CMO profile: How Athena Home Loans' CMO got to be so bold

Courageous creative, challenger brand mentality and a passion for test, learn and measurement are all helping this fintech marketing chief's plans

The Athena team
The Athena team

It was Natalie Dinsdale’s bondage bus that reportedly became the scariest moment of launch for Athena’s chief and co-founder, Nathan Walsh.

“I’m a believer in challenger brands being courageous, being different and bold,” the chief marketing officer tells CMO. “I remember just after launch when I asked Nathan what his scariest moment was. I thought it’d be pitching to investors or getting the platform ready for our firm launch date. But he said the scariest thing was signing off the creative on the bondage bus.

“I’m so proud I was the scariest thing in this story. And you should see him now: If I give him creative, he’ll say it’s not bold enough and he wants me to be scared when presenting it to him. What have we created?”

A combination of strategic marketing smarts, customer insight-led thinking, bold creative approach and passion for challenger brands made Dinsdale an obvious choice for the CMO role at Athena, one of Australia’s fastest growing fintechs. The company broke the record for the largest capital raise by all local backers in May ($90 million), topped the AFR Boss’ list of Australia’s Most Innovative Companies in October, and won three awards at the Australian FinTech Awards the same month (FinTech Organisation of the Year, FinTech Excellence in Consumer Lending, and FinTech Leader of the Year).

“I’m always asking myself what’s next. But it’s not to be shocking for shocking’s sake,” Dinsdale says of her creative agenda. “We are here to save money and show customers there is a different way to do things. We’re here to tell people we are on their side and want them to get out of debt faster.

“So new, clever and innovative ways of being able to articulate and communicate is what I’m always asking myself to do.”

Brand fit

Dinsdale grew up in Trinidad before moving to England at age 11. She initially studied law but quickly moved on to a Business Master’s degree. That led to the graduate scheme at HBOS, a company created out of the merger of Halifax and Bank of Scotland.  

Dinsdale’s initial taste of challenger brands came with UK-based Egg, the first online bank in Europe.

“It was amazing – Egg had revolutionised financial services marketing and was very bold and creative,” she recalls. “Egg launched the first zero per cent credit card, and the entire company was marketing-centric and faced paced. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced, and it gave me a lot of direct marketing experience. I realised this what I loved.

“I’m totally addicted to challenger brands – I love them.”

Natalie DinsdaleCredit: Athena
Natalie Dinsdale

Another important aspect of how Egg approached marketing – and one that’s helped Dinsdale ever since – was adopting both a creative and analytical lens.

“Marketing was both a science and an art and those things had come together at Egg. Everyone was empowered to drive business, with a strong acquisition focus,” she says.  

Having relocated to Australia, Dinsdale worked for a number of organisations across marketing and brand management. Milestones included helping devise the strategy for Bankwest’s East Coast expansion and being employee number one at UBank in Australia with a remit across brand and customer value proposition.

“I particularly loved creating a brand anchored in core customer insights and taking that to market. I then went to the mothership for a while as part of cross-pollinating IP, but it reminded me I’m not a big corporate girl,” she says.

“But I’m a big believer that things happen for a reason. Because of those six months, my manager recommended me to the founders of Athena. Inbetween, I did a stint at Foxtel plus launched my own business, which ultimately didn’t work but I gained lots of learnings. I then saw these fintechs coming out of the UK, such as Atom, and could see the new revolution of fintechs coming.”  

Finally, after a year at payments company, Tyro, Dinsdale met the Athena founders and in her words, “found my happy place”.

“I wanted to create something from scratch, taking on the incumbents and being brave and bold,” she says. “If you are going to be a challenger brand, unless you are going to be different, bold and brave, why bother?”

Strategy to drive bold thinking

If being bold is a leadership mantra, then Dinsdale’s modus operandi is grounded in customer insight, process and measurement and strategy. She joined Athena nearly four years ago and spearheaded the brand launch in February 2019.

