Deirdre Horgan: Writing Indigo’s next chapter

Deirdre Horgan, EVP marketing at Indigo Books and Music, pulls out her Blackberry and scrolls through the book she's reading, Cutting for Stone. She's enthusiastically explaining Indigo's latest endeavor, Shortcovers, a free application whereby readers can download books (or just chapters, magazines, newspapers, etc.) to their mobile devices or read them online.

Deirdre Horgan, EVP marketing at Indigo Books and Music, pulls out her Blackberry and scrolls through the book she’s reading, Cutting for Stone. She’s enthusiastically explaining Indigo’s latest endeavor, Shortcovers, a free application whereby readers can download books (or just chapters, magazines, newspapers, etc.) to their mobile devices or read them online.

Launched in February in both Canada and the U.S., Shortcovers is the first such service that doesn’t require the purchase of a separate reading device. Readers can download an entire book for between $10 and $20 – less than the physical version. And while Horgan doesn’t expect it to replace actual books in her lifetime, she recognized the need for Indigo to grow and change with its readers. ‘We’re in the business of stories and written words and reading,’ she says, ‘so we need to be where the market is in order to serve our customers.’

Horgan, who often finds herself attached to her Blackberry, is already a dedicated user. She’s passionate about Shortcovers in the same way that she’s passionate about all aspects of Indigo, perhaps because she’s been an integral part of almost everything they’ve done since the beginning.

When Horgan was hired at Indigo in 1998 as manager, special projects, it had one store in Burlington, Ont. When Indigo merged with Chapters in 2001, Horgan went from being SVP marketing of 15 stores to 250 at the tender age of 29, and she’s since seen her marketing team double to the 25 members of today. But Heather Reisman, Indigo founder and CEO, wasn’t concerned about Horgan’s youth. ‘I never thought age was a factor,’ says Reisman. ‘Deirdre could hold her own with any top-notch marketing person of any age at any company.’

Horgan not only held her own at Indigo, she led the way on some of the company’s most profitable initiatives. Among her greatest accomplishments was the development of iRewards, Indigo’s loyalty program. ‘She led the building of [iRewards] into one of the strongest loyalty programs in Canada,’ says Reisman. After the merger, Horgan took four different existing programs and created a unified one that crossed all banners (Coles, SmithBooks, Chapters and Indigo), giving members 10% off books for a fee of $25 a year. With over one million members, iRewards has become an integral part of Horgan’s marketing strategy – the majority of Indigo’s advertising is through direct channels like gift guides and emails sent to iReward members.

The gift guides, also distributed as geo- and demo-targeted newspaper inserts, are one of the cornerstones of Indigo’s advertising since 30% of books sold are bought as gifts. Newspaper ads, brochures and in-store posters are among the other elements thought up by Indigo’s in-house creative team, led by CD Emmet Sheil. Forgoing the assistance of an agency, Horgan says having the creative team constantly at hand has worked well. ‘We have a partner who knows our voice in and out and can turn around ads and signs within a matter of hours in order to help us adapt to the changing needs of the customer,’ she says.

Horgan has also been instrumental in the growth of Indigo’s online presence, which she was charged with developing when she first came on board. Aside from being a top bookselling destination, is also home to a year-old online community. Dubbed by users as the ‘Facebook for booklovers,’ the social network allows members to share favourite book, movie and music titles and engage in discussions. ‘We launched it with a major mass and direct campaign which leverages celebrity and non-celebrity, because that is the essence of a community – being able to connect with people, from the Rick Mercers of the world to [non-celeb] individuals,’ explains Horgan. The campaign included transit ads in the GTA, outdoor, direct mail and in-store poster displays. The community, accessible through the Indigo homepage, has over 220,000 members so far.

A few years ago, Horgan and the rest of the executive team got together to map out growth areas – where they were seeing greater consumer adoption and trends – for the next five years. The shortlist was gifts and lifestyle, kids (aged 0 to 12), teens, green products and digital (later resulting in Shortcovers). The first four areas informed the design of 11 new stores – four built last year and seven more coming this year – as well as the redesign of several existing stores and a brand new retail chain.

