Mike Cunnington’s career in marketing spans over 20 years, two continents and both sides of the client agency divide. But despite plenty of success in his previous roles, 2012 still ranks as one of his better years.
He was head of marketing in the UK Labour Party for nine years, and his tenure culminated in the election of Tony Blair in 1997, the party’s first win in 23 years. Following this he moved agency side, helping Proximity London grow into one of the UK’s leading multi-disciplinary agencies and, after emigrating to New Zealand around ten years ago, he continued this role in the Auckland office, before joining ANZ as head of marketing in 2007.
An understanding of data and what drives people has been at the heart of all his biggest successes. And this was clearly evident in what was arguably his biggest and most complex challenge: the merger of the well-loved National Bank brand with the less well-loved ANZ brand.
He says the process began around two years before the merger. The discussions evolved, a date was set and a four-pronged strategy—prepare, announce, reassure, excite—was devised by the marketing team and eventually taken up by the rest of the business.
Banks are good at analysing risk. It’s their bread and butter. And a central component of Cunnington’s approach was to establish a team dedicated to helping him manage the merger project and see what the response was likely to be—from customers and competitors—so it could plan accordingly. This required a meticulous programme of research, drafting advertising concepts, more research, advanced media planning and yet more research.
It was clear that National Bank customers particularly would not like the merger and the perception was that this decision would lead to job losses, branch closures and an eventual decrease in service. And to make things even more difficult, legislation restricted ANZ from letting its two million customers and 9,000 staff know about the impending change before it went public. This meant the first 72 hours were critical and a lot of time and effort went into getting the right messages out across as many touchpoints as possible.
“The first thing we needed to do was tell customers why it wasn’t going to be worse before we could tell them it was going to be better.”
The marketing strategy was set up in a way that allayed the functional concerns of customers but also addressed the emotional side of things with messages that showed how the new and improved ANZ would bring together the ‘Power of Two’.
Cunnington also had to lead one of the largest below-the-line communications programmes ever undertaken in New Zealand. One million ANZ customers had to be migrated onto a new system and new products. And one million National Bank customers had to be told their bank would be turning blue. While he admits successfully dispatching 1.2 million emails and 500,000 eDMs within two hours post announcement was a massive challenge, he kept telling his team that it was the kind of work they did all the time. Unlike the technology team, which migrated ANZ customers to the National Bank system, it didn’t have to learn new ways of working. It just had to work at scale and pace.
As the quote goes, culture eats strategy for breakfast. Cunnington knew it was ANZ’s game to lose, rather than the competitors’ game to win, and a big part of winning was to get staff to believe in the change.
“If they were convinced, they would convince the customers. The planning was more for our own people so we could say ‘you should expect this’, rather than leaving our frontline exposed.”
He says culture also benefits from a challenge. Having a “binary event like this that could either go well or go badly” galvanised the business and gave all the various departments motivation to embrace the idea of a successful transformation, stick to the strategy and execute their roles brilliantly.
“The bigger an organisation gets the more it is focused internally and on managing those conflicts between departments. Having something external like this gets you focused on the right things: outcomes for the customers. It’s an easy thing to say, but it’s hard to do. And for ANZ, it’s about keeping that mindset going.”
Those who are attracted to this industry are often attracted to change. Cunnington is no different. He thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of the transformation project (he has recently taken up a role as deputy commissioner at the Inland Revenue Department in the Information, Intelligence and Communications department and, with a huge IT project in the wings, he says this role will be similarly transformative). But he is also a believer in consistency. Much of the creative work for the campaign was fairly simple and kept drumming home key messages. He admits it’s tempting to change those messages, or the style of them. But he thinks overinflating a brand’s importance in customers’ lives and constantly looking for “the new and exciting is where [the industry] often falls down”. As he says: “You’ll get sick of what you’re saying before the customers even notice you’re saying anything. They’ve got plenty of other things to worry about. So you have to say it often.”
In his view, marketers and their agencies are not sufficiently focused on the commercial realities of business, because if it isn’t going to be good for the business, it’s not a good idea for a promotion or an ad campaign. And this is why he believes marketing sometimes struggles to get a place at the boardroom table.
“As marketers we need to be harder in our thinking, and have more commercial acumen. The great thing about New Zealand is that you can get stuff done. There’s not as much of a food chain. But because of this, I’m not sure whether we’ve got the discipline to do the right thing, and to put more rigour around it.”
There was certainly no shortage of rigour for this project. And the results have vindicated that effort, with brand awareness up significantly, a small number of customer defections, and brand image measures strengthened across the board.
“I can genuinely say I wouldn’t have had the balls to stand up in front of the board, remind them of what we were planning to do with the two brands and tell them that it would look like this in 12 months. It worked better than anyone dared to predict. These things play out over four or five years, not just one. But for most people it’s just something that’s happened and they’ve moved on.”
Cunnington’s excellent leadership and his faith in the strategy enabled his team to execute the project brilliantly. And as a result, ANZ confounded the sceptics, impressed its customers and gave its business a fantastic long-term foundation for growth.
As his ex-colleague and head of retail marketing Matt Pickering sums up: “Colin Powell defines good leaders as great simplifiers. That defines Mike’s leadership style. Last year he took a complex situation, simplified it into something achievable and empowered his team to deliver.”