12 things Amber Collins learnt about being a CMO at Australia Post

The former Australia Post marketing chief reflects on her time at the government enterprise business and what it's taught her about leadership, alignment, the power of marketing and collaboration

You can’t skim across the top in marketing if you want to have skin in the game, Amber Collins warns.

“At some stage, you have to pause and learn about media, advertising, content, social. If not, you are not able to add value,” the experienced marketing chief tells CMO. “No matter what, people always look up to you and want you to help them guide decision making. You can’t be a CMO and not have depth of experience in many of the critical verticals.

“Outsourcing thinking and marketing strategy is also dangerous and limiting to the development of future marketers – you do it at your peril. You have to own it and understand it. Otherwise, how can you ever advocate for your authority in this space and your skin in the game?”

Amber Collins shared these reflections and more when she caught up with CMO to discuss her departure from Australia Post in early January after a three-and-a-half tenure with the government business enterprise (GBE). AusPost has appointed Corrina Brazel, head of marketing communications for six months and former head of consumer marketing for two-and-a-half years, as interim CMO.

“I came to Australia Post to learn, and I’ve learnt more than I thought possible,” Collins comments. “Coming to a GBE has been an incredible string to have in my bow. It’s required a whole different level of stakeholder engagement and operating model.”

Collins also loved the remit. Previously general manager of brand and media at Coles, she previously focused on consumer marketing. Her broader Australia Post CMO role brought together B2B, retail, international and community into one aligned unit as championed by former CEO, Christine Holgate, and former EGM of community and consumer, Nicole Sheffield.

Nevertheless, proving the value of marketing was critical. “Nicole and Christine were huge supporters of marketing and understand the benefits of the discipline. Others in Australia Post were less so. So one part of what I had to tackle was elevating the power of marketing in the business,” Collins explains.

Transforming to orchestrate around the customer has been another big task. “We as marketers have always had a role in that, and the CMO advocates for the customers more than anywhere I’d been in the past. Most places I worked for knew if the customer is happy, then the sales keep coming,” Collins says.

“A GBE has many stakeholders, and people tend to experience so many incoming, competing agendas. It’s not that they don’t care about the customer. Therefore my role as the CMO was to consistently provide a customer perspective and direction on decision making, investments and strategy.”

Having achieved against these ambitions, Collins spent several months discussing a remit shift at AusPost before deciding to exit the business. While she figures out her next step, she’s completing the Australian Institute of Company Directors course and project work for Foodbank, where she’s on the board.

“The team we have built is in such a great place; they are set up for success, have a long-term strategy, the right skills, and a total focus on customers,” Collins says. “I now want to do something different – it might be a CMO role, but it has to be as big a change as me moving from Coles to Australia Post was. I want that again, where the challenge you are taking on is 0 to 100.”

Meanwhile, three-and-a-half years presented rich learnings for Collins as a CMO. Here, she dives into the big ones.

1. Align marketing structure to commercial imperatives

“Australia Post has as much commercial drive across the business as other organisations I’d worked for. However, the marketing function wasn’t oriented enough around that commercial drive,” Collins says.

Exacerbating the problem was siloed marketing in multiple places. International, B2B, consumer and community were all in different areas prior to the CMO appointment.

“Previously, things had been operating as if customers were looking through the lens of one business unit or service, which then operated like different businesses. It was extraordinary to see. This was a function of the structure and lack of unified brand platform and strategy,” Collins says. “Bringing all of these under a CMO presented the opportunity to force prioritisation in the business and a one-brand view of the enterprise.”

2. Force prioritisation

Another early must was to build clarity around priority areas Australia Post should focus on.

“Within areas like B2B, for example, there are lots of parts – micro, small, enterprise, government customers, then all the products they’re buying. We can’t all those things effectively, so we reviewed where was the greatest impact marketing could make,” Collins recalls. “That focused prioritisation around small business and proved the big unlock for all of us. It enabled technology roadmaps, investments, customer calendars oriented more around one particular audience we could really go after.”

3. Get happier customers

The CMO’s job is to get more customers. But you can’t get customers into bad experiences, continues Collins. A major milestone has been getting customers into the right channels, particularly digital ones. During her tenure, 200,000 customers moved from retail to the digital platform to self-serve.

Credit: Amber Collins

“That enabled those customers to save money, to be served more efficiently, and it’s more useful for them. But it’s a big behavioural change to move to and required lots of education, push and pull from different areas we had to coordinate,” Collins says. “But you end up with better marketable audiences, lower cost to serve as well as happier customers.”

4. Be in the business

When you’re the market leader, simply getting more customers doesn’t cut it, especially in a growth industry like ecommerce where all boats are rising, says Collins. To drive incremental sales, Australia Post embraced metrics above market growth to beat, then held the business to account.

“There were very clear, agreed on KPIs across the business. And we [as marketing] were in the business, not on the side of the business,” Collins adds. “We discussed the customer every week with sales, accounts teams and operations, and how we were doing it. You create the energy around that, which then helps people see the future.”

