Rise of the machines: Spark’s Kate Thomas on shifting spend, expanding social and developing ideas

Ever since Spark unveiled its new brand, it has worked hard to redefine itself as an innovative and nimble organisation capable of appealing to Kiwis across all demographics. And given that many within its target market are shifting their media consumption to the digital space, this has seen Spark follow the audience by releasing some major digital plays over the last year. And Kate Thomas, a senior communications manager at the telco, says this is only the start of the journey.            

On shifting ad spend

I wouldn’t say that our [adoption of digital]has been rapid. From an outward perspective it might appear quite dramatic, but I would say it’s been quite gradual and sensible staggered increases based on where our key audiences are and what’s been working for us. The shift is really because this is where New Zealand and our customers have shifted. Digital is just such a massive part of their lives. 

On defining digital

Digital is such a nebulous term. It’s not just one channel; there are so many channels within it. For example, now we even have to be particular when we refer to linear TV, because TV can be understood to mean so many different things these days—and strictly speaking, TV is also digital. I really think people are now starting to do things that are digital without even describing it that way. It’s all-pervasive. 

On leaving print

We have shifted away from using newspapers as much as we have in the past, but then you’ll probably find that the money might’ve shifted to reaching the newspaper audience in the digital environment. It’s not about us moving away from news, but rather we’re moving to where audience are consuming the content that we want to be associated with. In terms of percentage of digital ad spend we are higher than the industry standard, which is around 20 percent in digital media investments. But that’s across all sorts of different channels, including search, pre-rolls, SEM or EDM.

On the growth of social

One thing that we’ve definitely invested more into is social in terms of paid investments, content production and internal resourcing. So, one of the things we started doing at Spark is recruiting a social team for brand and comms, so that we’re a lot more proactive in what we do socially. We already had two and we’ve just added another pair to join that team. This is quite significant change, and it’s not because social has become the centre of gravity but everything is more socially driven than it has been in the past. 

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[Spark general manager] Jason Paris often talks about being customer inspired, and one of the key channels where we’re able to do this is in social. That’s a significant change from Telecom to Spark, because we want to be seen as more down-to-earth, real and human—and social allows us to do that because we can have one-to-one or one-to-many conversations in that environment. We’ve always had a social customer service team and that team is more reactive in terms of dealing with issues and problems, and it’s now been integrated into our mainstream customer service channel and it’s increasing in size and the hours when it’s available, because digital is of course 24/7.

What we haven’t had until now is a social team in our brand and comms function, so that we can be a bit more proactive and build a much stronger social presence around our campaigns. I would probably say that this has been our most dramatic and significant shift. 

On real-world activations

‘Do it, be it, say it,’ is one of Jason’s favourite phrases and it’s really our mantra when it comes to taking campaigns to market. We want to make sure that there’s a tangible thing that people can do and that there’s a great experience that people can encounter before we go ahead and talk about something. We want to make sure that we have that tangible substance rather than just saying ‘we’re leading New Zealand into the future’ and then not having anything to hang our hat on. That has been a complete flip from where Telecom was a few years ago to where we are now. We are actually looking at delivering things that people can touch and feel now.

On Jason Paris responding to questions via the comments sections of news websites

He’s definitely social, and that’s what it’s about. If someone is asking questions at the bottom of an article, he’s the one that they’ll expect a response from. And that’s really our approach to social: to be responsive, even if it’s negative. It’s about fronting up to things and dealing with them. And Jason is great at that. He has been the driving force in increasing our expertise in the social area.

On the enduring importance of ideas

I’ve never been in favour of ‘channel first, idea later’. I think they need to work together. I also don’t think it’s creativity over media. I think both parties need to work together to deliver an effective solution. If you look at Michelin restaurants guides, it’s a brilliant idea and you can imagine that being translated to digital without a problem. I think that the really strong ideas will work in the digital environment. You just need to have the right people looking how best to activate and distribute that idea. The need for the idea shouldn’t change. It’s just a case of how the idea is used. 

On staff changes

If you were to look at the team three years ago and then look at it now, you would definitely see a huge increase in digitally focused roles, but digital transcends marketing organisation wide. Everyone is expected to be digital. Spark is after all a digital services company, and it means we do live and breathe it every day. But because we are such a large and complex organisation and because we’re not yet where we want to be digitally (everyone here is very ambitious), we do have specialist digital roles that have expertise in specific areas, be it user experience, analytics or content development. So it’s a bit of both. Everyone is expected to be digital and there are lots of programmes in place to ensure that we are, but then there will be some roles, particularly at the senior management level, to make sure that we are continuing to innovate and do what customers are expecting us to do. You need someone to set the agenda.

On digital security

Security is definitely a top priority here, and I guess it’s something that Spark, and Telecom before that, has been focused on for decades. It’s not a recent thing. We deal with a lot of customer data in the technology space, so we do have people focused on fraud and security at a senior management level. And this helps drive the agenda and make sure that we’re world-class in terms of the programmes in place.

On the bot threat

When I was in Cannes last year, the conversation on bots was quite a hot topic, particularly in the programmatic space. And to see that 25 percent of clicks are fraudulent is quite concerning, but I know that the large media organisations that use programmatic buying are looking at this quite seriously to work out a way of managing it and ensuring that we as advertisers are paying for views and clicks that are legitimate. It is illegal, so many media companies are also working with government officials to keep it under control.

On digital being young

There’s this perception that digital is young, and so we need to employ 22-year-olds to do stuff. But I just don’t think that’s the case at all. Every day, I work with people in their 50s and they know more about digital than people in their 20s. Digital has become a mainstream phenomenon and it has changed the way we approach our comms activity, but it still means we need really need strong creative ideas. I don’t think it’s diminished that at all. Great ideas are even more important. Because there’s so much disruption and white noise, we need great creative to cut through.      

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