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Marketing chief James Boulton joins Nationwide exodus

At one level, the departure of James Boulton, Nationwide’s divisional director of customer strategy and marketing, after little more than 18 months should cause no surprise.

Least of all to himself. This will not be a part of his distinguished career on which to reflect with affection and pride. A former marketing director at HSBC and candidate global CMO at BA, Boulton came highly recommended. But the results of his Nationwide tenure have disappointed.

Not all of this has been his fault. The Little Britain ad theme (which replaced the long-running, but slick, Mark Benton stuff) looked inspired at the time he, or his then agency Leagas Delaney, came up with it. What better way to boost Nationwide’s image, as our largest and safest mutual society, than link it to the inimitable talents of comedy duo Dave Walliams and Matt Lucas? Except it didn’t work. Little Britain was already passé and the ads, when they arrived, were brash, poorly scripted and confused in their message. Result: widespread disapproval, not least  in Nationwide’s corridors of power.

Worse was to come. It was not Boulton’s fault that Nationwide was a long-time sponsor of the England squad – supporting it with a sponsorship package worth £20m. What more natural than to associate Vicky Pollard and her comedic chum with Fabio Capello and the boys, in a tactical TV ad just before the big kick-off last year? Another bad result. And not just for the England squad. Nationwide had made a high-profile pitch for a desperate bunch of losers. Up in the boardroom, there was fury.

As it happened, chief executive Graham Beale – a man who would personally rate dog-walking over attending a football match any day –  had already decided to terminate the 11-year contract when, shortly before the World Cup, the FA demanded more money with menaces.

But that was of little consolation to Boulton, who was left with no recourse but to fire his agency and pick another one. Which he duly did in the form of Fallon breakaway 18 Feet & Rising.

Too late. Beale, a Nationwide lifer, is not a man to be crossed or thwarted. What’s more, he’s quite touchy about his corporate reputation. He’s already received a few brickbats for unpopular decisions from the savers and mortgage holders to whom he is accountable. This was the man who dropped a key guarantee on mortgage pricing; and also got rid of Nationwide’s policy of not charging customers who use its debit card abroad. Making a patsy out of your already unpopular boss, as a result of a misconceived television campaign, is not best calculated to advance your career prospects. Even if that boss was ultimately responsible for signing off the campaign.

So, as I say, no surprise that Boulton should be heading for the exit. But has he been treated entirely fairly? I ask this after surveying the CV of his successor Andy McQueen. McQueen, unlike Boulton, is fully conversant with the minutiae of building society culture. Indeed, for the past 3 years he has been director of Nationwide’s mortgages and general insurance unit; and also did a stint as marketing director of the Portman, before it was absorbed by Nationwide. But I searched in vain for any experience he has acquired running a major retail financial services brand (I don’t think being something or other in the marketing department of Goldman Sachs really counts). As I did for any experience he had in managing a major TV campaign, which will surely be part of his remit.

And then there’s the broader context. Beale seems very casual, or careless, with his senior executives. In the past 3 years (he became CEO in April 2007) nearly 20 top people have departed – 3 of them board-level. The most well-known in marketing circles was group sales and marketing director John Sutherland. But there have been plenty of others who have mysteriously packed their bags in departments ranging from human resources to public relations. I bet the termination agreements have cost Nationwide customers (ie its shareholders) a pretty penny. The question they should be asking themselves is this: why have so many left?

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