Vodafone marketing boss Ben McIntosh: This time, it will be a happy marriage with JWT

Vodafone has been through five creative agencies in six years. But with a new marketing and sales structure now in place, Vodafone's new consumer business director Ben McIntosh tells Mumbrella's Simon Canning that this time things will be different.

The head of marketing for Vodafone, branded Australia’s most toxic client by agency bosses just a few weeks ago, has promised a new approach to agency relationships after giving the telco’s advertising account to J. Walter Thompson.

After three years with Vodafone as director of sales, last month saw Ben McIntosh assume the newly created role as director of the consumer business unit, putting sales and marketing under a single banner.

He stepped into the role just weeks after the brand’s relationship with Cummins & Partners came to an end. He immediately moved to appoint JWT to the business with a pledge that he would bring to an end the brand’s revolving door relationship with agencies.

In his first interview since taking on the role, McIntosh is frank, telling Mumbrella the issue of Vodafone’s agency relationships had been addressed with JWT at the very start of the pitch.

But he said the future of marketing for the would be focused on customer experience that would be better served through a united sales and marketing role that now mirrored the structure of Vodafone in other markets.

McIntosh has spent most of his career working with Harvey Norman and its founders Gerry Harvey and Katie Page, including as a franchisee before eventually becoming GM of the retailer’s technology and entertainment division.

Central to his task will be making a success of Vodafone’s relationship with J. Walter Thompson – in a return to the WPP fold just two years after the telco left Ogilvy – and avoiding the ill feeling the brand had previously generated in other former agencies it had worked with.

“I don’t agree with what was in your story, but that doesn’t mean that Vodafone can’t work better, or be better, or be better to do business with,” McIntosh told Mumbrella.

“I’m not going to sit here and talk about the last eight or 10 years of what’s happened or what hasn’t happened, I’ll get judged on what I’ll do now and in the future. The Vodafone reputation has to be one where people like doing business with us, want to do business with us and it is mutually beneficial for both of us. If the perception of that isn’t in the past, then all I can do is say to those that read your articles and those that have been involved with past is: okay, let’s draw a line and let’s move on.

“What’s going to be different? My gut feel is it comes down to communication at all levels of JWT we need to be talking more and more often. But there is a difference. Talking more is fine but if you don’t tackle issues which come up or difficulties between each other quickly and properly you are always going to have problems. It’s like a marriage.

“But I would like to add, and this is important, to delve back into the past, this business hasn’t just survived a turbulent period, we have come out the other end in a very, very successful manner. There are not many organisations in the world that could have not just survived what Vodafone went through – we didn’t just survive but came through the other end fighting.”

The first Vodafone ad to be launched after McIntosh took control featured CEO Inaki Berroeta being driven in a car navigated by using the network

McIntosh is referring to the “Vodafail” debacle of just over five years ago in which underinvestment in the network saw an exodus of customers and a revenue slide from which the brand has never fully recovered with 5.56m subscribers still down on the 7.2m it had in 2010.

“The question is what’s different? The good news is that’s behind us. We are growing, our revenues are growing. We have real reestablished our place in the market as the true, true alternative to the big two.

“What’s going to be different is that is behind us and we are now on a footing that is much more sustainable and easier to plan.”

He said that the decision to choose JWT was not based on the WPP relationship globally (although that will bring benefits) and was also not based on creative ideas.

“They tackled the ‘how do we work together’,” he said of JWT’s pitch to him.

“I can’t even remember what they showed me to be honest. I was more interested in how are we going to work with the people on the other side of this table and can this be a long term relationship and everything ladders from there. I didn’t like just one person, I liked the entire team.

“I was confident that they wanted to be a partner of ours, I’m confident they want us to be successful, but I’m also confident they are not going to be victims, they are going to tell us what we need to do and they are going to be honest with us and they are going to communicate with us. Now those are the ingredients for a long term relationship.”

He said he wanted the agency relationship to be strong after the  “novelty” of presenting creative work had worn off.

“We are all in, and they are all in. Of course we talked about your article, it was very popular article in the industry. We talked about it straight up. That was the first thing we talk about actually, ‘okay, so, apparently we are the most toxic client, why the hell would you want to be here?’ I was impressed that they tackled that first up.

“All they were saying was ‘guys, you are certainly not the first client to be seen as difficult, but the problem isn’t if you are difficult or not difficult, the problem is if you let it bottle up’.”

McIntosh says a close relationship with WPP boss Mike Connaghan will be key.

