ASOS – The Inside Story

If you have read anything about affiliate marketing in the last week you can’t fail to have noticed a quote from Nick Robertson, CEO of ASOS.com

“I’m not saying we couldn’t do more in the online marketing space. Next year we’ll reintroduce affiliate marketing, but as it should be. No silly commissions being paid to grubby little people in grubby studios growing income at our expense, getting in the way of genuine sales.”

ASOS used to be one of the big success stories of affiliate marketing in the UK but over the last year or so there have been big changes but this quote has been taken as an insult by most of the affiliate marketing community. Initially and unsurprisingly there was quite an emotional reaction to the comment as people felt hurt and insulted by it but now I have tried to take a step back and spoken to many of the key people involved in building up ASOS over the last few years. I offer this collection of their different points of view in response to Nick Robertson’s comments

I have emailed Nick Roberston and requested an interview but I haven’t heard back from him so I continue with the comments from my other interviewees.

Initally I spoke to Jessica Luthi who worked with such passion on building the ASOS affiliate program.

Jessica told me that that the early years at ASOS and said that they..

“were amongst the best years in my affiliate marketing career, which is why I feel so angry and sad about the New Media Age Article.

Creating something out of nothing, watching some thing you have invested blood, sweat and tears into come to life and bloom. It’s the internet equivalent of gardening! Twice have I been at the forefront of driving a company out of obscurity and into the lime light, twice I have had to let it go and watch while others take the credit for my work. Once bitten, twice shy there will not be a third.

It is without hesitation that I say, ASOS.com you are where you are because of Jessica Luthi, Quentin Griffiths, John Morgan, Joanne Miller (PR) but ultimately the affiliates. We merely facilitated, nurtured and grew a community of very savvy revenue driving, affiliate partnerships and made the path easier for affiliates to do what they do best, drive targeted traffic. The affiliates unequivocally put ASOS on the map, Hitwise can’t lie, Redsherrif can’t lie, your affiliates put ASOS on the radar. I wish I had my old Hitwise graphics, every last referring URL was from an affiliate.

As I publicly stated on my blog, I am appalled by the comment, these are some of my friends, colleagues and associates. I’m not sure what troubles me more, the fact that it could have been Nick Robertson saying these things or the fact that New Media Age would publish some thing like this. If the former is true it could have been said out of ignorance but the latter is a bit more serious and I would question what New Media Age thought they would achieve by this.

Affiliate Marketing is a great industry, it’s a money making industry, it’s one of the few industries that can accommodate anyone from any walk of life. It’s flexible, it’s dynamic, it’s online marketing at its best. It’s pay on performance marketing you cant get much better, I have the stats that prove this!”

I thought it would be useful to speak to a couple of the affiliates who worked with ASOS in the past as well and there was no one more qualifed to speak on this subject than Joe Connor who was recognised as ‘ASOS Affiliate of the Year 2005′. It was almost straight after receiving this accolade that things started to go downhill with the enforced cut in commission that led to Jessica Luthi’s departure. Shortly after that Joe received an email along with many other affiliates bluntly stating that

“Unfortunately, at the moment there are a large number of sites which have been deemed to be promoting the ASOS program in ways we do not want to take the brand forward with.”

To this day it seems that ASOS lost control of their affiliate program shortly after Jessica Luthi left and as a knee jerk reaction they started to reject affiliates in huge numbers including their affiliate of the year. Joe told me that

“Unfortunately at the time there simply were no viable alternatives to ASOS but looking around the fashion sector now there are dozens of stores to promote and I can understand why ASOS want to re-introduce an affiliate program.”

Joe has been left feeling aggrieved by the recent statement and summed up his feelings, saying

“I’m deeply offended. ASOS invited us to partner with them and we turned it into the most successful online fashion brand only to be kicked in the teeth To now be told we’re grubby little people is both arrogant and ignorant”

Joe isn’t the only affiliate to be left feeling this way and Chris Frost also shared a very similar experience of working hard with ASOS and being excited about helping to build the business. Chris said that in his opinion

“Affiliate Marketing was a major contributor to the success of ASOS in terms of teaching it about the industry and also in generating sales.”

He also feels the same about Nick Roberston’s recent comments

“I am shocked, surprised and the comments showed me that ASOS have not learned from their mistakes. I have no idea what led to the comments but think it simply shows arrogance and ignorance. Personally the industry does not need ASOS and as such I wouldn’t touch the program.”

These are not the comments of people running hobby website for a little extra pocket money. Chris Frost and Joe Connor are well respected super affiliates with the capability to make a huge difference to any affiliate program they turn their attention to.

I did stop to consider what had led Nick Robertson to hold this view of affiliate marketing and if was shared by others in the industry so I spoke to other merchants who are currently running affiliate programs.

Pat Wood from truffleshuffle.com felt that the whole issue was down to bad management of the affiliate program in the months that followed the departure of Jessica Luthi

“Nick Robertson has highlighted the fact that ignorance towards affiliate marketing has caused ASOS to cut their nose off to spite their face. With a poorly managed affiliate scheme it’s obvious that you may pay a small proportion of commissions to less reputable affiliates who ‘steal’ hits through restricted PPC keywords and such like.”

I think that is a fair comment and an affiliate program which is managed badly is going to cause problems but then a TV advertising campaign managed badly would be just as disastrous. To me it becomes more and more clear that ASOS took their eye off the ball and paid the price but instead of looking inwards and realising what went wrong they have lashed out at the very affiliates who built the business.

Zak Edwards at Prezzybox.com spoke to me about his thoughts on affiliate marketing in the light of these comments.

“reading between the lines, it would appear that he [Nick Roberston] is saying that ASOS in the future want to work with a number of the top affiliates whom are likely to generate large numbers of sales. Personally I’ve never seen the logic of this. From tiny acorns mighty oak trees grow.

