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Ex-RBS CMO David Wheldon scoops The Drum Marketing Awards lifetime achievement prize

David Wheldon

Outgoing RBS chief marketer David Wheldon has scooped The Drum Marketing Awards lifetime achievement prize, a prestigious accolade presented in the past to Jan Gooding, Keith Weed and Sir Richard Branson.

As part of the Digital Transformation Festival (DTF), The Drum caught up with Wheldon (pre-lockdown) to discuss his achievements, career regrets and what the future holds as he begins retirement after a 35-year career which saw him serve both brand and agency side.

Below, read some excerpts of the full interview, which you can watch on over on our Digital Transformation Festival catch-up.

On retiring

The RBS journey was a really interesting one. I was part of the clean up team. Ross McEwan, the then CEO, hired me and my job spec was to turn the bank around and help make sure that he could leave with his reputation fully intact and return the bank to profit.

The transition to Alison [Rose, as CEO in 2019] was a trigger point. We ended the journey of the toxic brand and re-birthed to the Natwest Group. And more significantly than that there’s a new strategy on being purposeful in true bottom line fashion, not just the words on a page.

So, at my tender age it’s time to hand over the baton to people with more energy for the next phase.

I’m ready to take my time working out what I’ll do in the fashionably named, third chapter.

On fintech and keeping up with the challengers

It was challenging and exciting. When I was on gardening leave before RBS I went in to sign up to a Natwest and I asked what one of the permissions boxes was and a frontline worker said ‘oh, don’t do that. If you do we’ll send you all sorts of things you don’t need’. So what we had was a mainstream bank with a low marketing permissions base competing with digital banks where the very start-up phase meant you had to give them permissions.

Upstart banks were delivering seamless customer experience so what we worked on was building that. The scale of the bank meant we could build alternative businesses – Bó and Mettle – as well as fixing the core.

RBS will be a formidable long-term competitor to big banks and fintech alike.

On agencies

I’d like to see agencies being more bold and bullish on what they do and why they do it, and getting paid fairly for it.

When I ran a full-service agency our two biggest client were VW and Tesco and they delivered £30m. If an idiot like me can make it work.... If you look at the equivalent of what those businesses pay their agencies now you can put a comma in those figures. Revenue has got tighter, demand has got higher, but some of that agencies have brought on themselves. So agencies should think if they are being paid fairly, being treated fairly.

On his biggest regrets

On the one hand I’ve so many regrets I couldn’t answer the question, but on the other at my age there’s no point having any. I look at them as mistakes I’ve made where I’ve learnt something

One particular job I took, when I was the president of BBDO Europe and it absolutely didn’t work. When I was talking to Sergio afterwards he said ‘you just weren’t asking the right questions. There’s two questions you must always ask when you’re being hired – what does success look like for you, and how will I know? And what’s the nitty gritty shit of this job you’re not telling me about’.

In my time I’ve witnessed a lot of overselling of jobs which only leads to disappointment on both sides. So, I always remember those two questions.

You have to think about what you’re going to be good at, what you’re going to enjoy, will they pay you for it and how you can contribute and make a difference.

I was hired by Frank Lowe at 32 to be managing director [of Lowe Howard Spink, 1989 – 1993]. I don’t see enough people taking those kinds of risks. I think the confidence taking business has become far too conservative.

On the third chapter

There are things I will continue like mentoring through the Marketing Academy. And working with the School of Marketing, which is a digital education to help underprivileged people get into marketing. I had some incoming that makes me think – but to this I say I’m having a rest and that I’m think about where I can make a difference and how I can let them use my skills to their end benefit. I will be structured and thoughtful about that.

The full list of The Drum Marketing Awards nominees for 2020 can be found here.

In light of the global pandemic, The Drum is reviewing the ceremony date which was due to take place on 21 April. We remain committed to celebrating the fantastic results of those shortlisted, it will just need to be a little later than we had hoped.

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