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“I think your marketing functions tend to be the only function that kind of looks outward, that understands engagement and technology.”

Former Marketing Director at Royal Mail, Ben Rhodes chats with us about leading one of Britain’s most traditional institutions through its digital transformation. He champions quality service and customer experience, as well as reactive social media to create reputability and brand impact. He also explains his decision to move from agency to in-house marketing, and how he puts his own stamp on creative leadership.

Transcript:

 

Speaker 1:
This is ClientSide from Fox Agency.
Speaker 2:
Wait.
Speaker 3:
Okay now from the beginning.
Nathan Anibaba:
Ben Rhodes is the former marketing director at Royal Mail where he led the digital transformation. He transformed marketing structures to reflect the shifting market landscape, integrated digital into marketing, establishing research, data, creative and social media in house teams, introduced and developed talent by starting and leading commercial graduate programmes, enhancing digital capability and motivating high performing teams. He also held senior roles at McCann London and MasterCard. And he recently was recognised as one of the top 100 marketers in the UK by Marketing Week. Ben Rhodes. Welcome to ClientSide.

Ben Rhodes:
Oh, brilliant, I’m looking forward to it.

Nathan Anibaba:
Absolute pleasure having you on the show. Thank you very much. You’ve got a fascinating background, you start your career in the agency world you move to McCann, the biggest ad agency in the world. How do you go from there being an ad man to leading digital transformation for what is one of Britain’s most beloved institutions?

Ben Rhodes:
Well, that’s a really good question. And I like to say that, you know, it was completely planned. But like most people, my career progression has been kind of squiggly, I think, is the technical term for it. So, I mean, I never knew when I worked in, you know, in ad land, that I would end up being, you know, marketing director or group marketing director of, you know, one of the top most recognised brands in the country never had a clue. But I think, you know, what I didn’t realise when I was at agencies was that there came a point in time where I just got more interested in the kind of overall marketing strategy than just the communication tactics, if that makes sense. And when I saw an opportunity to go client side, my first role was at MasterCard, it was really because I just wanted to kind of understand and contribute to the broader strategy, and then execute that through advertising and marketing, rather than just kind of be given a brief and execute that, if that makes sense. It was sort of at one level, it was a curiosity, to understand more about the business, but another level, it was about taking on more responsibility, and driving change forward. And candidly, I also figured what you know, I was, you know, I was a senior suitor at McCann and, you know, I just, you know, I just didn’t think my clients were doing as good a job as they could do. And I had the kind of late 20s, self assurity, that I could do a better job myself, or at least a good job. And I just wanted to stretch myself. So that’s what I did. And then you know, when you go client side, you know, there’s all sorts of different paths you can take. But you know, five years at MasterCard was a brilliant grounding for me and kind of commercial marketing. And then when the opportunity came to join Royal Mail to head up the brand as they were going into an IPO, that felt like too good an opportunity to miss. And then I just progressed through the ranks at Royal Mail.

Nathan Anibaba:
Let’s talk about your time with MasterCard a little bit before we go into the Royal Mail, because after about 10 years working with agencies, McCann and another agency of independent 50, man agency, as well, after about 10 years, you took the role with MasterCard, what factors led to that decision? And what was that experience like now working on the demand side?

Ben Rhodes:
Well, I mean, it was completely different from working in you know, Herbrand Street in London and McCann. And it was like working in a library to begin with.

Nathan Anibaba:
Quiet

Ben Rhodes:
It was it there were no young people and loud music and, and laughter, that kind of it was like working in a very old fashioned bank. So that was it was a bit of a culture shock. But it was a hell of a brief that I that I joined for. So I was recruited into, into MasterCard with a very specific role in mind, which was they just bought debit franchise called Switch. If people are old enough to remember that, and they were rebrand, they need someone to rebrand it to the European debit brand, which is called Maestro. So I joined to do that job. Now, you know, Switch was on maybe 20 30 million bank cards, it was quite a big deal to go in and, and change change that brand and build it into a recognised brand. So people knew that they could use that card, you know, in shops when they were buying stuff. And so the motivation really was you know, here’s a great big, hairy challenge. Can you do it for us? So that’s what I did. But obviously the culture was very different. There’s a lot more kind of conservatism when you go in house and agencies tend to be quite edgy. In general, and and that’s not the culture you get in house tends to be a little bit more risk averse, especially in a regulated financial services business. Sure, where you know, you have to kind of manage your business quite carefully. So you know, it was it was a great opportunity. And then, you know, once once I, once I got into MasterCard, after about a year, 18 months, I moved over into the credit side of the business and, and started working on the priceless advertising campaign and the sponsorship assets. And leaving that in the UK and Ireland and also a couple of countries in Northern Europe. And that was that was fabulous. It was a great platform to work off and activating sponsorships and negotiating them was, you know, something I’d never done before. And that was that was a terrific learning. And then contactless payments came along. And, and I in 2008, I launched that in the UK. And you know, it took a while for it to take off. But you know, not now it’s history, right? I mean, everyone taps and goes, so I was really, you know, that’s one of the I suppose one of the most profound things I’ve done in my career was actually kind of getting that off the ground, and actually having the first contactless payment card at the first merchant in the whole of England.