5. Plan ahead

A real difficulty when Collins arrived was a lack of planning. Now, the team has one year in advanced planned, and maps out what it’s doing in 18 months’ time.

“You can’t operate without that, because everything ends up tactical. Knowing what you want, you can then ask: What’s in the three-year roadmap to help support us as we move towards the milestones we have, then how do we align those in a big way to get maximum impact in market across the business,” Collins advises. “Instead of one business unit doing one thing, you’re working all together.

“The power of marketing is bringing together those competing agendas to make it much better for customers through their experiences. That’s been one of our big success stories I think.”

6. Know your customer

Helping achieve alignment is a true understanding of the customer you’re going after. “I couldn’t sit in meetings where people said ‘Australians think this’, and someone else saying ‘no, Australians think this’,” Collins says.

“We had the best customer segmentation I’ve ever seen done, across business and consumer. That meant we could say, well yes, you are right about that, but it’s this percentage of the population, this is what they spend, and this is what they want from us. Knowing that clearly means you’re bringing the customer into conversations and the room.

“We crystallised that, powered using AI [artificial intelligence], so we could update and present this quarterly to the business.”

Connecting the dots on customer journeys is a core part of understand the real pain points too.

“When you’re a well-meaning product manager, you’re often only interested in your specific area. But customers don’t shop like that. They see us as Australia Post, not one product,” Collins says. “So how are all those customer journeys coming together? Where do we then spend the money?”

7. Create a culture of collaboration

Collins admits “everyone was arguing with everyone” when she first joined Australia Post. She attributes this to the lack of clarity around the prize. Being super clear on strategy, what teams were going to be held accountable for, as well as what they weren’t, was critical here.

“It’s then having tough conversations…  it’s flagging the juice isn’t worth the squeeze and elevating the conversation,” she says. “I sat with the entire leadership team as we went through the entire plan, noting we cannot afford to do all these things, so this is what we are not going to do. That’s powerful; it creates focus and it makes life easier for teams as they’re not living in the grey.”

This customer plan now goes across Australia Post every month and shows the next year to 18 months.

“When people buy into that and discuss it, they start thinking about better timing for doing programs and work they’re engaged in to result in a better outcome for the customer. They join the dots,” Collins adds.

8. Fill the void

Such communication is pivotal as a leader. Collins refers to an old boss who used to say the job of a leader is to ‘fill the void’.

“You provide the evidence, analytics around profitability, acquisition, retention and margin, then say here are the facts, this is where we end up in our recommendation, what do you think?” she says. “Another one of my old bosses used to say she who holds the pen leads. In other words, here’s something, what do you think, rather than what does everyone want. Then you are in a position to persuade and adjust accordingly. We plan to 80/20 as we’re a retail business because when you have 4500 shops, you need flexibility.”

9. Lean into building brand

Another learning cemented during the last few years of the pandemic is the importance of brand as a buffer for when things go wrong. Collins points to Australia Post’s decision to invest in small business TV advertising as a huge turning point here.

“When we were in a media storm at the beginning of Covid, with 75,000 people calling us a day… we leant forward. I said we need to be on TV telling Australians what we are doing to help and what they can do to try to help,” Collins says. “It was incredibly successful. We were able to be honest about the situation and use our own team to say this is who we are, we are just you, illustrating recruitment was a huge part of our business. Australians want to see us employing people.

“All these things become brand levers so when things go wrong. So if your parcel doesn’t arrive when you thought it would – you are more forgiving of us.”

10. Merchant relationships are a valuable marketing channel

Supporting this approach was partnering with merchants to ensure better customer experiences.

“For example, customers using our app have a higher NPS than those who don’t. The obvious thing to do was get more customers using the app. We got 1 million on the app. But it was not just consumer, it’s both sides,” Collins says. “We showed merchants if they integrated the app on their side, those customers would have better experiences.

“It was the same with our parcel lockers. When receivers use lockers, they have a better experience than if they’re at home. So we made people aware of lockers in the local area. But it’s a behavioural change that’s hard to do… So we said let’s create a positive experience at the merchant end and provided a small discount to get them to support lockers.

“The customer has a better experience, as does the merchant. You’re onboarding people into the experience in a way you couldn’t do with traditional advertising. It’s about using levers at on all different ends. That’s why bringing B2B and consumer teams together was so important.”

11. It’s about the team

More broadly, Collins believes it’s critical as a CMO to surround yourself with a strong team. “The team leaders working for me are single greatest determinant of success,” she stresses.

“Having the right people in place, the strategy and environment to do their best work is key. We did a good job in a period of time that’s been full of stress.”

12. Keep an open mind

As a final note, Collins highlights the importance of CMOs keeping an open mind on what’s presented to them professionally.

“Don’t judge a job without hearing all about it. I said no to Australia Post twice. On the third time I went in and it’s the best decision I have made,” she concludes. “I made an assumption and that was wrong on my part.”  

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