Marketing chief James Boulton joins Nationwide exodus

April 22, 2011

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?

Why sponsors won’t be dribbling away from John Terry. Unless…

January 31, 2010

Among the many footballing clichés pithily describing the dilemma of putative England captain John Terry my favourite is “Own goal”.

Perroncel: Single outing

Terry was poorly advised in applying for an all-gagging superinjunction on the grounds that the revelation of an adulterous affair with lingerie model Vanessa Perroncel might harm his “financial affairs”. It was another example of a bad call by celebs’ favourite law firm Schillings, which has been in the forefront of blunting freedom of expression through the exploitation of privacy laws that operate under Article 8 of the European Convention of human rights. Last December, Mr Justice Eady was widely ridiculed for the absurdity of an injunction which forbad sexual athlete Tiger Wood’s naked anatomy being taken in vain. And Schillings were the people who brought it before him. This time, they were less lucky in the choice of judge presiding over the case. Sir Michael Tugendhat seems, on reflection, to have taken a dim view of an orchestrated cover-up designed to protect the financial interests of an erring footballer.

Anyway, back to Terry. Presumably it was his estimated £4m-a-year sponsorship money he was concerned about rather than the £200,000 a week he earns as Chelsea captain. If so, he had – and I suggest has – little to fear on that account. Samsung, Nationwide, Umbro and Terry are all in this enterprise together.  I have no idea whether it is the stern disciplinarian or the shrewd pragmatist in England manager Fabio Capello that will win out as he reflects on Terry as a fit and proper symbol to lead England. And in the event it doesn’t much matter. Even if Terry is “demoted”, he will still be on the front bench – which is status enough for his sponsors to keep faith.

Ah, but what about the example of Woods, you say? Once it became apparent the golfing legend was guilty as charged of multiple adultery, Accenture and Gillette jumped ship. Even Nike, which continued to back its man, has begun to withdraw support.

The important difference between these two cases is contained in the word ‘multiple’. So far as we know, Terry has only had one extramarital affair. Woods, on the other hand, quickly became overwhelmed with an avalanche of revelations which effectively forced his withdrawal from public life. With no further glory on the links in prospect, sponsors became disillusioned. I doubt they will feel the same about Terry’s singular excursion from the straight and narrow. Unless, of course, there’s something he hasn’t told us yet…

Diverted Boulton makes safe landing at Nationwide

July 9, 2009

James BoultonJames Boulton, the ex-HSBC marketing director and brother of Sky TV presenter, Adam, has finally landed at Nationwide after a bizarre mini-Odyssey involving British Airways.

In circumstances still not entirely clear, Boulton seems to have quit HSBC at the beginning of the year in the belief that he had a job in the bag – a good one too – at BA as global marketing director, following in the footsteps of Tiffany Hall.

Only to discover that he did not. Having led him up the garden path, BA either withdrew the offer or halted the process. Boulton had been applying for a job that would no longer exist, due to a management “rationalisation”…

It’s another example of just how ruthless companies have become in slashing key personnel once they are deemed too expensive. Equally unsettling was Cadbury’s recent decision to get rid of its European president, Tamara Minick-Scokalo, only six months after elevating her from group commercial director.

Boulton may not have got the CMO role he was evidently looking for after HSBC declined to expand his duties (I note his successor, Brendan Cook, has been given additional responsibilities – product development and research). But he could have done a lot worse than end up at Nationwide.

In effect, he takes over the high-profile position occupied for many years by Peter Gandolfi, although the title, like much else, is different. Plenty has changed at Nationwide under the leadership of Graham Beale, including most of the key personnel. That’s only to be expected. The sleepy mega-mutual is well positioned (unlike almost any other financial services organisation) to benefit from the Credit Crunch. Big mutuals – friendly, conservative and, above all, reliable (it says in the script) – are back in fashion. And since Nationwide is by far and away the best branded and biggest – at over half the sector’s capitalisation –  it should be able to exploit this new mood much better than anyone else.

Beale has, perhaps justifiably, been whingeing about the ridiculous capital ratios (money kept back as security) being imposed on his organisation (given it is not particularly reliant on the wholesale money market, exposure to which has been a major cause of vulnerability). I notice this has not prevented Nationwide from launching an eye-catching 125% mortgage aimed at attracting people in negative equity who want to move.

Boulton, with his packaged goods skills acquired at Unilever and PepsiCo, has a promising canvas to work on.

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