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Ex-RBS CMO David Wheldon on why agencies mustn’t lose sight of creative basics

Wheldon says losing a focus on creativity would be a ‘dangerous’ situation for everyone involved

Fresh from being awarded the special title of President Emeritus from the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA), former RBS chief marketing officer and advertising legend David Wheldon reflects on his marketing legacy, as well as the need for agencies to position themselves as creative partners first and foremost in today’s climate.

With more than 35 years in the marketing industry, David Wheldon has had no shortage of titles to his name.

He cut his teeth as an account executive at Saatchis during its 80s heydays. Since then he’s been president of BBDO in Europe, director of advertising for Coca-Cola, Vodafone’s global director of brand and, most recently, chief marketing officer at RBS.

Last year, he was bestowed the Lifetime Achievement prize at The Drum Marketing Awards Lifetime, and last week he was named President Emeritus by the WFA – the global marketing membership organization he presided over for four years.

The latter is an accolade that has only been handed to two prior presidents (Mars’s Malcolm Earnshaw CBE, who oversaw the WFA between 1994 and 1998, and former P&G executive Hans Merkle, who presided between 1998 and 2000). It’s also one that’s typically reserved for presidents who are considered to have had a transformational impact on the trade body.

Indeed, Wheldon’s tenure was marked by a significant increase in WFA corporate membership – which now includes 130 global brands and 55 national associations in 60 countries – and its visibility, particularly as Wheldon led WFA in calling on advertisers to hold platforms to account for their role as ultimate funders of the online ecosystem.

Now “blissfully semi-retired” and working as a consultant for organizations such as the Teenage Cancer Trust, the former top chief marketer has been watching the pandemic raise up and unfurl businesses from the sidelines.

Having taken a step back from the day-to-day of the chief marketers, he is struck by the need for both brand leaders – and their agencies – to go back to creative basics in order to safeguard their businesses for the future.

Media and creativity: it’s not ‘either/or’

In recent weeks, advertising’s biggest players – such as Publicis, WPP and Omnicom – have seen a return to growth buoyed by an uptick in ad spend from clients and an increased appetite for digital media and e-commerce capabilities.

Wheldon cautions that while investment in these areas is key to growth, clients and partners alike must continue to focus on big, brilliant ideas.

“Chief marketing officers do need a fluency in digital now – they need to understand e-commerce and understand how online works beyond advertising channels,” he tells The Drum, “but unless you’re focused on the customer, growth and building the brand, as a marketer you’re not doing the right thing.”

He believes marketing to be in a “fairly healthy state” despite the challenges of the pandemic.

“I’ve been really impressed by the flexibility and agility of agencies. It’s quite something how they’ve managed to keep their culture and workplaces going throughout the past year. However, what you don’t currently see much of is work that is memorable and that’s a shame – so something needs fixed somewhere.”

He says the choosing between media execution and creative prowess isn’t an ‘either/or’ situation – it’s a ‘and, and’.

“Agencies need to remember that the primary reason they’re engaged is to deliver great creativity that builds brands and builds growth. They need to do things that clients can’t do.

"Clients can do an awful lot in-house now, so agencies need to bring something new to the party – that lies in great insight, great creativity and applying that beyond a comms output and translating it into a commercial one.”

He says losing sight about just how important creativity is would be a “dangerous” situation for everyone involved.

A very digital legacy

Beyond brand, Wheldon has witnessed the transformative impact programmatic has had on the ad industry first-hand – and he’s never been shy in calling out tech’s big boys. He has been one of the more outspoken brand leaders to urge collective industry action to rectify flaws in the online marketing ecosystem.

In the wake of the Association of National Advertisers’ 2017 report into rebates, Wheldon implored the industry to halt the “salami-slicing” of programmatic budgets and be “less opaque”. More recently, in the wake of the 2019 Christchurch Attacks in New Zealand (which were broadcast on Facebook by the perpetrator) he spearheaded collective action from the industry on an unprecedented scale – imploring fellow chief marketers to think carefully about how they funded tech giants and challenging platform owners to do more.

Ultimately, this led to the formation of the WFA’s Global Alliance for Responsible Media (Garm) – backed by brands like Lego and Mars – which is today a flagship initiative of the WFA and the World Economic Forum (Wef). Garm’s ultimate aim is to prevent advertisers’ media investments from fueling the spread of content that promotes terrorism, violence or other behaviors that inflict damage on society.

Last week, the collective unveiled its first Brand Safety Measurement Report, which laid bare the combined progress made by Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat and Pinterest in tackling these issues.

The amount of harmful content removed from platforms remained consistent in the first and second halves of 2020, with 3.3bn videos and images removed. The data also illuminated a growth in action taken by platforms on hate speech and acts of aggression, following on from a brand boycott last June which saw some of the world’s biggest advertisers pause spend on the likes of Facebook.

Wheldon acknowledges that social networks themselves have made progress on this front. He likens them to “teenagers” – still in their infancy of handling the dilemma of moderating the content that appears in their walls, appeasing advertisers and not wanting to be seen as gatekeepers of the internet.

“There’s still more to be done,” he concedes, “but progress has been made and Garm just shows what is truly possible when industry comes together to collectively address big, serious issues.”

Outside his WFA achievements, Wheldon was instrumental in leading the RBS’s rebrand from RBS Banking Group to NatWest Banking Group. As part of the bank’s executive committee, he also helped to turn around business performance and brand perceptions and return the bank to profitability before leaving in April 2020.

He hasn’t been in a rush to take up non-exec roles since retiring from his last chief marketing officer gig, instead consulting on projects he is passionate about in lockdown.

As the WFA’s president emeritus, he still works closely with the organization and its current president, Mastercard’s Raja Rajamanar.

“To be given this title is a special honor from such a wonderful organization,” he says. “I’ve always felt a valued member of a fantastic team on a winning mission.”

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