As she worked to build out Athena’s brand proposition, Dinsdale strived to answer four big questions: What is the opportunity from a competitor landscape (finding the white space); what is the customer insight and truth about customers our brand needs to answer; what’s the truth about our brand and what we’re trying to do; and what’s the macro environment externally telling us?

“I believe in going through a thorough strategic process to articulate the brand and show the brand is anchored in customer insight and answering a customer problem,” she says. “It also needs to be in a white space where no one is talking. Because there is no way you can outspend the big banks or outshout them.

“What we realised was everyone was talking about getting a home loan but no one was talking about getting rid of one. That’s became the crux of our mission and proposition – to get rid of your home loan faster.”  

Dinsdale conducted substantial research to not just to prove the proposition would resonate with customers, but to also win over the executive leadership team.

“Launching a brand with co-founders and an ELT that’s heavily invested is a big thing. I wanted everyone to see reactions of customers and feel confidence,” she says. “The results in that research blew them away and they knew we were onto something.”

This meant when Athena debuted, it launched with a bang. “We’re not here to say, ‘excuse me’. We are here to champion the change,” Dinsdale continues.

“I did a lot of persuading around this. I feel a lot of startups and neobanks do a soft launch, have waitlists. We needed a pilot, but then we needed to make it clear we have arrived. One of the biggest things is getting your name out there, what do you stand for, getting brand awareness and creating impact.”

That led to the first campaign, ‘Love us and leave us’, along with the tone of voice, f*** fees on its website and bondage buses. Dinsdale says the book, Big Fish by Anna Morgan on challenger brands and how they need to think and act has been a source of inspiration.

Since then, Athena’s marketing has evolved in two ways. A big priority over the last two years has been understanding and optimising all media to make every dollar count.

“We moved quite quickly for a new brand from analysing all channels, media and creative from a last-click perspective to investing in our own bespoke econometrics model with an agency in the UK,” Dinsdale explains. “That has paid for itself three times over. Home loans are quite a highly considered product. I knew if we were going to make media decisions based on last click, they wouldn’t be the right decisions.”   

As an example, just looking at last-click results suggests social doesn’t do much for Athena in terms of customer acquisition.

“But when you look at our econometric results, it’s a key introducer channel. A lot of people find out about us on social, and it drives traffic,” Dinsdale says. “We can also use social for retargeting and educating around other elements of our proposition to push people through the funnel.

“So that’s been key focus for me – how we get a really sophisticated analytical and scientific platform allowing us to test, learn and measure everything. I have chosen my agencies based on this philosophy as well as my team. And we report on everything – how does this creative perform on this channel at this time of day, what is the cost per response, draft and application. I feel we have been incredibly sophisticated from that perspective.” 

The next priority is the bottom end of the funnel and making the best of every hit to the Athena website.

“I want to apply the same rigour of science we applied to our acquisition dollars to every single hit,” Dinsdale says. “I also now look after the website and want us to redesign and launch that to be the best financial services website in Australia. I want us to be personalised, dynamic, analytical and have the best conversion rate optimisation in the country.

“Trying to do that in a big bank doesn’t happen. But we are a very dynamic, agile organisation and I thrive off that. Our ability to change things and constant iteration and optimisation is what excites me.”

Innovation and agility

Dinsdale and her team have arguably felt even more emboldened thanks to the recent innovation award and industry wins.

“We are a mission-focused organisation driven by helping get Australians out of debt. It’s testament to fact that what we do really impacts hundreds of thousands of Australians,” she says. “There is $1.9 trillion in home loan debt in Australia, one of the highest ratios in the world. For too long, the banks have been taking advantage of customers. What we do has a dramatic impact on customer futures and the bottom line.”

So far, Athena reports to have saved customers at least $380 million off loans to date, or about $56,000 on average.

Athena’s regular customer research also shows it tracking with a +90 NPS. “Not only are we impacting customers’ lives, but the award also shows we are changing the industry,” she says.

