CMO interview: How Ben Colman is driving Exetel's brand and marketing strategy

The fixed line broadband, NBN and mobile company's CMO discusses the journey towards a more customer-centric experience

Having chalked up more than 20 years' experience in the marketing, advertising and creative agency space, Exetel's CMO, Ben Colman, knows it takes a hands-on, collaborative approach to drive a more customer-centric marketing strategy.

Colman started his career in American Express in the late 1980s as manager of retention and acquisition, a function that was direct marketing driven.

“Early on, I became familiar with data, information, response and accountability, so that was pretty good training for today,” he told CMO.

After that, Colman went through a series of FMCG companies including brand manager at Colgate Palmolive, regional marketing manager at Reckitt Benckiser and marketing manager of the Smiths Snackfood Company, which later became Frito-Lay.

During this time there, Colman built a healthy respect for agency, Campaign Palace, and made the decision to switch from marketing to advertising. “One day I got a call from Campaign Palace’s CEO saying asking if I’d come over to help run a pitch to Westpac. So I quit my job at Smiths and went into Campaign Palace without a job, hoping that the pitch would be successful,” he said.

The risk paid off, and Campaign Palace won the pitch just prior to the 2000 Olympic Games. For four years, Colman remained an account director at Campaign Palace, running campaigns for the likes of Westpac as well as Optus. Colman then became the CEO of creative agency, Lowe Hunt, which expanded to Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland. After seven years running the award-winning business, the CEO of Exetel offered Colman the opportunity to reinvigorate its marketing strategy.

“I jumped at the chance,” he said. “Exetel had over 120,000 customers in broadband, NBN and mobile, as well about 4000 corporate customers. But as a brand, no one had really heard of Exetel. It didn’t have a lot of brand awareness and hadn’t done a lot of marketing. So a year and a half ago, we decided to really switch on brand awareness and accelerate growth.”

Marketing as customer journeys

In his role at Exetel, Colman is responsible for not only driving the marketing strategy, but also the customer journey around engaging with Exetel and particularly, its digital platforms.

“I’m responsible for all the customer communications, the website, which is an ecommerce site, as well as defining and building the Exetel brand,” he said. “We now have brand awareness at 12-15 per cent nationally. That’s grown significantly over the past year. But my primary objective is to make the Exetel name a household brand and very much put it in the top three or four considerations for consumers, particularly with the roll out of the NBN [National Broadband Network] in Australia.”

When it comes to driving a brand forward and leveraging customer engagement, Colman stressed the importance of keeping things relevant.

“You need know that everything you are putting out there is relevant to their life and what they want,” he said. “You also need to be respectful of their time and add value to their lives, and just do it all really well.”

Colman also emphasised the need to take a step back and put in the time and effort to ensure you take your best brand voice and personality forward.

“I come from a strong creative background and have worked with some of the best in the business, so I know how importance it is for a campaign to be well crafted and consider how it comes across, and I think all of those things matter,” he added.

While he agreed the evolution of data in marketing has been significant, Colman said the road to success is more about finding intelligent people to make use of that data.

“There is so much data available now and although it is able to inform, it doesn’t necessarily replace the vision for what you set out to achieve and the path you are trying to create for your business,” he said. “It’s so easy to get lost in all the data that is available to us, but it is no substitute for a group of intelligent marketers to understand how to work through and know exactly what they are looking for.”

Today’s marketing approach is also about being truly customer centric. To do this, Colman believes marketers should firstly live and breathe the brand.

“Use the brand and engage with it,” he said. “Talk to your customers and engage with them. In terms of my business, it’s about jumping in the call centre and hanging on the end of the phone. Unless you understand your customers and see how they view you and the role you have in their lives, it’s very difficult to create strategies, ideas and thoughts that are of value to them.”

By being more hands-on, Colman says CMOs can keep their skills more relevant and be more in tune with what is happening in the evolution of digital marketing.

“Don’t be afraid to roll up your sleeves and be familiar with all the digital platforms and technologies,” he advised. “I suppose the advantage I have, after running advertising and creative agencies, is that I’m very much looking at building our campaigns in-house. So keeping up with all of the team, talking and testing out the latest technology we use on a daily basis is how I keep my own skills relevant. You then get a clear picture of how new technology can add value to your business.”

The blurring of marketing and technology

It’s not just the need to embrace digital technologies that will make or break marketers today. Colman pointed to the dramatic evolution of the CIO and CMO relationship.

“We never used to speak to each other, and now we do,” he said. “The CIO sits literally two desks from me and it’s an ongoing dialogue about the work we do on a daily basis. Before, we’d talk to each other on an ad hoc basis when working on individual projects to get something done. It’s now standard operative procedure to shape the business together.”

Moving forward, one of the challenges Colman sees is really bringing the business forward from a marketing technology perspective.

“The challenge is implementing all the platforms and systems that we need to get ahead of the game,” he said. “Because there hasn’t been a marketing opportunity within the business until a year and a half ago, we’ve had to make drastic changes to put new technology, processes and people into the business. So the challenge has been to move a business from being technology-centric to being customer-centric kind of energy to drive growth.”

In order to be a successful CMO, Colman believed you need to be patient, have the ability to link big picture to absolute granular detail, as well as be willing to re-skill and engage with the platforms.

“An ability to learn and continuing to learn is so essential as a CMO,” he said. “How we’re doing it today will be so different to how we’re doing it in five years’ time.

“You also need to have a strong sense of leadership, especially considering all the disparate skills that fall under a CMO’s remit these days. You’re working with a much broader scope of people, and it’s about your strategists working with developers and data miners and the comms process. The ability to bring all of those people together into a common vision is just a little more difficult these days than it was perhaps 10 years ago.”

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