Crucial to the decision, was the role of WPP AUNZ CEO Mike Connaghan, who has pledged to bring the broader capabilities of the group beyond JWT to Vodafone where needed.

McIntosh’s other big challenge will be melding the sales and marketing roles with the same success the brand has experienced in other markets.

“The main difference in the role is instead of being one that’s selling, one that’s marketing etcetera, is a central role that puts myself and the combined team basically at the forefront of what we have to do for our customers,” McIntosh tells Mumbrella.

That can be very fluffy and fashionable to say, but at the end of the day there is one team in Vodafone that’s now responsible for acquiring new customers but also making sure that our existing customers still get exceptional value to stay with us for the long term rather than having that split up. It’s one goal, one team.”

The role now matches the structure of Vodafone in other overseas markets.

“The funny thing is there is not that much change in terms of actual structure,” he said.

“Externally people have gone ‘Oh my god this is a huge change’, where internally it was actually all done and dusted within 24 hours. The one thing is they now have the one boss who is setting the long term vision, the long term direction and fundamental ideas of how we want to get there.

“I’m interested in what can Vodafone do truly be a relevant player in the telco market in Australia. It’s not a huge change but its a subtle change that’s going to make a big difference.

“We’re the underdog in Australia and I want all my team and I’m going to influence the entire Vodafone organisation to treat our customers like customers. That will then spur them on the speak at their barbecues, family events and say come on over to Vodafone, it’s fantastic.”

He admitted that the journey to his new vision was one that would be difficult to put timings on.

“How far are we away from that? I think currently we are very, very good. I want to be very, very great and that takes time and I have no timeline on that. I just want to continually improve every month, every week, every day.”

One of the criticisms which has been levelled at Vodafone and other telcos is they behave like banks with their marketing, when instead they should be thinking more like retailers – a claim McIntosh resists, with a reminder of how relatively young the mobile industry is in Australia.

“I think the first 20 or 30 years of telco – because it’s only a 30-year-old industry in terms of mobile – I think the industry has gone from zero in its first 30 years and has been very much focused on what it could do for customers on its terms,” he said.

“I think the next 30 years is going to be what customers want from telcos, not what telcos can give them. I don’t think its any one telco in particular that’s been guilty of it, I think the entire industry has been rather non-customer-centric in the past. In the future I think customers want what they want, when they want it, and how they want to get it . The winner of the prize at the end of the day is going to be the telco that will cater to that demand. As technology evolves customers will be the dictator of the future.”

He likens the approach to successful startups such as Uber which is based on the philosophy of delivering a service when someone wants it, when they need it and with ease – with the entire transaction rooted in the concept of “fairness”.

“I’m not anti-taxi but Uber transformed (the service) to be on the customer side of the equation, not how things have been for 100 years or 50 years. Now telcos need to adopt that philosophy which is what do customers want, when do they want it. They want us to be fair.

“I think fairness may be the first thing. The majority of customers don’t expect things for free, but they want it to be fair. And that’s not cheap, that’s not lots of data, its just fair. If that’s one area I can focus on to start with then I’m very happy about that.

McIntosh cites Vodafone’s $5 data roaming as an example of fairness in action at the company.

Citing Vodafone Australia’s unique position as a number three – behind Telstra and Optus – in a company where it is number one or a narrow number two in almost all its other markets, McIntosh said the brand needed to embrace challenger thinking and take a fresh local approach to its brand.

“We are the number three player in Australia and we are the underdog.” he said.

“In Australia we want the best of the best, so we want that confidence, we want that global power behind us to be able to bring customers better offers. But we can’t just copy what the rest of the world does for Vodafone and expect it to be successful in Australia. I’m not sure that’s what’s happened in the past, but I don’t think we’ve adapted as well as we would like to have. Can we do it? You bet we can, you bet we will, you watch this space because its all about getting our personality right, all about getting our tone right and making sure that customers know when they switch to Vodafone they have got global brands behind them.”

One area he has has moved on quickly is sponsorship, reconnecting Vodfafone with the ARU through a sponsorship of Super Rugby – and he has plans to bring the brand back to the front of the sponsorship stakes.

McIntosh said the judgement of his success in forging better relationships with his agency and moving Vodafone in Australia ahead would come in two years time when he believed the brand would not, yet again, be putting the account out to pitch.

“I’ve got to walk the walk. I can promise the world and say this will be different, but ultimately in two years time will be the judging time, so I guess I’ll see you in two years time.”


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