Nathan Anibaba:
Amazing

Ben Rhodes:
You know, setting that up and executing it was a brilliant thing to do.

Nathan Anibaba:
And then you say at MasterCard, that’s where you learn your commercial smarts. What do you mean by that?

Ben Rhodes:
So, you know, when you when you’re at an agency, it’s very much you’re at the end of a process, which is, you know, here’s a communications brief, I need you to go away and achieve this, you know, perception change or behaviour change or generate this demand. And, and what I learned at MasterCard was the bit that happens before that, which is really the commercial thinking, which is, how are we making money? And how can we make more? What’s the sources of revenue, one of the products that we’ve got one of the propositions, how do we pull that together? So it was really the kind of marketing strategy end of the spectrum. And it’s there really, I was taken under the wing of, you know, the other senior marketers in Europe and globally. And, you know, really learn how to understand the p&l really learn to identify where there were valuables. And then, you know, use the intuitive knowledge that I’ve built up over years and agencies to kind of go right, well, this is how we can do advertising to help unlock this value for this business. So you know, that’s why I really kind of learned that that side of things, it was beyond execution and tactic and much more into strategy.

Nathan Anibaba:
Let’s talk a little bit about Royal Mail, you joined the company in early 2013 seems like a little unusual move from financial services to a traditional logistics company. What first attracted you to the company?

Ben Rhodes:
You know, when I got approached by their in house recruitment team, it was just such a kind of felt like an honour, to be honest with you. I mean, this was the last public service to be privatised. I don’t know, that’s, you know, quite contentious. But it is the most popular stock in the UK, more more people have shares in Royal Mail than any other business really.
Nathan Anibaba:
Okay. Yeah, interesting.

Ben Rhodes:
It’s a huge retail stock is huge, hugely loved as an institution. And you know, the opportunity to be involved with that transformation from being a public to a very slow public service. very inefficient, but vital to most businesses in the UK. And connecting most people still in the UK with us sending parcels or receiving them or, or letters, seemed like, you know, a brilliant opportunity to kind of go in and see if I could help, you know, protect and grow that business. So it felt like it was a good thing. And to be honest, I wanted to get away from working for American companies, as well, I wanted to have a different working culture, and you didn’t get much more British than Royal Mail. And, and that’s very charming in its own way. So, you know, I, I wanted to have, you know, a different experience. And I suppose lastly, MasterCard was a very low headcount organisation, there was only sort of a handful of us in the UK that ran all the marketing. And I really felt for my career, I needed to get much broader and deeper leadership experience and the opportunity or role models to lead you know, really quite significant team. And, you know, I felt that it was the right time in my career to kind of, you know, learn those kind of soft people management skills. And, and, and, you know, really sort of hone myself as a leader so that those are the motivations really.

Nathan Anibaba:
Looking at Royal Mail. Now, you would never think that only a few years ago, it was a traditionally slow moving, bureaucratic organisation, it seems as though it’s the kind of organisation that has moved with the times. It’s very modern. It’s got all the usual kind of bells and whistles that you would expect to see from a modern British organisation. That wasn’t what it looked like when you joined the company in 2013. What were the challenges the business was going through at the time, talk a little bit about what the Royal Mail looked like when you joined, and how did you help transition or transform the company into what it is today?

Ben Rhodes:
Yeah, so I mean, it was, you know, there was an awful lot that needed to happen. So so when I joined the business, it just had a series of very damaging strikes. And so trust amongst customers was very low. It was also fully regulated, which, and what that means is that it couldn’t set its prices, the regulator set its prices, it couldn’t change its products without doing I think it was a three month consultation. So it can change its features or products. And it was also a loss making, I mean, heavily loss making. And I think there were questions actually over whether or not it was a growing concern at times.

