Opinion

With the sacking of Alex Malley, Australia’s biggest content marketing experiment has failed

With the ignominious departure of Alex Malley from CPA Australia, Australia’s biggest and most expensive content marketing project has come to a drastic end. Unless they're the founder, brands built around a CEO are a bad idea, argues Mumbrella’s Tim Burrowes

A decade ago I had to ask Richard Branson a delicate question.

What would happen to the Virgin brand if he died?

At the time, I was presenting a show about the media on a radio station, and Branson was in town to spruik a new Virgin Airlines route.

I couched the question as gently as I could. Given his record of risk-taking publicity stunts – including being rescued from the Atlantic from a ditched hot air balloon – was there, erm, a contingency plan for the brand he personifies?

“If I snuff it, I guess they’ll have to spend more on marketing,” was his cheerful reply.

Which is probably true. It’s certainly the case that Branson has for many years been a publicity machine for Virgin which has delivered media coverage for Virgin ventures that could never be bought.

Branson in a tank. Branson breaking a world record. Branson in a dress. Branson jumping out of a cake. Branson kitesurfing.

So it’s fair to say that there’s nothing inherently wrong with a CEO being the face of a brand.

But as PwC’s Megan Brownlow pointed out in her keynote presentation at Mumbrella360 this month, the tenure of a typical CEO is just a few yearsWhich means, as the CPA has learned, that if you make them the face of your brand, a lot of brand equity can walk out of the door at any time.

And it may explain why the most successful CEOs-as-face-of-the-brand all tend to be founders.

Branson is the best example, but that’s also why Aussie John Symond or Ruslan Kogan (or to a lesser extend Shark Tank investor and Boost Juice proprietor Janine Allis) have resonated with the public.

I think the jury is still out on whether Domino’s Don Meij personifying the brand is a good idea.

But with hindsight, Alex Malley was not.

Good marketing is an investment that builds the brand for the future. It’s an investment that carries on paying out long after the current media schedule is off the air.

In CPA’s case, the departure of Malley means that there will be no further value to be squeezed from the dollars previously invested.

Malley: Not Richard Branson

Much as he might want to be, Alex Malley is not Richard Branson. He is not an entrepreneur. He was never the aspirational role model for young accountants he seemed to think he was. He was running a membership organisation for accountants.

And the $1.8m pay packet they might aspire to was kept secret from them at the time.

The only future beneficiary of this CPA investment in the Malley brand will be Malley himself – assuming his reputation recovers from the governance questions that have swirled around the body, and eventually led to his abrupt Friday night sacking.

By the way, when the content marketing balloon went up five years ago, I confess I was an enthusiast for the CPA story. It felt like an interesting way to do things.

The CPA went from CHE-made ads in 2011 featuring young CPAs talking about their career success…

… to newly arrived CEO Alex Malley announcing in 2012 that he would be appearing in a video series interviewing first man on the Moon Neil Armstrong.

In the years that followed there were two TV shows – which CPA effectively paid Nine to air – a book, a huge investment in building Malley’s social media presence and his own advice website.

No official number was ever shared on what the CPA spent on boosting Malley’s profile – for a time it felt like he was on every airport billboard. I doubt it was as high as the $35m being bandied around, but I’m sure it was in the millions.

When I was asked for examples of brands diving into content marketing the two I tended to cite were CPA and ANZ’s Blue Notes publishing platform.

At the height of the content marketing boom in 2014 we invited Malley to be a panellist at BEfest, our branded entertainment summit. We were told that he usually only did keynotes, and he eventually declined.

But our jury did give Malley’s book, The Naked CEO, a silver in the content strategy category of the 2015 BEfest Branded Entertainment Awwards.

So we bought it too.

But the evidence of success now looks thinner than it seemed at the time.

For starters, the growth in memberships over the last eight years appears to have been a relatively modest – 129,000 to 160,000 – roughly in keeping with population growth.

And more to the point, that feels like a result that could have been driven by any decent marketing strategy backed by a multimillion-dollar marketing spend.

It could have been a sustainable one that didn’t require making its CEO famous.

And in the end, the quest for fame made Malley a target. As I wrote a few weeks ago, much of the credit for tough questions about Malley’s chase for fame, which then uncovered a cabal-like board culture, belongs to the AFR’s Joe Aston.

And as revelations began to emerge about Malley’s big pay packet, his position at the helm of a membership body became untenable. Until the remaining board members (several of them resigned in recent weeks) finally sacked him.

Given the size of the social media following thanks to the CPA’s investment in his personal brand, it will be fascinating to see who gets custody of Malley’s social media accounts. With 126,000 followers on Twitter, and more than half a million on LinkedIn, that’s a valuable future platform.

Luckily, Malley has lots of advice for those he leaves behind. As he wrote in LinkedIn last year in an article about what happens when a boss leaves:

“While it can be an unsettling time when your boss moves on, remember that the new person coming in will bring with them a host of new and potentially valuable skills and experiences that you can tap into.”

See? It’s not all bad, is it?

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