“Mortgage was the laggard of financial services and the last product that was going to be disrupted. I’m so proud Athena has been the organisation to do that.”

Covid-19 impact

However, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. While digital acceleration during Covid-19 certainly helped increase comfortability with digital-only banking and financial services, Athena lost momentum in the face of the traditional banks as the pandemic progressed. Traditional banks gaining access to the Reserve Bank of Australia’s Term Funding Facility, launched in March 2020 in response to the global pandemic’s economic impact, was a leg up Dinsdale claims hindered players such as Athena.

“That was our biggest challenge. We lobbied government to say it was totally anti-competitive, which made me mad when we were trying to do a good thing. But it forced us to innovate our way out of it,” she says. “We had to be far more creative.”

The answer was Accelerates, which launched in September 2020 and is what secured Athena the AFR win. The product offering sees it dropping rates as customers pay down their home loan.

“We tested it and results were through the roof,” Dinsdale says. “That gave us back our mojo.

“We launched Accelerates from scratch within two-and-a-half months. That was a huge change to the platform, because our whole proposition was it happens automatically, so it’s personalised. All communication is personalised as well.”   

Through all of this, agility has been critical to success. Dinsdale says she now actively “stress tests” for agility when she recruits.

“How to cope with change, pivoting, getting things done under pressure and quickly is vital here,” she says. “For example, when we did the rate drop, we had two weeks to prepare for the campaign. I said to the team I never want to hear we can’t do it, I want them to tell me what it will take to do it, then what the trade-offs are. Then we can assess if it’s worthwhile.”    

Data-driven marketing

Tapping data and insight for marketing programs has been another key to quick action, with all programs approached on test, learn, iterate and optimise lines.

A current example Dinsdale points to is testing channels off peak across main channels including TV. Before investing significantly into radio, the team also kicked off a Melbourne-only pilot. A 150 per cent increase in applications led to rolling out radio campaigns nationally.

From a customer insights perspective, it’s then about constant feedback. “What we found was when customers would hear our proposition, particularly around no fees, they couldn’t believe it and thought it was too good to be true. We listen to calls and this comes up all the time,” Dinsdale says.

“They think there must be an exit fee, valuation fee or more. We ended up creating our radio ads off the back of that, mirroring those conversations. And those are our best performing campaigns.”

Of course, not one channel will do everything for a brand and Dinsdale is quick to recognise the importance of layered effect.

“The econometrics model is helping us understand the mix of channels for us. We might have journeys that are very short with a two-channel hit point, but some journeys might have 15 touchpoints,” she says.  

“It’s like TV – our founders never saw us on TV and pointed out they don’t watch TV. I took $100,000 of the media budget to test it and said if it doesn’t work, I’ll be happy to say they were right. But it worked, so we rolled it out and now we have a quite significant ABL budget. That’s all because of testing and measurement.”   

Having now shifted gears from startup to scale up, Dinsdale’s priorities going into 2022 are changing once again.

“When we launched it was a team of three, so it was very hands-on. We’re now up to 10 and aiming for 12 in 2022,” she adds. “I’m excited because I have more integration with other parts of the business. I’ve been focusing on sales and how sales and marketing gain more synergy with each other, as well as how we build a constant feedback loop there.”

As to marketing orchestration, one ambition is to capture more customer data further up the channels.

“This is so we’re not using marketing dollars to convert customers, it’s more for introducing customers. Then we use customer data to convert,” she says. Another priority is automating next-best customer actions no matter where they are in the funnel.

“For now, we rely on experts to figure out what that is. I want to automate that based on data in order to drive conversion,” she says.  

At a business level, Dinsdale says Athena has a lot it wants to do and is going for serious hypergrowth thanks to its recent investment injection. On the cards are an offset product, new app and more product innovations. However, she stressed there are no plans to become a bank.

“Home loans are our thing and there’s so much runway in front of us to keep driving innovation,” she adds.

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