Nathan Anibaba:
And this is an attractive opportunity to you because…

Ben Rhodes:
It’s pregnant with opportunity, Nathan, opportunity,

Nathan Anibaba:
There you go.

Ben Rhodes:
And in fairness, you know, I didn’t do enough due diligence. And, you know, perhaps, if I had, I would have stayed away from it, I don’t know. But, you know, hindsight, hindsight, is a funny thing. But but, you know, it was it was a rare challenge when I got in there. The other thing about the business was at the time, there was very, very little technology deployed. I mean, it wasn’t Greenfield, it was, you know, there was technology there. But it really wasn’t modern technology. So, you know, the network was effectively blind and dumb. You know, nobody knew what was in it, or where it was. And, and people would turn up, you know, at mail centres with sacks of mail with handwritten labels on saying there’s 500 items of mail in this bag, you know, from this customer. And that customer be billed that amount, whether it was 300, or 600 pieces in that matter. And so, so over the over over the decade that I was there, you know, the huge, huge amount of work was done to effectively digitise the pipeline. So you know, there’s barcodes now and on every letter, pretty much every letter that goes through the network, there are barcodes and very specific labels on all parcels to go through. And, and effectively what that has allowed is for much better operational management of the network, because we know what’s going in what’s going out. And we know where it is. So we can you can launch a tracking service, you can, you can do all sorts of different things for customers. But all of that had to be put in place. Now I was part of that journey. I wasn’t responsible for it. But it’s sitting on the commercial leadership team for seven years of the decade that I was in the business, you know, where all those decisions were made. And, and you know, it was absolutely enormous. The changes and especially when we deregulated and you know, we stopped having a regulator telling us what we could do with our products and what we could charge for them. There were no structures in place for the business to work out what his pricing strategy was, or how to make decisions about that without, you know, ending up in litigation over competition or breaches. So I was actually quite heavily involved in setting up some of the processes around pricing. I briefly ran it for a while when we first deregulated to try and put all those structures in place to build it into a much more commercial entity. You know, when you’re a monopoly, you know, people have to buy your products. But when you’ve deregulated and, and you have lots of competition in the marketplace, you know, you have to be much more commercial. So, you know, I was one of many recruits that came in at the time to kind of put those, those kind of commercial practices and processes in place and to take the business forward.

Nathan Anibaba:
So when you came up with your plan to commercialise the business, and you took that plan to the leadership team, or the powers that be with the huge bill, your huge bill in hand and the operational challenges that would go along with that, were you welcomed with open arms and smiles and blank cheques? Or was it a bit more complex than that?

Ben Rhodes:
No, no, the business has always been quite capital constrained. And, and it’s a relatively low margin business. It’s a in the UK, it’s a 7 billion pound turnover business, but it doesn’t really make much profit. So so that means there’s about 7 billion pounds worth of costs. So, you know, most of those are people costs, most of those are postman, postman salaries, not all about 70% of is the cost of in the final mile of delivery.

Nathan Anibaba:
Really?

Ben Rhodes:
Yeah, yeah. And so they’re largely fixed costs. So that makes it very difficult. You know, as in most fixed cost businesses, what tends to happen in those industries, what tends to happen is you have to, you have to fill it up with volume. So price prices tend to be quite low, because you’re just you just want to keep the thing full. You haven’t got that you can’t reduce your cost base that easily. So anyway, when yeah, I mean, everything was done in steps. I would say there was no massive investment case of the whole lot. There was, you know, but there was, you know, over over the decade, I mean, at least a billion pounds or thought spent on technology and upgrades whether that was in the operation or whether that was you know, across the digital estate, although just a core IT infrastructure of the business. And you know, but it had to be done, you know, we had normal planning cycles of one year, three year five year and it was kind of worked through in that way. But for the bits that I specifically ran, I mean, marketing, marketing budget was always a challenge to get hold of, and to secure. And there were a huge amount of hurdles around that which, you know, we can we can go into, as well, digital was easier to get money for, but it was still very difficult. And it wasn’t that the business didn’t want to have a, you know, website on a platform that was in service, or they, and they did want to have, you know, much more efficient and agile operating model. It’s just the business was never really, it didn’t really understand customers that well, part of the problem of being a monopoly is you don’t have to. So, you know, so there was constant focus, for me and my colleagues on the commercial side about trying to make it a much more customer focused business and get the other executives to kind of walk in the feet of customers, and understand the pain points of a difficulty they had of doing business with us, which is why these investments were incredibly important to make, and improving customer journeys and experiences across touchpoints. You know, and because, you know, I ran all the research for the business alongside the marketing, and latterly, all the digital, you know, I was quite heavily involved in in those kind of conversations and helping to influence and change opinion so we can get the investment away.

