Home Depot: this ain’t the boys’ club anymore – Pat Wilkinson, director of marketing

Getting Mike Holmes' stamp of approval would be a huge coup for any contractor. Landing him as a spokesperson for a roster of over 3,000 contractors is nothing short of brilliant. Home Depot's director of marketing Pat Wilkinson has managed to do just that.

Getting Mike Holmes’ stamp of approval would be a huge coup for any contractor. Landing him as a spokesperson for a roster of over 3,000 contractors is nothing short of brilliant. Home Depot’s director of marketing Pat Wilkinson has managed to do just that.

Beginning this fall, the trustworthy star of HGTV’s Holmes on Homes will be featured in Home Depot’s campaign to raise awareness about its Installation Services team. The campaign was Wilkinson’s brainchild and leverages Holmes’ reputation perfectly.

It’s just the latest in a series of successful initiatives that have built up Home Depot’s awareness in the competitive home improvement category. From launching a glossy, female-friendly home décor catalogue to generating millions in online sales and positioning her company as environmentally responsible, Wilkinson’s already more than made her mark in the few years she’s been with the retailer.

The Holmes deal is a good example of her ability to think creatively and strategically.

‘We didn’t want to have a line of Holmes products – that wouldn’t make sense for either of us,’ explains Wilkinson. ‘We saw a great fit between his brand and our installation services.’ The resulting campaign includes TV spots featuring Holmes talking about the importance of hiring proper contractors – like the licensed members of the Home Depot team.

The campaign’s creative was handled by Dallas-based agency The Richards Group, which works on both the U.S. and Canadian Home Depot accounts. At the agency, three people are dedicated to the Canadian business – two work out of Home Depot’s Toronto office, and the third, Dallas-based Dave Snell, is a Canadian ex-pat. ‘[Wilkinson]‘s constantly challenging us to find ways to do more with the resources we have,’ says Snell. ‘A lot of marketing people are very process-oriented. She’s not. She’s very idea-oriented.’

It’s that characteristic that helped her land her prime post in the first place. ‘I was so impressed with her vision of where the company should go,’ recalls boss Annette Verschuren, president of Home Depot Canada. That vision included making the chain’s print advertising efforts more relevant to the Canadian market, competing more strongly with specialty businesses and developing a Canadian Web site.

Verschuren points to Wilkinson’s work spotlighting the company’s environmentally friendly policies as a great example of strategically leveraging something they were doing anyway. In spring 2004, Wilkinson branded the policies ‘EcoOptions,’ and launched supporting flyers and P-O-P elements to increase awareness. It’s been so successful, the U.S. office is now considering a similar environmental strategy.

‘I’m passionate about retail – you can see an immediate response to what you’re doing,’ Wilkinson says. With an executive MBA from Simon Fraser University, she came to Home Depot after a stint as VP marketing for hyperWALLET, an online payment firm. While there, she scored a deal with eBay – a huge coup for the young business. But, she was itching to get back into retail, which she developed a taste for early in her career, working on Loblaw and Wal-Mart accounts on the agency side at Toronto-based The Watt Group. She set her sights on Home Depot because she felt it had potential for her to really have an impact.

And she was right. ‘The biggest challenge was there was really no marketing infrastructure in Canada,’ Wilkinson recalls. ‘My first step was to start building a great team.’ And, she’s done it: the Canadian marketing team has almost doubled in the past few years, from 18 to 30.

Another one of Wilkinson’s first orders of business was to develop a Canadian Web site. Up until that point, its existence had been deemed too daunting a task because of the French translation issue. But, Wilkinson rightly decided it was worth committing resources to, and her intuition has already proven itself. The site has generated several million dollars in sales, and continues to grow exponentially.

Wilkinson has also skillfully helped implement Verschuren’s vision of becoming a more female-friendly store, primarily through the introduction of the DreamBook, a glossy home décor catalogue, and by adding stylish home reno displays like kitchens and bathrooms to the stores themselves. They also address Wilkinson’s goal of competing more strongly with specialty stores. ‘We really are many businesses under one roof,’ Wilkinson says. ‘We had to start approaching each area differently.’

Up next for Wilkinson is a holiday season campaign, set to break in October. Recognizing that it’s usually a slower time for her category, Wilkinson has been working at carving out a piece of the holiday market in the past couple of years, positioning items like power tools and small appliances as unique gift ideas. This year’s lofty campaign will include direct catalogues, TV, radio, mass print and online, as well as new issues of specialty guides.

For her part, Verschuren is impressed with Wilkinson’s uncanny ability to implement ideas almost as quickly as she generates them. She credits Wilkinson’s fearlessness, ambition and desire to push category boundaries: ‘She’s not afraid to ask tough questions, and she’s willing to explore places that others are afraid to go.’

Favourite movie:
Top Gun. I love the music!

Favourite magazine:
My new favourite is Domino – it’s like a Lucky for the home. It’s a fresh take on home improvement and décor.

Number-one thing you look for in an ad agency:
People who are smarter than me.

Favourite business book:
Pour Your Heart Into It, by Howard Schultz. I read it once a year. It’s a great back to basics book.

Favourite way to unwind:
Shopping – for everything, everywhere. I love shopping in Paris, New York City, Toronto – everywhere!