Under the banner ‘Indigo Books, Gifts, Life,’ the new 18,000 sq. ft. stores, designed by Toronto-based interior design group Burdifilek, have books at the core and shop-in-shops around the perimeter, each with a unique focus (teens, kids, magazines, gifts, etc.) and a distinctive look. The kids section, which includes toys and games, has been expanded between 1,000 and 1,500 sq. ft on average to 3,000 sq. ft. ‘Our customer is the book lover and imparting the joy of reading to children is extremely important to them,’ explains Horgan. Some existing stores, like the Yonge and Eglinton location in Toronto, have already undergone changes to reflect the growth areas, with more to follow in the coming year.

To hit the green market, Indigo created Pistachio, a line of environmentally friendly paper, gift and apothecary items sold at Indigo stores as well as two standalone retail locations in Toronto which opened last fall. ‘We have very sophisticated, educated customers who are passionate about the environment,’ says Horgan, adding that the offering at Pistachio is ‘about not sacrificing beauty or design for the desire to be more environmentally friendly.’

Horgan says the marketing for Pistachio is ‘very grassroots, very much about educating our existing customer base,’ and leverages their current vehicles such as email, gift guides and in-store events. While still early to gauge results, Horgan says they’ve been pleased so far, and more standalones are a possibility for the future. The line has also been picked up by Barnes & Noble in the U.S. and will begin selling there this fall.

Opening new stores may seem counter-intuitive during a recession, but Indigo’s sales have gone up (3.6% in their third quarter), which Horgan attributes to the fact that they sell an affordable luxury. ‘[People are] seeking simpler times, going back to basics, and nothing is more basic than curling up with a good book,’ she says. And while Indigo’s marketing strategy has been adjusted with, for example, more value-added promotions and more exclusives and benefits for iReward members, Horgan says the company has made a bold commitment to no layoffs. ‘We believe during these times it’s our job to protect the community of our employees,’ she says. ‘We would much rather they be engaged in serving our customers’ needs than printing off their resumes and worrying about job security.’

And Horgan herself seems committed to staying focused on the Indigo customer. ‘What often happens with people in the early stages of their career is that they think, ‘okay, what’s next?” says Reisman, ‘and I think she has the ability to realize, ‘wow, I’m doing what I want to do in a place I want to do it and I can keep growing.” That growth includes giving back to the community. Horgan helped create Indigo’s Love of Reading Foundation, which has generated $6 million over the past five years to provide books to schools in need, and she serves as an advisor to the SickKids Foundation. ‘She’s grown in her ability to help shape and inform the culture of the company,’ says Reisman. ‘She’s grown as a thought leader, as a people leader, as a colleague, and I really think of her as a business partner.’


Born: Sept. 24, 1972, Toronto, Ont.

Hobbies: Amateur photography, pilates, golf, and of course, reading

Family: Husband and three-year-old son, Dylan

Education: Degree in economics from Huron University College at Western

Career: Out of university, she joined the Toronto office of Boston Consulting Group (BCG), a worldwide management consulting firm where she worked on consumer strategy for Fortune 50 companies throughout North America. In 1997, BCG was hired by Indigo to do a market assessment. Horgan suggested a secondment program whereby she would work at Indigo for one year. But in 1998 she was offered a position at Indigo as manager, special projects. In 2000 she became SVP marketing, and after successfully overseeing the marketing side of the merge with Chapters in 2001, she was promoted again to chief marketing officer and EVP in 2003

Three Questions

What was your most memorable Indigo event?

Several years ago, Bill Clinton came. He’s the real deal – very gracious, extremely personable, magnetic, and he shook every single person’s hand, signed every book and then went outside and spent an hour interacting with our customers.

What was the best piece of advice you ever received?

‘You can have it all but you can’t have it all at once.’ Life is a long journey, and when you’re young and starting out in your career you feel like you need to get everything done by the time you’re 35, but you probably have another 15 or 20 years to your career. Heather [Reisman] gave me that advice years ago.

Who would you trade places with for a day?

Somebody on Obama’s staff. I’m fascinated by the political process and him as a change agent. I would love to trade places with someone close to him to really get a sense of how he’s internalizing everything that he has to face right now.