Nathan Anibaba:
So one of the benefits or maybe drawbacks of marketing is that you get to touch every part of the business, you’re probably one of the only functions if not the only function that gets to touch pretty much every part of the business and understands both internally and externally, sort of what customers and stakeholders are thinking about or expect. What sort of challenges did you face when communicating this new vision of this new transformation, both internally and externally to stakeholders?

Ben Rhodes:
Yeah, that’s a good point. I mean, I think your marketing functions tend to be the only function that kind of looks outward. And also the, but coupled with that, that understands engagement and technology. Obviously, sales teams look outwards as well, but they don’t really have the kind of experience or need to really understand technology and kind of building the kind of marketing capabilities that you need to have. So yeah, no, it was a challenge. And but you know, we live in, you know, a very, very data centric world. And so the way through it was just making sure that we had the right data points. And, and also, to a degree, the right benchmarks from, from very hungry competitors that were eating away at our customer base, to be able to kind of say, like, this is, this is where we need to go. And I think one of the things about, you know, working in a, you know, a great, you know, an enormous company, that role now is that, you know, you’re never going to be able to change quickly. So this is not going to be a sprint, this is absolutely going to be a marathon. So you have to, you have to have that mindset. But what you can do is build up very, very strong arguments through your kind of longitudinal data sets that go back a number of years and say, look, you know, we have to do these things, because this is consistent customer behaviour and we’re missing out on opportunities. So, you know, it wasn’t that the business didn’t want to change. It’s just it needed a lot of proof and evidence and persuasion that it was placing his bets in the right places, if that makes sense.

Nathan Anibaba:
Most people wouldn’t know that there’s a huge b2b side of the business that contributes over 80% of its revenues. Talk a little about that.

Ben Rhodes:
Yeah, so I mean, yeah, you’re right. Most people, when they think of Royal Mail, think of the postman, they think of Christmas cards and birthday cards, what they don’t really think about is the sort of, you know, 13 billion letters that we deliver every year, might be a bit less than that now we’ve had the pandemic, but it will still be over 10 billion, I would have thought, I mean, that’s a lot of letters. And a lot of those are, you know, bills and statements, and receipts and the like, but nevertheless, you know, it’s still a very large part of commercial life, paper and paper based communications. So that’s quite a big part of the business and just under half the size of the business, I think, and obviously parcels, or e commerce, which is a big pivot that I’ve been part of within Royal Mail has grown from being you know, a fraction, a fraction of the volume and the revenue to over half the revenue in the UK now, and I think globally, because Roma has got a very large European subsidiary called GLS which actually runs in about 40 different countries in Europe and in North America and Canada. Now, I think over half the revenue in the business is parcels and I think about 40% of it is international. So a lot of people don’t realise that. And that’s nearly all b2b and a global level. So it’s a huge business to business operation. And you know, every any business that works in retail, potentially manufacturing will have some form of commercial relationship with Royal Mail for ecommerce and goods fulfilment, parcel delivery, and certainly, amongst smaller enterprises in the SMI space, it’s an absolutely vital service, it’s easy to access cheap to use, very convenient, and very reliable parcel delivery service, which allows, you know, marketplace sellers to thrive for businesses to you know, distance sell, you know, in a way that the other carriers, you know, they haven’t got the capacity for, to be able to do that. So, yeah, it’s a pretty vital business, but it’s a huge business and international business, no one knows that. And it’s a massive business to business enterprise.

Nathan Anibaba:
Hmm. You say that when you’re a monopoly, you don’t really have to think about the competition much. But that’s changed in recent years, when people are considering the competition now UPS, DHL, etc. How does Royal Mail stand out and differentiate from the competition?

