CMO to CEO: How this former lawyer, customer and marketing chief owns vulnerability and brand

amaysim former marketing chief and now head talks to us about the importance of brand, her career experiences and learnings and approach to culture

Renee Garner
Renee Garner

Amaysim’s former marketing and customer leader and now business chief, Renee Garner, believes it’s curiosity, rather than a linear career path, that has led to her to the top job.

“The way I describe it is I let my curiosity and interest guide my decision making, rather than think or worry about what the next role is,” Garner tells CMO. “Most of the moves I’ve made in my career have been into roles I’ve never done before. I’ve either been offered an opportunity and said absolutely yes – don’t know how I’ll do it, but yes, or I’ll figure it out – or I’ve agitated to go for something that’s sparked my curiosity where I’ve wanted to try something out.

“In doing that, it’s given me a lot more breadth and diversity of experience, which I’ve managed to carry with me into future roles.”

She certainly has. From training as a lawyer and working as a solicitor, Garner authored a global climate change Australian policy and law review before switching to managing government and corporate affairs for Energy Australia. From there, she worked on purpose, brand strategy and development before being appointed GM and head of customer strategy, marketing planning and segments, leading the utility company’s retail P&L.

An 18-month stint as chief operating officer at RevTech Media was swiftly followed by becoming the chief marketing and sales officer at Australian mobile telco, amaysim. And in March this year, Garner’s experiences culminated in her promotion to head of amaysim.

This mix of roles has seen Garner awarded the 2014 AFR BOSS Magazine Young Executive of the Year as well as ‘one to watch’ in the 2020 CMO50 of Australia’s most innovative and effective marketing leaders. She also oversaw amaysim’s ‘Little SIM, big love’ brand positioning and program of work, oriented around being the most loved telco in Australia by its customers.

“This breadth of commercial and experience has benefitted me coming into the head of Amaysim role – I’ve seen different business problems through different lenses and parts of the business,” Garner comments. “As a trained lawyer, you get great critical thinking and good foundational disciplines and how to write well and think clearly. But unless you’re very senior, you don’t get heavy commercial experience or in leading numbers. In the back of my mind, I’ve always known the next notches on my belt that I’d like to get through experiences and followed them.

“I encourage all the people I talk to about career development to let go of any expectations around the kind of job they think they should have had when they were younger. Let the curiosity get you the experience and breadth to try new things. In doing that and learning, you know what you like, and you’re also gaining experiences that can take you into the next job. And breadth helps when you want to get into general management.”

Marketers and the top business job

During her time as amaysim’s CMO, Garner has spearheaded a number of innovative campaigns and customer efforts. These have helped amaysim become one of the most loved telcos in Australia with one of the highest Net Promoter Scores (NPS) recorded across the industry (+57).

For example, as the owner of amaysim’s ‘Little Sim, big love’ brand positioning, Garner has dabbled in everything from an original music video with Gangs of Youth lead guitarist, Joji Malani, to billboards and radio placements featuring quotes from its real-life customers, to its ‘Big love legends’ program recognising its customers going above and beyond in their communities.

Credit: amaysim

She says the critical equation as a business leader is harnessing commercial, creativity and customer obsession – her three Cs, and a mixture of attributes marketers are especially in command of.  

“Knowing how to play with creativity to drive commercial outcomes, and doing it for real customer value, is the magic formula,” Garner says. “Businesses nowadays have to win customers’ hearts – whether it’s B2B or B2C. You have to deliver the value in their lives – societal value to society; customer value to individual customers – otherwise you’re just making widgets and pushing them down people’s throats. As a leader of a business, you also have to know who your customers are and what they are looking for. Marketers get that more than anyone else.

“This coalescence of commercial and creativity is where you can make great impact. If you can know the business problems you’re trying to solve and metrics you’re trying to move, then use creativity – problem solving, marketing, collaboration and innovation to drive those levers in a different way, that’s where competitive advantage lies.”

For Garner, marketing is the strategic process from a customer strategy perspective. “It’s diagnosing the problem and seeing the opportunity, how you have a competitive advantage, then using the same strategic processes to make impact,” she continues.

“Marketing is a tight disciplined industry – it’s insight-led, data-driven but with overarching creativity and commercial.”

Gartner is also a firm believer in the core idea of a brand, anchored in insights, as shaping every single thing an organisation does.

“Trying to get everyone in the organisation to understand that requires storytelling. And like any negotiation, you have to know what motivates people first and foremost before you can convince them of anything,” she says. “If you have a leader or boss that’s very analytical, know that and serve them up hard facts and insight and build your case that way. If it’s someone more conceptual and ‘in the yellow’, adapt. If you can understand how people think, you are an influencing gun. Serve them the story that will convince them that the marketing is the value driver for the business long term. You will get long-term growth from that.”

