ad Age: So, no TV ads for the device?

Mr. Mootee: No, I don't think it's necessary. The minute we put it out there, it will be gone. There's such demand for it. That product literally becomes advertising to lift up our other products. So many people will look at this company: 'Is it a smartphone company? No, it's a cool company.'

Ad Age: Some of the fastest growing smartphone companies are Lenovo and Xiaomi, who market high-end phones for cheap. Are you concerned about them?

Mr. Mootee: A lot of people talk about Xiaomi. It's not really our competitor. I don't think they'll ever make it to the U.S., for a million reasons we all know. And I think their business model has a very short lifespan.

Ad Age: You're not planning to launch a budget device then?

Mr. Mootee: The way we look at a smartphone, a lot of people are saying, it's a commodity. I really don't buy that. Yes, of course, you can buy a cheap one.

Would you settle for something that's so basic when this is probably the most technology you have in your pocket? I don't think so. I think people will continue to look for the best, and they don't mind paying a little bit more. Our position is more sustainable. The low-end one, they come and go. A) It's not sustainable. B) It's not profitable. And C) you're not building a brand anyway; it's a commodity, so there's always someone cheaper than you. That's not the business we're in.