Ben Rhodes:
Well, so the interesting thing about Royal Mail is, it’s never going to be the cheapest, it can’t be the cost basis too high, we have a, you know, fully unionised workforce, who and the union are, you know, absolutely do a brilliant job for their members to negotiate, retain terms and get pay increases. So we’ve got a very high cost base, that means that, you know, you can’t really trade off price. Now for your largest customers, obviously, you will, you will, you know, you want to get the volume. So you will run at a lower price point. But in general, we are more expensive than most of the competitors. And so that means you have to have better service is pretty simple. You know, we don’t have a problem with the brand, everyone’s heard or Royal Mail, I think 80% of people in market will consider Royal Mail hasn’t really got a problem there at all. But it comes down to how reliable the services and in some specific segments, there will be features and attributes that are absolutely vital for those businesses to survive. So especially you get that with marketplace, sellers a lot around having proof of delivery is really important. So that if people phoned up and said, Well, you know, I have this thing hasn’t arrived. And they can turn around, say, Well, actually, it hasn’t arrived, because there was a scan that Royal Mail did, or there’s a picture of it in your doorstep or whatever. Sure. So so so things are that a really, really, really critical to some, some segments, the vital piece around competition is making sure that you’ve got really, really good quality of service. So that’s the vital bit certainly for retail, which is the most competitive sort of market sector that Royal Mail operates in, because you know, if you mess up a delivery for a, for a customer, you know, they could lose their customer. And you can pretty much draw a straight line in, in retail between a poor delivery and a

Nathan Anibaba:
loss of a customer.

Ben Rhodes:
Yeah, the loss of a customer, they just won’t purchase with you again. So so that quality of service is vital, which is where you know, having a very dedicated workforce, that is, you know, very recognisable 90,000 feet on the street every six days a week, you know, huge, huge fleet everywhere, you know, and that, that that starts to pay dividends against some of the other competitors that are in the market with, you know, a kind of gig economy workforce, where you have a different person coming each day, and you never quite know the quality that you’re going to get. And some customers will pay a trade off, you know, they’ll go for much cheaper, but worse quality, and they’ve worked out that that’s fine for them. But the vast majority of our customers will pay, you know, a little bit more not a huge amount, but a little bit more. Because you know, they know they will get you know, consistent quality and reliability.

Nathan Anibaba:
You also say one of the biggest jobs that you had at the company was changing the website from one that had over 1000 pages to one that had significantly less than that about 500 pages. You also introduced a new operating model to the business as well. What did that involve? and what impact did it have on the business?

Ben Rhodes:
Yeah, so so a couple years ago, I was we had quite a big restructure and I was promoted into a role where I took on digital alongside marketing and I had to merge the two functions together. Not an uncommon practice in large organisations over the last couple of years, but kind of key to doing all of that was that we absolutely need to transform quite large pieces of the digital estates, the customer estates to get those right and and one of which was royalmail.com, which was, you know, it’s one of the largest websites in the UK, by visiting visitor numbers, I think it’s over a million visitors a day, over a billion pages consumed a year, and a huge amount of revenue written through it. But you know, it was on a platform that was out of service, a platform that didn’t work on mobile. And you know, that the whole operating model, the whole setup, you know, was configured to sort of 19, well 2008, in terms of the way it worked, and how we work with our partners. And what we really needed to do was improve the customer experience, and get the actual platform safe. So that yeah, it wasn’t support. And critically, you know, look at the operating model, you know, which was set up as you know, there’s, there’s something needs to be changed, we’ll go and brief, the company that supports us on technology. And you know, three weeks later, they will execute it to a much more agile model with developers in house where we could in real time, as you’d expect on, you know, sounds a bit odd talking like this, but because it’s how most businesses run, but you know, be able to do 90% of the stuff yourself in real time. So that was quite a big transformation to do that. And at the same time, you know, for various other reasons, you had GDPR, coming down the line, or the new cookie consent rules. The e commerce platform we were running on the shop we’re running on was that platform was being terminated by Oracle, who we use, so we had to move all of that as well. So it ended up being an absolute monster of a project over about 18 months. But particularly because of the way that we decided to run it, we decided that we would run it as an agile project, rather than a kind of more classic, kind of waterfall based project. So and that was, that was tough for the organisation to buy into, because they’d never run an agile project anywhere near the scale that we were running it at. And obviously, you know, the last time we replatformed, the website, which is just before I joined, it all went wrong. And as you the website didn’t work for about three months, over the Christmas period. And so nobody can buy good. Yeah, over Christmas.