Amaysim’s brand imperative

As to amaysim’s ‘big love’ brand position and imperatives, Garner is confident the telco has a clear position in the market and knows who it’s going after. This hasn’t changed, even under the ownership of largest enterprise telco, Optus, which acquired amaysim in November 2020.

“The group we’re after are those that live their lives through their phone and have a high engagement, those that are value conscious and don’t look after the safety of a big brand telco or perceived reliability,” Gartner says. “We think this customer is growing due to cost of living, post-Covid and through the emergence of pride in things like being a smart Aldi shopper.”

Another accelerating macro trend Garner highlights is the mobile becoming a consumer’s wallet. “The mobile is beyond an essential service for those living through their phones,” she argues. “QR codes have rapidly digitised more people through Covid, and [digitisation] much more mass market.”

As part of Optus, Garner and the amaysim team are now tapping into the broader perspective of powering optimism with options.

“We are more of the value option, lower frills and great value. We have the highest NPS in the tier-two mobile market and the lowest churn as well as TIO complaints. So when we say ‘big love’ as a brand promise, we know that’s incredible because everything we do is customer obsessed,” Garner says.  

To do this, orients around existing customers and puts the emphasis on advocacy in order to drive acquisition.

“We [at amaysim] think we manage customers really well as they come in – our one-to-one, CRM and nurture is something we are very proud of. Our whole proposition is more existing customer focused and through doing that, it’s attractive for new,” she says.

Brand awareness is still the biggest to-do on Garner’s list, even as she shifted from CMO to the leadership seat.

“Essentially awareness is the growth lever for us and it’s informing our investment, the way we’re looking at growth, and how we expand into regional markets. Then it’s about continuing our big focus on existing customers. If we continue to focus around that we will continue to grow,” she says.  

“I want every single customer in Australia to go on a first date with us. I’m so convinced once they come on the first date, they’ll want to come back. We have to get more people to know us and to try us. We’re confident that when they do, they will love us and be happy with it.”

A longer-term question for Garner is whether amaysim continues to play purely in the mobile telco space or looks at category extension through more devices. Other disruptive forces from a telco market perspective include the rise of 5G-enabled communications and eSIM, removing the physical need for a SIM card. Both present sizeable considerations for how to proceed as a business, retail proposition and more.

“But we know we won’t play in the same way as Optus, as we’re going for more of the value customer and sticking to that backbone audience for us,” Garner says. “I’m proud of this brand – I bleed orange.”

Helping Garner in this brand-led quest is a tight executive team. “We don’t talk about brand unless we also talk about product innovation that can support that positioning over time and tech that makes us more efficient,” she says.

“I do think the job of brand is elevated in my mind now sitting in this seat given the success and growth of this business we’re expected to deliver. The next question is how to do that in the more efficient way with limited resource, people and budgets. You can build all the new product in the world, but you still have the problem of only x per cent knowing who you are. It’s making sure we are innovating for the future while getting Australians across our offering. And that has elevated the importance of customer strategy, addressing actual customer needs – that is where the advantage can come from.”

Cultural vulnerability

No customer ambition can be achieved without a complementary internal culture and mindset. Having returned from maternity leave earlier this year, one of Garner’s first priorities internally was to establish a culture squad.

“I asked people what they want to bring back and everything they suggested was face-to-face. There is a huge acknowledgment we want to be face-to-face, but also remote – we want to have cake and eat it,” she comments. “We have to find a balance and I think we have done a good job, such that people are coming in a few days a week. But it’s a massive leadership challenge right now: If you value culture, how do you create a wave with this hybrid workforce? The hard thing is to curate a place of work where people feel they want to come in, because they feel they’re getting real development, leadership and connection.

“My leadership team have a mission to create a playground for growth. That’s doing the best work of your career, having the most radical connection with colleagues, innovating and challenging.”

Garner puts the accountability for building this culture of “radical acceptance” squarely on the leaders’ shoulders. “I think previously you could get away with no doing the hard work of making sure people are doing the best work of their careers and challenging them around that,” she says.

“You also need to give them breadth and stretch. Then it’s about creating a social benefit around the feeling of what we value a lot, which is a sense of belonging and radical acceptance of bringing your whole sense to work.”

In this vein, one of amaysim leadership team’s commitments is ‘break the ice’ – and do it with vulnerability.

“I’ve become much more me at amaysim – a messy, quirky, neurotic, fun and outrageous person,” Garner adds. “As a leader, you need to take the mask off and letting people see you. That helps a lot with trust and creates a feeling of safety of others to open up to you as a leader and for you to have the space to be empathetic.”

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