Affiliates are an integral part of our marketing structure. Not only do I have close relationships with a large number of affiliates but I strongly believe in the CPA model. For me it is the most sensible method for a merchant to promote themselves. I’m happy to help make a whole host of them to “grow income at our expense” because the more money they make, the more we make. Simple. “

Jemma Jaques ‘Head of Design’ at ASOS – 2003-2005 shared these feelings and said that she was

“astonished at Nick Robertson’s ingratitude to the marketing and design schemes that pushed ASOS from another ‘fly-by-night’ website to a respected and profitable company”

Jemma also felt that affiliate marketing had been vital in building the company to the point where TV or magazine advertising was even an option.

It was with interest that I also exchanged emails with Kevin Lewis who had been a developer at ASOS for 8 months in 2004 working on a site redesign. Kevin could appreciate the reaction to the recent attack on affiliates and had this to say in response

“The statement about affiliates being grubby little people in grubby little studios is pretty offensive coming from some one that by his own admission, knows affiliates catapulted his company from zero to warp speed.”

It would be fair to say from the emails I received that many of the early ASOS team feel very poorly treated by the current management team and feel used in the same way as affiliates do now. ASOS seems to be leaving a lot of anger and resentment in it’s wake.

All in all I think the relationship between ASOS and affiliate marketing has been deteriorating over the last couple of years and these responses just show how deep the split is. I find it hard to see a route back into affiliate marketing for ASOS amongst the marketers that I know and with several affiliate networks already publicly stating they don’t want to work with ASOS it seems an in house program would be the only option. However an in-house affiliate program requires the affiliates to place more trust in the merchant since there is no trusted third party involved and so I see this being hard to achieve after recent weeks.

What can we learn from this whole incident? Firstly I think it’s a reminder that affiliate programs will not run themselves and need an investment of time and money to produce the fantastic returns they are capable of. Secondly merchants should keep in mind that they have the right to control who promotes their brand and how it’s done, so work closely with your network to make sure this happens. Finally it’s a lesson for affiliates never to rely too much on one merchant or sector as you never know how quickly things can turn sour.

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Comments

9 comments | Leave your comment | Feed for this Entry

Hero
Mar 15th, 2007 at 3:22 pm | #

If I may elaborate on one thing, that you have already touched on. Reading between the lines through the full interview, it’s clear that ASOS have more confidence in traditional marketing – he is taking things back offline. Bearing this in mind, it’s not difficult to understand why he would be saying these (most unfortunate) things. I have come across this opinion way too many times as an account manager dealing with a variety of merchants. Traditional (above-the-line) marketers are ignorant of online, and they just don’t understand it. They want “control of their image” and how “they are being represented” and “who they associate with” and “what other brands they are put next to”. Which are all very respected concerns. But, if you don’t have the online experience, you won’t be able to understand the value of working with some of the affiliates, because their site in your eyes will look absolutely awful. Not to mention the ultimate fear: the affiliates being able to advertise you in any of their sites which you have no idea of (whereas when you run CPM campaigns, you are in total control of brand representation and association, right? so you throw away your money to a very good cause, correct? OH PLEASE). And, lest we forget, that some affiliates don’t even have sites! (yes, they’re called direct PPC affiliates). They will also probably no longer want to work with discount/competition/loyalty schemes, as they want to be considered “a full value merchant”.

It is very frequent that merchants with an offline background have this approach for online marketing (certain aspects of the online industry), and we have lenghty conversations to try and make them see the light. Most actually do, especially when they see the good results brought in, and most start shifting away from offline. Which is why it’s actually very interesting that ASOS have decided to move back to offline.

I would be interested to see how “restrictive” their inhouse affiliate program will be, what guidelines they will be giving to the affiliates they allow in, and how they will be monitoring that they comply with their guidelines.

To be honest, the one thing that has surprised me more than anything else is the fact that previous ASOS staff have taken a slightly defensive stance – I don’t understand why. The affiliate industry knows very well who they are and what they have done for the program and how they are directly linked with where the company currently is, so there really isn’t any need to explain things. Let Mr Robertson have a dig at ex-staff, which is most unprofessional of him, who cares ;-)

Fraser
Mar 15th, 2007 at 7:04 pm | #

Thanks for taking the time to comment Hero

I hope others will feel free to get involved in the discussion too but I won’t allow anonymous comments as it doesn’t benefit anyone. Please put your name to what you have to say :)

Hero
Mar 15th, 2007 at 7:07 pm | #

but it had recognised me, all the fields were already filled in!
You know I speak my mind and sign my mind as well :-)

Fraser
Mar 15th, 2007 at 9:03 pm | #

Sorry Hero, that wasn’t aimed at you! I know it looks like that when I look back now but it was aimed at the anonymous person who posted after you!!

Jason
Mar 16th, 2007 at 12:23 pm | #

You are the UK affiliate blog king Fraser – excellent stuff! It’s a shame that Nick Robertson has so far failed to comment though, so perhaps you need to get all Nicky Campbell like and head down to his office with your camcorder!

Steve James
Sep 19th, 2008 at 7:23 am | #

Great article, thank you

Bonnie Frankland (ex-Euroffice.co.uk)
Nov 25th, 2008 at 12:06 am | #

Hello,
I know this may seem in contradiction to the damning evidence of ASOS disgread for affiliates Fraser has laid out above…
BUT does anyone know if ASOS are running a affiliate programme at all now? And if so, through whom?
Cheers,
Bonnie

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Fraser Edwards has been involved in affiliate marketing for more than 10 years after starting out in business as a website developer and stumbling into affiliate marketing instead.

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