Nathan Anibaba:
Yeah. It was fresh in their mind.

Ben Rhodes:
Yeah, well, yeah,

Nathan Anibaba:
And then here you come.

Ben Rhodes:
Yeah, here I come saying well, we, we kind of got to do this, and I’m going to do it in a way that is really scary. But you know, I mean, we’ve got a very strong technology team, they absolutely wanted to do this as an agile project, they wanted that to become a really good use case for them within the business. So they were up for it. And, and we’re going to prepare to kind of invest in people and, you know, commitment to kind of achieve that way, I had a very good finance director at the time who completely got it, she completely got that it was going to be much more cost efficient to run this as an agile project than a waterfall based one, which would involve, you know, half a million pounds worth for scoping upfront setting requirements. And, you know, and we would know, we would never have completed it in the timeframe that we needed to complete it in, it would have cost us twice as much. So you know, and but that, but that involves, you know, a huge amount of cultural and operational change in the business to a get the business cases approved, we’ll also be doing the development and then run the website, you know, with an in house dev team, and all the kind of analytics and, and responsiveness that you need to have and the empowerment that you need to give teams and managers to just go away and do stuff, rather than going through various boards and bureaucratic sign off processes. So that was, you know, it was a terrific thing to oversee, I’d be lying if I told you it was easy. It was it was excruciatingly difficult at times to get it away. And you know, you kind of you know, every bear trap, we fell down, but you get back up afterwards you go right, well, we’re not gonna do that again. And actually, I’ve learned a huge amount now about how we can make this work when we go live. And so that that was that was very helpful.

Nathan Anibaba:
So talking about ambitious projects. If that wasn’t enough, you also digitise the company around social media. So you created a social, social and content unit. And that was much more about sort of culture and ways of working, but you transformed the way that everyone in the company used social media, what problem were you trying to fix?

Ben Rhodes:
So like most new sort of marketing technologies, when they spring up, you get new advocates in different parts of the business, who started doing things and they could be in marketing, they could be in sales, it could be in customer service, it could be anywhere and and over time, you find that you’ve got this incredibly disparate kind of approach of going to market on these channels. And you’ve got these kind of false delineations happening between service and PR and HR recruitment and marketing. So one of the big tasks, when I, when I took over over marketing alongside doing the web transformation, was to create a centre of excellence in the centre of the organisation that could really leverage the social media channels, you know, as much as humanly possible, just because it’s a kind of owned channel that we really should be able to use effectively. So we partnered initially with, with a PR team. And then with the, there was a number of smaller marketing units across the business. And we created a core team of community managers, and content creators to, you know, build out a proper social media strategy, and proper kind of channel strategies for, you know, the key, the key channels that we’re going to be using like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc. And you know, it, I’d be lying, if I said it was easy, it again, it was one of those things it was, it wasn’t as difficult as the as the kind of web transformation. This was, the challenge on this was much more to, to do with the commercial value of social media. And actually, you know, you because you can spend quite a lot of time and effort on, you know, on these channels, and not really have much to talk about at the end of the day.

