M&S deploys Microsoft Azure cloud to run festive ad campaigns

Azure powered M&S's multi-million pound Christmas campaign Magic & Sparkle starring Helena Bonham-Carter and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley

Marks & Spencer’s multimillion-pound 2013 Christmas marketing campaign, Magic & Sparkle, which featured Helena Bonham-Carter, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and David Gandy, was powered by public cloud platform Microsoft Azure.

M&S deployed the Azure cloud infrastructure in October 2013 ahead of its most important sales and advertising period of the year. 

The 2013 multichannel marketing campaign aimed to encourage consumers to visit a dedicated M&S microwebsite and vote on the name of a dog which featured in the campaign. It included primetime television adverts, which featured in popular programmes such as Downton Abbey, as well as social network promotions.

The campaign aimed to reach 97% of the UK adult population over the holiday period, interacting with each person at least three times. The IT team realised that it had to have an infrastructure ready within three months to cope with the predicted spike in traffic to the campaign website.

“We had no idea exactly when these interactions would take place, so the whole site design had to be elastic and able to scale to cope with the potentially huge volumes of traffic,” said John Pillar, head of software engineering for mobile, labs, retail IT and digital stores at M&S.

“M&S is a brand that relies on trust and if the additional traffic had slowed the e-commerce site and made it hard for consumers to purchase products, that would have been unacceptable,” he said.

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The IT team decided to create the website using Microsoft Azure to cope with the potentially high traffic, as well as save costs on physical servers and internal IT resources.

It decided early in the process that a cloud platform was the only way forward as the important campaign needed a fast, scalable and elastic infrastructure ready within weeks, before the festive season kicked off, Pillar said. “The culture in my team is similar to that of a startup in terms of speed, agility and innovation and we wanted a platform to reflect that," he added.

The retailer picked Microsoft’s public cloud platform as it had previous experience of working on Azure and was familiar with its on-demand computing, storage and networking capabilities.

“We had a matter of weeks to get the Magic & Sparkle website up and running,” said Pillar. “If we engaged with our internal infrastructure team, it would take days just to build the server.”

The IT team also used Microsoft’s cloud support team to power the festive campaign and to make sure the technology could scale at the levels M&S required.

Overcoming bottleneck issues on Azure

But there were a few challenges to overcome during the testing and development phase.

Ahead of the full deployment in production, the M&S IT team ran a proof-of-concept and tested the website running on Azure cloud. At that time it found that the huge volumes of traffic led to a bottleneck. 

To eliminate this bottleneck, Microsoft’s service team allocated a section of its Amsterdam datacentre and supplied beta load test software to ensure the campaign ran smoothly.

Magic & Sparkle was the cornerstone of the retailer’s 2013 holiday season and using Azure as the platform “really paid off” in terms of the infrastructure’s responsiveness to the traffic spikes, said Pillar.

The cloud-based campaign also helped the IT team save costs on internal infrastructure and allowed IT engineers to focus on more strategic IT tasks such as writing code.

“The full site was up and running in one week. If we had used internal resources, the process would have taken two months,” Pillar explained.

According to the retailer, using public cloud platforms to run short-term, resource-intensive workloads and applications, such as the ad campaign, is extremely affordable.

M&S has since used the public cloud to power other crucial campaigns around Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and many more holidays.

“We know that if a campaign goes viral and the traffic goes crazy, Azure will scale to whatever levels we need,” Pillar said.

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