CMO50 2016 #3: Steve Brennen, eBay A/NZ

  • Name Steve Brennen
  • Title CMO, senior director advertising sales and retail innovation
  • Company eBay A/NZ
  • Commenced role April 2013
  • Reporting Line CEO
  • Member of the Executive Team Yes
  • Marketing Function 30 staff, 5 direct reports
  • 2015 ranking 11
  • Related

    Brand Post

    He is a man on a mission: He wants to challenge and transform perceptions of eBay from a second-hand auction house to ideal destination for brand new products - and continue to secure the Silicon Valley stalwart as an innovative leader.

    Brennen, who last year clinched the 11th spot on the CMO50, said despite eBay’s success - it blazed a trail into Australia in the early 2000 as one of the pioneers of online retail and continues to lead the ecommerce category with 11 million monthly unique Aussie users - there are “significant perceptual inconsistencies that have the potential to impede growth.”

    “Research shows that Aussies quickly default to seeing eBay as a second hand used goods site (despite nearly 90 per cent of everything sold in Australia being brand new, with a large volume being traded by well known retailers).

    “The challenge was clear: prove to Australian’s and the local industry that eBay remains the champion of not only predicting, but creating the future of retail - changing perceptions of the business and reigniting consumer passion for the brand in the process.”

    And he’s just the man to change people’s mindset, given his extensive background in leading teams, making a difference in customers lives and helping businesses understand and achieve their potential.

    “Bold bets are critical for businesses to move forward. You have to take risks if you want to make an impact in today’s world,” Brennen told CMO.

    With more than 20 years of sales, marketing and management experience - working in a number of countries, on a number of brands across various verticals at a senior level with global challenger brands including eBay, PayPal and Virgin - Brennen said he has amassed key learnings on understanding critical business levers around how businesses ‘survive and thrive.’

    “I have a real passion for challenger brands. Brands trying to make a difference in people's lives - and brands that I believe will have an impact today and in the future,” he said, describing himself as an adaptable leader, who’s “curious about the future, and very real about today.”

    Indeed, he’s had an interesting career path - and one that has seen him wear many hats. Brennen told CMO he credits his early career, working at McDonalds at 16 (in between school and in the evenings) as giving him valuable business and life lessons.

    “It was my first real understanding of global brands, how brands need to think and be consistent and have a point of view, and service customers to grow. I still take a lot of my original learning from McDonalds on how I trained, how I managed, the brand controls in place, and how I performed,” he said.

    “I was the master of the fry station. My friends, and particularly my mother, thought I was one of the best fry cookers in London. I did everything: from cleaning the toilets, clearing up, cooking burgers and cooking fries. I learned about how to service customers and how to keep customers happy. How businesses are trying to make profit and drive satisfaction in a very competitive environment.”

    Ironically, his journey into marketing wasn’t planned. Initially set to find a job related to his academic pursuit of European studies and languages and imagined he would work in the European Commission, his first job out of university was in actual fact sales (field sales, telesales) and managing call centres for TNT, the courier company.

    “I never realised how important understanding logistics would be to the eBay role I do today. So that was very useful learning,” he said, explaining he was “in the right place at the right time” as he was involved with the company’s first foray into digital, and was also able to fine-tune his skills in managing teams.

    Innovative thinking

    Today, in his push to change perceptions of eBay and “reignite consumer passion for the brand in the process,” Brennen has already stacked up a number of innovative achievements, and is continually striving to push the personalisation approach and foster innovation.

    In May 2016, he led the creation and launch of the world’s first virtual reality (VR) department store to reposition eBay as a retail thought leader and technology visionary.

    “We challenged ourselves to shake off the limitations of online and physical retail and improve upon things like browsing, merchandising, categorisation, personalisation and efficiency. So we researched what customers wanted from a future of retail experience: Speed, personalisation, intelligence, range and immersion,” he said.

    Endless challenges presented themselves, including the fact that no true retail VR experience with the ability to update in real time existed, meaning the UX, navigation, physics systems and underlying logic was developed from scratch, he said.

    The team first developed a custom physics engine and VR navigation system called ‘Sight Search,’ allowing users to browse, sort and purchase over 12,500 products using just their eyes.

    “Complex relationship algorithms allowed users to spawn related items by looking at products. We then integrated directly into the eBay platform APIs, pulling in real-time data including price, inventory levels and product data.”

    The application was deployed across iOS, Android and the Oculus store. “As a brand we were able to prove that VR doesn’t need to exist independent of other forms of retail and could legitimately grow into a fourth viable retail channel that we coined V-Commerce.”

    And there’s more innovative thinking: His push to ‘drive inspirational shopping at scale’ is yet another example where he contributed to improving marketing and customer engagement.

    “The enormous scale of eBay presents huge opportunities to the marketing team, but to reach the platform’s full potential you must first overcome equally huge challenges. The most pressing day to day question to answer has been: how do you drive inspirational shopping at scale?”

    He said while email was an obvious channel to leverage in an attempt to drive the vision, heavy online shoppers receive an average of 30 emails per day from brands competing for their attention.

    “To cut through, every single one of our 11 million monthly visitors must be served up only the products or deals relevant to them out of the 50 million listings available. Under my leadership moving from large scale untargeted email campaigns to true 1:1 personalisation has become a key strategic lever for the business to drive customer growth.

    “We tasked ourselves with improving customer engagement and transactions via our main comms channels starting with focusing on a lift in purchases per customer, increasing email open rates, boosting click thru rates and reducing opt outs.”

    With these and other campaigns on the horizon, his journey at eBay, which started in 2013, has already been an interesting ride, he said, calling it an incredibly complex, but exciting business.

    “We have spent the last three years trying to disrupt ourselves. Trying to change the brand perception from second hand to everything available online; we have onboarded 80 of the Top 100 retailers in Australia now; and we have more than 60 million products on site available for Australians to buy - and around 90 per cent of what we sell now is brand new on eBay. The customer traction has been fantastic: There’s about 11 million shoppers come to eBay every month in Australia.”

    But he recognised the challenges associated with the modern marketing function - and pressures bestowed on today’s CMOs.

    “Winning in the world of modern marketing is no simple task - building resilience, nimbleness, curiosity, a culture of testing and learning, courageousness, inventiveness, accountability, and remaining customer centric in an always on, always changing environment is a challenge for even the best of the best.”

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