So it was quite important for me, I’m quite a commercial marketeer, is that we know, we were producing revenue, as well as kind of reputation and brand impact. Or we were helping to lower costs in other parts of the business, which is why we took on the HR, standard HR recruitment, as well, all of that activity in the kind of LinkedIn channel gets run through the central social media team now, which it just made a lot of sense. But the interesting thing about the implementation, though, was that, you know, it wasn’t about having, you know, a small team in the middle. That didn’t make it, that’s, you know, as successful as it could have been, and that was a that was massively important to have those experts. And we did a huge amount of training across the business. But again, that didn’t really light the fire, what really lit the fire was, was changing the governance around how the team operated. So in a very regulated business, which is very risk averse, there’s lots and lots of controls in place to make sure that no one does anything to damage the company. And what I realised quite early on with social media is that, you know, if the head of social has to come to me, every time he wants to put a reactive post out, to get approval, we’re not going to work very well in this channel. And, and also, you know, and you know, and if every press release gets written, and then they turn around and say, well, could you amplify this for us, please? You know, can you push it out on Twitter, and that’s not, you know, that’s pretty turgid content. There’s no infographics, there’s no show, there’s nothing, no, so so I kind of, you know, it kind of clicked, you know, I clocked quite quickly, that what I really need to do is just empower people to get on with stuff, and trust that they will be responsible, if there was something that was too contentious, they would come and talk to me or one of my colleagues on the leadership team, and say, you know, we’re thinking of putting this out, what do you think, but just to get on with it, and that’s what it did. So, and by getting on with it, what happened was that, you know, the content plan was developed, and it was very full. And they started to get tonnes and tonnes of traction on the channels, because they were being reactive, their humour had real personality and what they were doing, and, you know, the content was engaging and strong. And, you know, I think we got up to about a million engagements a month, and we didn’t spend, I mean, we spent like, like, next to nothing on media, this was nearly all organic. But we’ve got such a strong brand, that it was, you know, it was very easy to, you know, with the right content to kind of build a huge franchise in those channels. And as we, as we did more content and got more engagement, and, you know, and people, you know, really, really started to kind of follow us and, and engaged with what we did, you know, more and more people on the business started taking it more seriously. And, and we started executing far more kind of, you know, campaigns through that channel and starting to turn that into, into revenue on the bottom line. But what really pulled all that together was the change in governance and the empowering the team to just get on with it and work in a truly agile but responsible way. That was the most powerful insight. You can’t do that for every medium. I’ll be honest with you, you couldn’t do that with a big TV production, you couldn’t just let people get off and do stuff, you know, that, you know, because then the scale of what you’re have or the scale of what you’re doing, you know, doing an ad which might you know, 25 million people might see eight times, you know, that’s very different from a little social film. But in that particular, the way to get that channel working brilliantly was to kind of just excite and engage people and give them some freedom. And when we got to the end was that, you know, people stopped it certainly with it a PR team. And they stopped kind of going, here’s the press release, can you amplify it, too? We’ve got this brilliant idea, what do you think we can do with it. And you know, that could have been through social, it could have been through, you know, digital, other digital channels, it could have been through just a standard press release. And that was, you know, to see that come together, over about an 18 month period. And that transformation in kind of culture and the way the working practice changed, was really phenomenal. I’m so, so proud of that really pleased that

Nathan Anibaba:
Really fascinating. Ben I could speak to you about this all day, I think what you’ve done in your career is absolutely fascinating. Final question before we get into our speed round, your background is from media and advertising. And then you digitally transform one of Britain’s biggest and sort of most well loved institutions, what transformation did you have to go on personally, in order to acquire those skills and those muscles, to have been able to have done what you have done in your career? I don’t think many people would have been as confident or as competent in making that personal transformation.

Ben Rhodes:
So I think that’s a great question. And not one that I’ve been asked before, actually, I was very lucky in my career that I’ve worked for some brilliant people. And I’ve worked with some brilliant people. And I think when you’re kind of in that company, stuff kind of rubs off on you a bit. But I guess the bits that I really developed, were around leading through others. At the beginning of my career, it was all about me, it was all about my personal achievements and the skills that I had, you know, craft skills about how to do things. But actually, the more ambitious, the tasks, and the challenge were, the more you realise you can’t actually do it yourself. And what you really need to do is employ people around you who are truly brilliant at doing the things that that they’re going to do. And my job is to create an environment in which they can thrive and be absolutely amazing. And, you know, yeah, I will, I haven’t got it right all the time. But that’s probably the skill or at least, the thing that I know that I need to do for the team to be successful. And therefore the company to be successful, is to kind of create that environment. A friend of mine years ago, as a creative director, once described it as a beehive, you can only make honey at a certain temperature. But the fascinating thing about that is that the temperature is regulated by the bees. And the job of the queen bee is to help them set the right temperature. And then they just get on and do it themselves. I love that. And I think in many ways, marketing, market marketing departments are kind of like that. And the role of the CMO is kind of like that. It’s about creating that environment so that people can really thrive really, you know, do brilliant work.

Nathan Anibaba:
Love that I’m gonna steal that for myself, then hope you hope you don’t mind. I’ll be using that all over social media. Let’s get into our speed round. Now, these are the questions, I’m going to fire some questions that you can fire some short responses back, that’ll be fantastic. Which CMO has the hardest job in marketing right now?

Ben Rhodes:
Oh, god, what this is in the midst of a pandemic, right? Well,

Nathan Anibaba:
I guess they all do.

