CMO50 2021 #7: Melina Cruickshank

  • Name Melina Cruickshank
  • Title Chief audience and marketing officer and CEO, PropTrack
  • Company REA Group
  • Commenced role June 2019
  • Reporting Line CEO
  • Member of the Executive Team Yes
  • Marketing Function 210 staff, 9 direct reports
  • Industry Sector Media and entertainment
  • 2020 ranking 15
  • Related

    Brand Post

    Every modern marketing leader knows fresh thinking and creative ideas are the lifeblood of innovation. Which is why REA Group’s Melina Cruickshank was so keen find a way of tapping into her team’s imaginations. She landed on the idea of REA’s inaugural ‘Festival of Ideas’.  

    “We have a lot of talent in our teams and ideas can come from anywhere; leaders just need to provide the environment,” the chief audience and marketing officer says. “Our Festival of Ideas had a few objectives: To kickstart our teams into a creative chapter amid the ongoing lockdowns, bringing different teams together to collaborate as the remote environment became the norm, and to generate ideas.”  

    Two days were carved out for teams to stop their day jobs and ideate ideas that could solve business problems. For Cruickshank, the quality and diversity of ideas was inspiring.  

    “New relationships were formed between teams that would otherwise have never interacted, particularly while working from home,” she says.

    Each group then had five minutes to pitch their idea to the judging panel, including REA Group CEO, Owen Wilson, and chief customer officer, Kul Singh. The winning idea was a data-driven outdoor marketing campaign using behavioural audience metrics recorded during Covid-19 lockdowns. Surprisingly, no one on the winning team came from a traditional marketing background, and instead employed their skills in behavioural analytics to create a unique story in market.

    “Seeing this idea spun up from the Festival of Ideas to feature on billboards across Melbourne within weeks was a source of pride for the whole team, many of whom shared photos in front of the billboards they inspired,” Cruickshank says. “I felt proud my senior leaders drove this initiative on top of their usual work and loved seeing the variety of ideas, many of which have made it live since.”

    Innovative marketing

    A key marketing program Cruickshank has spearheaded over the past year is REA’s first direct-to-consumer channel, ‘Self-Managed Landlord Listings’. These are property owners who choose to manage rental properties themselves.

    According to MoneySaverHQ figures, almost 30 per cent of the 2.2 million landlords in Australia are taking this approach. 

    “Marketing this initiative required hand-in-glove collaboration with sales and product,” Cruickshank says. “A deep dive research plan provided us with the drivers of sentiment to inform our go-to-market messaging and strategy. We developed messages and measured sentiment shifts over many months. We remained disciplined, consistent and frequent in our segmentation messaging.

    “We enlisted our CEO early as a key spokesperson, talking to all top tier customers and media. My colleague and CPO, Val Brown, talked to ‘why’ in a broader rent strategy in trade publications. We facilitated several customer forums to educate. Vocal industry influencers were engaged and became advocates. We entered a media partnership with trade publication, Elite Agent, and leveraged owned channels to provide customers with regular communication.”

    Twelve months on and customer sentiment, listings and a firm product are all entrenched and strong.  

    The discipline of solid segmentation has been critical to rapidly shift communications as wider Covid-19 lockdown situations changed, too.  

    “Markets and geography and demographics were key, but strong behavioural segmentation allowed us to differentiate,” adds Cruickshank.

    Business smarts

    Cruickshank’s remit includes brand and reputation, consumer and customer marketing, economists, audience, content and data strategies for REA Group’s brands. In 2020, she took on an additional role as divisional CEO of PropTrack.  

    The original Hometrack business now fuelling PropTrack was acquired by REA in 2018 and provides property data analytics and insights, customised data platforms and an automated valuation model. With the decision to appoint Cruickshank to the helm, REA’s audience, marketing and data united under a single leader.  

    As Cruickshank puts it, the opportunity to bring the teams together enables an enterprise approach, tighter alignment between PropTrack and REA’s overarching strategy and builds fresh commercial opportunities. As a first step, she kickstarted a renewed multi-year strategy that took its cues from many conversations with key stakeholders. This then led to the decision to rebrand.  

