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TVNZ-NZ Marketing Awards 2018: Hall of Fame inductee Kevin Bowler

With a career spanning more than three decades and across multiple sectors, Kevin Bowler has worked hard to add value to businesses throughout his working life. From his days in marketing at Telecom to his time at the helm of Tourism New Zealand, Bowler has had a focus on leading the transition to digital and the modern world. Now the chief executive of My Food Bag, Bowler is the 2018 inductee into the TVNZ-NZ Marketing Hall of Fame.

By Caitlin Salter | October 2, 2018 | news

Kevin Bowler was blown away by the nod from his peers at the TVNZ-NZ Marketing Awards, with the honour coming as a complete surprise. During his speech he celebrated the industry, saying that right now is the best time to be in marketing. Expanding on his speech to StopPress, Bowler says the fact that there is so much change and opportunity in the industry makes it an exciting place to be.

“I liken it to the time back in history when commercial TV was starting to become present in most homes. That was a huge time for marketing. What we’re seeing at the moment is a movement to responsive media and the consequence of that is we have a much better understanding of what’s working and what isn’t.”

While in the past, a lot of marketing decisions were based on individual judgements, now the industry is increasingly able to use data to drive that decision-making process.

“I think it gives marketing as a discipline more credibility and it gives marketers more certainty about what they’re doing in terms of return for a business,” Bowler says.

Laying the foundations

After a stint at DDB and marketing roles in the food sector, Bowler took up the first of three positions at Telecom New Zealand (now Spark). First as head of marketing for the mobile business group, then general manager mobile, and finally general manager consumer marketing (mobile, internet and fixed access/calling). It was during his time there that he steered Saatchi & Saatchi in the right direction to produce what would become an iconic character in New Zealand advertising: Telecom Fast Eddie.

Former Saatchi & Saatchi chief executive Andrew Stone, said in the Hall of Fame video that Bowler enabled that campaign to happen by giving the agency a second chance when their first idea was a flop.

Top job

After 20 years in marketing in both New Zealand and the UK, Bowler transitioned out of industry in 2007, when he took up his first C-suite role as the foundation chief executive of Yahoo!Xtra, a web portal that was a joint venture between Yahoo!7 and Telecom New Zealand (now Spark).

It was during Bowler’s time at Yahoo!Xtra that the portal produced its most memorable campaign, ‘X meets Y’ which featured Regina Spektor’s song ‘Fidelity’.

But it is his time as chief executive of Tourism New Zealand that Bowler cites as a career highlight so far.

“Working for the government and representing New Zealand and promoting my home and country was a real high point for me.”

Tourism New Zealand also provided some of the biggest challenges Bowler has faced in his career to date. When Bowler joined organisation in January 2010, the effects of the Global Financial Crisis and the subsequent ‘Great Recession’ were being felt keenly by the tourism industry. Statistics New Zealand figures from 2009 showed an eight percent decrease in paid guest nights for international visitors from the previous year. He says working in that economic climate was difficult, yet rewarding.

“One of the most interesting periods in my career was taking over the leadership of Tourism New Zealand. We made the decision to adapt what was already a successful campaign with ‘100% Pure’, rather than doing the easy thing that would be to start something new.

“We adapted the campaign into digital channels and wrapped it around some big opportunities we have in New Zealand, like the production of The Hobbit films. It was probably one of the most important things we did to turn to tourism industry to the point where it is now where we have too many visitors.”

When first of The Hobbit trilogy was released in New Zealand in 2012, Tourism New Zealand adapted the ‘100% Pure New Zealand’ campaign to launch ‘100% Middle-earth’ in Australia, the UK and Europe, USA, Japan, China and in other markets.

The millions ofLord of the Rings lovers around the world responded enthusiastically to the campaign, with a Tourism New Zealand survey finding 79 percent of people already considering New Zealand as a destination stating the campaign as the player behind their increased interest in visiting.

During his time at Tourism New Zealand, Bowler helped lift the tourism industry to New Zealand’s number one export sector. He also expanded the organisation’s funding from $84 million to $115 million.

Marketing roots

For Bowler, having a background in marketing anchors him as a chief executive.

“Coming from marketing, your first instinct is always to think about how certain decisions impact the customers. I have an external lens and have the customers in the front-of-mind at the start of the conversation rather than the end, which is important.

“It might be surprising to some marketers to appreciate how often businesses spend the majority of time trying to resolve internal issues without a customer lens. If you can orientate all that to focus on the customer experience, you’re creating a lot more value most of the time.”

It always comes back to people for Bowler. Not just serving the customer-side of a business, but building diverse teams that work well together. It’s something he’s learned to do over many years, and admits when he started out he hired people who looked like him without even thinking about it.

Now, he knows the value of having all sorts of people from different backgrounds in a team together – something he says generally leads to better decision making.

“You have to put real time and effort into ensuring you have a great team around you, so you work with people who are diverse, talented and motivated. You have to listen to different perspectives.

“There’s a lot more talk these days about executive teams and boards and diversity. I think the conversation is in the right place, but as a country, we still have a long way to go to ensure the reality reflects that.”

Bowler’s time in different industries proves to him the value of celebrating different approaches and has helped him change his own approach to problem solving. He says the trick is making sure a team works really well together.

Following the digital wave

As with all industries, marketing has changed significantly with the rise of digital. Now, Bowler says, is the time to close the gap between marketers who have grasped the digital world and those who haven’t.

“There was a time when the digital person in a marketing department would be sitting in the corner, but those days are gone. If you want to be in marketing now you have to be conscious of the digital platforms and opportunities there.”

Along with trend for digital to be at the centre of a marketer’s portfolio, so too have work habits changed. Bowler says maintaining a work/life balance throughout his career has contributed to his success. He has a passion for fresh air and exercise, and tries to do at least a little bit of exercise every day to keep things in perspective.

Workplaces increasingly acknowledging the value of maintaining that balance is something to celebrate, he says.

“Having an interest outside of work is vital. I think that celebrating work/life balance has become a bit of millennial thing, in that people are much more balanced in their thinking than they were when I started work in the 1980s.”

My Food Bag

While he is just getting started as chief executive of My Food Bag, having only joined the company from Frucor Suntory Beverages back in June, Bowler says there a lot of exciting things in the pipeline.

There is an aspiration to float the company or bring it to an initial public offering at some stage, which Bowler says would give more New Zealanders a chance to invest in the change My Food Bag is hoping to bring to Kiwis' diets.

“One of the things I love about My Food Bag is how connected everyone here is to our broader purpose of helping out country eat and live well.”

Kevin Bowler Hall of Fame was previously profiled in the September issue of NZ Marketing. 

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