RBS CMO David Wheldon: creativity is the one thing clients can’t in-house

Wheldon is on a journey to bring more of the banking group’s media buying in-house / RBS

Royal Bank of Scotland's chief marketing officer David Wheldon is on a journey to bring more of the banking group’s media buying in-house. It’s set up in internal agency, with backing from WPP’s The&Partnership, and has been running a few campaigns to test the wheels

Wheldon is not the first, and won’t be the last, marketer to experiment with a model that’s of increasing concern to agencies, but he's clear there's still a space for them.

In the first few weeks of 2019, advertisers including Arla, P&G, Fender, and M&S all shifted swathes of their budgets out of agencies and into their own internal shops.

RBS' version is still in its infancy, running out of an office in Edinburgh with the simple objective of streamlining the way it reaches customers.

“There were things we were paying to do externally that we could do ourselves and having an in-house studio means that we can churn more,” Wheldon recently told The Drum, explaining the thinking behind its launch last year.

“Let's say the Bank of England changed interest rates tomorrow. We need to communicate that to customers but because of our legacy system a whole team of people will go into action; some will get posters printed, some will get press ads ready, others might send emails, letters or a text. But one day we'll be able to just do it simply by clicking a button; we're building a tech-enabled machine to communicate better with customers," he added.

“Will it do everything for us? No. Will we always need agencies? Yes”.

Though Wheldon is looking to get a tighter grip on some aspects of the brand's media buying, he readily admits that RBS will never manage to do everything internally. It can’t, and won’t, replicate an advertising agency: “I can write a fair ad, but can I write a brilliant one? Absolutely not.”

He said the same is true for many of his fellow advertisers that are part of the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA), the global industry group where he is president.

“One of the things we asked members [last year] was for [their] view of the agency model at the moment, what their changing view is and where they think it's going. There were many clients who had different ‘in-housing’ versions. One of the most interesting comments was [a marketer] who had been through the ‘here's what we need to do and own’ [process] and the only thing they couldn't' do was content, or creativity.”

Speaking amid a restructure at WPP to put “creativity” at the head of the holding company in the face of every-strengthening headwinds, Wheldon said the “soul-searching” that chief executive Mark Read was doing has led him in the right direction of where his holding company’s future, and those of his peers, lies.

“What Mark has put his finger on is that clients can't do creative communications,” Wheldon said.

Media transparency

That the past two years have seen Wheldon, and many other marketers, experiment with their agency models is not coincidental.

The shift from relying on third-parties to taking greater control followed on from a damming investigation by the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) in the US and more recently an investigation by the FBI into the practices of media buyers.

“I have said to Zenith [RBS’ media agency] that if I see its holding company [Publicis Groupe] is one of those being looked at then, whatever the outcome, be transparent with me about how and where you make money. I want them to be successful and they should earn fair money, but it should be transparent. I imagine that conversation is happening across the industry and if it’s not [then] shareholders should be worried.”

It’s taken a while for RBS to get to that point of having a frank conversation with its media partners.

Wheldon will admit that when he arrived in the role in 2015, it had “abrogated responsibility” and outsourced all knowledge to third parties. He's since brought media expertise on-board not just for its in-house studio but to sit throughout the marketing department and has also found a way of working with Zenith that meets everyone’s needs.

“The agency world is changing fast and actually we have to be a little more thoughtful. It's clients that caused the lack of media transparency,” he said.

“When I was at Vodafone [Wheldon was chief marketing officer between 2004 and 2010] I ran a media pitch with our then chief executive Vittorio Colao. We had the first agency come in and they pitched the strategy, planning, team and then said ‘oh we can optimise media by 28%’, next one came in, said the same and ‘ we can optimise by 29%’ and the last one came in and said all the same but they could optimise by 44%.

“Then when they'd all left Vittorio said ‘hey David, how many more global media agencies are out there? Get them all in and then it will be free’. Now, in that joke there's a serious point - that is what clients wanted and that's what media agencies served up and they then had to find other ways to make money.

“Zenith have responded brilliantly to my request for transparency, but clients have to take responsibility for not paying fairly and chasing down the cost of agencies.”

With his new in-house studio, Wheldon argues that he is running it in such a way that's "respectful" to the ecosystem and freeing up marketing dollars in such a way that others in the industry won't lose.

Another partner Wheldon has recently brought into the fold in the quest for transparency is Gary Vaynerchuk's Vayner Media.

“We've been piloting stuff with them for a year but we're doing more. They're smart and challenging and it was an agency set up after the ANA report."

He added: "Its business model is a transparent one, it doesn't make money in anything it places in media. It charges fees for what it does and people involved. Every era requires an opinionated man or woman and [Vaynerchuk] is an opinionated man.... at the extreme end.”

David Wheldon spoke to The Drum as part of the WFA Global Marketer of the Year partnership. Among those shortlisted are Unilever's Keith Weed, P&G's Marc Pritchard, Diageo's Syl Saller, Mastercard's Raja Rajamannar, Ikea's Claudia Willvonseder and Coty's Ukonwa Ojo. Today (25 January) is the final date to vote here.

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