Ben Rhodes:
I think they all do. I tell you what, though, I know it’s meant to be quick, fire right, but you know, when I worked at MasterCard, which was, you know, a business with something like oh god I don’t know, their profit margins are like, 60, 70%, right and growing like a billion, that is a that is a really difficult thing to maintain. Right? That is, you know, people just think, oh, it must be so easy to do marketing. They’re not really because the expectations are enormous. Okay. Equally, you know, if you’re in a turnaround situation, where it’s kind of life and death, that’s really hard as well sure. And I suspect if I was gonna say, well, there’s a new guy, there’s a guy who’s just gone into take on Pret a Manger as CMO. I think that’s probably going to be a really challenging role for him.

Nathan Anibaba:
Why Pret? Everyone loves Pret?

Ben Rhodes:
Yeah but no one’s going to work anymore.

Nathan Anibaba:
Oh, well. Okay. Well, you have that. Yeah, okay.

Ben Rhodes:
I thought I was really challenging because that’s taking a brand that is all about service in store and converting it into a brand that is, you know, all about probably home delivery. And I think there’s going to be a real challenge.

Nathan Anibaba:
What excites you most about your current role? Actually, that’s probably a bad question and seek as though you’re on gardening leave and you have been for the last I don’t know four months? If you could live or work anywhere in the world, where we It’d be in way.

Ben Rhodes:
Oh, you know, I’ve worked. I’ve worked all over the world to be honest with you. And candidly, England is a brilliant place to work. I mean, you’ve got the best creative agencies and the best creative minds. And yeah, I wouldn’t I wouldn’t go anywhere else. It’s a it’s a fabulous place to be.

Nathan Anibaba:
next job with the England Tourism Board, I think like, a great, great. Last couple of questions that I’m in now, I’ll let you go. Tell us some of your favourite books. What do you read for personal and professional development?

Ben Rhodes:
Wow, well, currently, I am reading a whole tonne of different books. I’m reading good strategy and bad strategy by Rumelt which is a fabulous, fabulous book. Yeah. And what else have I got my bookshelf I’m reading. I’m doing quite a lot of strategy stuff at the moment. There’s a there’s a Harvard Business Review, compendium of like the 10 sort of strategy articles that you just have to read. So I’m kind of kind of ploughing through that. And the other one I’ve got just for fun is the Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zubov, which,

Nathan Anibaba:
That is a big book.

Ben Rhodes:
It is a big book, and it’s sat on my shelf. And I’ve read the first page, I’m sure. I’m determined to kind of, to kind of go through it. Yeah, but yeah, that’s sitting there. It’s winking at me

Nathan Anibaba:
Better you than me. I gave up after like three pages. I’m sorry. I try. Maybe the audio book? Yeah, actually, that one? What are you watching? or streaming on Netflix? or Amazon Prime? or Hulu or Disney Plus that’s good?

Ben Rhodes:
Oh, wow. Well, you know, we’ve been locked down, right. So I’ve consumed most things. I read the last series that I really loved on Netflix was Travellers. I just thought it was fabulous. And it’s good. Yeah. And I’m currently rewatching, a series on Sky called Strike Back, which is about a fictional military unit, which is great, great fun.

Nathan Anibaba:
Okay, added added to my list. And my final question, Ben, if you were to give advice to your younger self, just leaving college or university, what advice would you give a young Ben Rhodes?

Ben Rhodes:
I would say always be true to your word. And, and never stop being inquisitive and curious. And, and lastly, you know, put in the hard yards. That’s really, really important. I think, especially at the beginning of your career, you know, the first 10 years really are the hardest. It’s where you learn your craft, it’s where you learn your skill. And if you put the hard yards in there, it’s a great platform for later, you know, because your career is a marathon, right? It’s not a sprint, you know, you can be working for 30, 40, maybe even 50 years. So, you know, getting those craft skills, so you really understand the detail of how things work. And what you’re doing. Is massively important. I think once you’ve got that platform, then you can leap off then in all sorts of different directions.

Nathan Anibaba:
Great place to end. Ben, thank you so much for doing this.

Ben Rhodes:
My pleasure. Really enjoyed it.

Nathan Anibaba:
If you’d like to share any comments on this episode, or any episode of ClientSide, then find us online at Fox Agency. If you’d like to appear as a guest on the show, please email Chloe at Fox agency. The people that make the show possible are Chloe Murray our researcher. David Clare is our head of content. Ben Fox, our executive producer. I’m Nathan Anibaba and you’ve been listening to ClientSide from Fox Agency.

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