    “I wanted our people to feel part of the process, which would allow them to feel vested in the outcome and invigorated by the future direction,” Cruickshank comments. “Moving a data and engineering team into marketing meant that securing buy in was critical. Making large organisational change requires support from people at all levels.”

    The operating structure has been cemented and a new leadership team assembled comprising a mix of REA, PropTrack and external hires, including marquee recruits.

    “While early days, I am extremely proud of our team’s effort to deliver a record financial result in FY21. But far more importantly, we now have the foundations in place to realise long-term sustainable growth,” Cruickshank says.    

    “The challenging part has been managing the rapid scale – building for the future while simultaneously servicing a growth market with a lot of demand. Helping our people adapt a pragmatic mindset around the pace of change is one of my biggest priorities and has contributed to my role as a broader leader. Relationships and courageous conversations at all levels are so important, while still looking to the future strategic plans.”  

    Data-driven approach

    Meanwhile, product and marketing teams are in the second year of a multi-year data and personalisation strategy. FY20 was all about building the foundations. Significant investment went into new marketing technologies including a new customer data platform, allowing Cruickshank’s team to segment audiences, and a centralised omni-channel platform enabling real-time action.

    “Not only did early campaign trials show a clear uplift in consumer engagement, importantly, it was in a much faster, more efficient manner,” she says of FY21 results. “After the long, technical efforts around grey migrations and platform uplifts, it was a joy to see the marketing teams getting closer to consumers and the creativity flooding back into their world.

    “We have been able to make more informed decisions around who to target, when to target and what channel to use, when. Understanding the motivations and behaviours of our users at each stage of the property lifecycle enables us to identify high intent property seekers, a valuable commodity for our real estate agent customers.”  

    REA’s CDP is now integrated with paid channels to help improve media efficiency and effectiveness allowing a better attribution on spend.  

    This capability came to the core during the many lockdowns across Australia, where variances in the situation state-by-state led to rapid-fire changes in property search behaviour. Campaigns were monitored and finessed to deliver state and region relevant experiences.  

    “We use both declared and real-time behavioural data to model audiences and our marketing teams now leverage millions of behavioural data points to inform communications,” Cruickshank says. “We can now target users to take key actions such as tracking their property or revisiting their previously abandoned enquiry activity.”

    These efforts led to deliver a record monthly audience of 12.6 million Australians this year. In addition, Web and app visits grew from 90 million to more than 125 million.  

    Facing the demise of cookies and growing importance of its first-party data strategy, REA has also been working to elevate its membership conversion strategy. Once logged in, user activity is mapped to provide more granular personalised experiences, from locations to pools, kitchens and outdoor spaces.

    “Powered by our unique property data, this level of insight allows us to deliver leads with much better levels of intent to customers, further strengthening our overarching value proposition,” Cruickshank explains. “Being highly transparent and offering appropriate value exchange has allowed us to actively begin converting audiences into My REA members. Free automatic property valuations – a feature called ‘Track My Property’ – has become a core enabler in building our membership base.”

    Key outcomes and learnings for Cruickshank include the need to build trust and buy-in internally for these programs of work.  

    “The more transparent we are to our users, the more micro-personalised the property insights and experiences which ultimately delivered the better conversion,” Cruickshank says.

    Commercial acumen  

    Another way the data science team has lifted commercial performance is by identifying consumer audience segmentation models that could be applied to agent attribution reporting to better identify high intent leads. This ‘lead enrichment’ provides agents with a deeper understanding of buyer intent by attributing a score out of 10.  

    “In a high demand market, when the volume of ‘tyre kickers’ increases significantly, lead enrichment quickly became an important component of our value story,” Cruickshank continues. “Lead enrichment would enable agents to perform their job faster, better and with more precision.  

    “It’s a good reminder that powerful value can be delivered in incremental ways using existing technology. Agents immediately saw the value-add. Lead enrichment drives improved productivity through the prioritisation of leads, which directly helps their business.”

    Combined, these efforts have led to REA Group to deliver exceptional financial results in FY21 despite the impact of lockdowns, including a 13 per cent lift in revenue to $928m, EBITDA of $565m and a record 13.2 million website views in the month of March.

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