Royal Bank of Scotland CMO David Wheldon: More marketing will go in-house

Royal Bank of Scotland will soon run more of its programmatic advertising internally, according to David Wheldon, the bank’s chief marketing officer.

The financial firm is building what Wheldon calls an “in-house studio” that will run parts of its media and advertising alongside its external agencies. Rather than eliminate agencies outright, he wants greater control over parts of the marketing mix that directly affect the business, such as ad tech and data management. Wheldon wants to drive the decisions, rather than agencies, on what supply-side vendors the bank uses and what aggregators it buys data from. Tighter agency contracts alone won’t guarantee that level of control, said Wheldon.

“You can’t crap on about transparency [as a marketer] unless you do something about it,” he told Digiday at British advertiser trade body ISBA’s annual conference in London this week.

Wheldon shares how he sees the relationship between RBS and its agencies evolving. Excerpts from his conversation with Digiday appear below, edited and condensed.

Why do you need an agency as you take more control of your media investments?
At the moment, we still need an agency. But I can see a not-too-distant future where we could be doing a lot more programmatic ourselves. We’re building an in-house studio, and the vision for that is to be plug-and-play ready [to make media decisions]. For example, when an interest rate changes, we’re obliged to communicate that to all of our customers, and at the moment, we have to buy media to make it happen. One day, it will [be automated] and have the capability of using our own first-party data.

Why are you trying to in-house and automate as much marketing as you can?
Our future is definitely going to be one of doing much more customer communication directly. We’ll be able to target our own customers more thoughtfully using our data than we can by outsourcing those tasks. We’ll then be left scratching our heads about where we need to spend the money externally. Up until the last few years, we were outsourcing all of that media planning and buying to a media agency. I can see that happening in my role as the president of the World Federation of Advertisers, too. This increasing shift to programmatic is becoming more about the in-house capabilities on the brand side. And as that movement happens, the more tough questions there will be around digital and the more people are going to have to think long and hard about how they run online advertising, especially given the obligations of the General Data Protection Regulation.

How happy are you with the transparency you have into your media agency?
I’ve made it clear to our media agency that I expect them to tell me how and where they make money. I’ve reminded them that if they don’t do that, then RBS has a contract with them that means they can be fired instantaneously. It’s a brutal way of putting it, but it’s going to force transparency because I’ve learned to get very suspicious about where the [bank’s] money is going. It’s not so much about the contract. It’s about asking the right questions. The example I always refer to is [asking about] the percentage my media agency charges when they recommend a media partnership.

Could RBS as an advertiser do more to take responsibility of its investments?
We’re getting better at understanding the people we’re after, as that’s the primary way to reduce wastage. I inherited what some would describe as some very lazy briefing, which would basically say, “We’re a bank with 16 million customers; therefore, our target audience is everyone, so go forth and buy ads.” Are we as efficient as I’d like us to be yet? I don’t think so.

What are you doing to change that?
We’re writing better briefs that are based on our data, which isn’t just our customer data, but our historical data in terms of what has and what hasn’t worked. There’s also the fact that when people come and recommend something to us, we’re asking for data to justify those recommendations. We want to know how those suggestions are going to be measured as well as how will we know whether the idea worked or not. We’re trying to do all that in a way that’s more about test and learn. We were taking recommendations straight from Facebook, for instance, where its representatives would say, “We think you need to do this,” and my team would come back do it. I’d ask why we’d launched whatever was suggested across our entire customer base, when we could’ve done something smaller to test the idea and then learn about it.

With the changing advertiser-agency relationship, what’s the opportunity for consulting firms?
I’m not sure there was ever a bygone era when agencies enjoyed a great relationship with the top of the house, but what the consultants have now is the C-suite relationships, a deep understanding of technology and a deep understanding of the digitization of our services. It’s not too much of a leap for them to think they can help with the advertising part of that mix.

Would you hire a consulting firm to replace an agency as you in-house more media management and advertising?
You always need external people because they bring a freshness and a lack of fear.

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