Mark Mullen taking NSPCC campaign calls

Bob Diamond, CEO of Barclay’s PLC has a BA in Economics and an MBA in Business. The CEO of RBS, Stephen Hester graduated in Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford and took over from Sir Fred Goodwin (a chartered accountant). There’s a clear pattern in their education, they all took a non-creative track. 

But what happens when your CEO has a background in marketing?

On Monday I was invited to first direct’s ‘Banks and Bloggers’ meetup in Covent Garden. There a small group of writers were able to speak almost one on one with first direct’s (relatively) new CEO Mark Mullen and PR manager Amanda Brown.

Mark Mullen rejoined first direct as CEO in September last year. With a background in marketing he previously worked as a Head/Regional Head of marketing for the brand and its parent company HSBC.

In his 2011 interview “What makes first direct so successful“, Adrian Swinscoe found out a little more about Mullen’s working background:

“I spent my career, having graduated from University in Dublin as a historian, in the financial services sector. So I’ve worked in business to business, I’ve worked in specialist leasing, in consumer finance and then in main-stream banking, I’ve worked in the Middle East and I’ve worked in the UK . I’ve spent, probably the largest part of my career in marketing. This is the first business-leadership of CEO-ship role that I’ve had.”*

Meeting the boss

Stepping into an upstairs room at Covent Garden’s late-night bar Belushi’s, I was somewhat underwhelmed. I was faced, not by formal panel of suited-and-booted directors nervously clutching notes, but a group of normal-looking individuals sitting around a long table nattering and enjoying a drink.

Jovially discussing hotels and journeys while sipping on a lemonade, it was hard to believe I was seated next to one of the more powerful individuals in the British banking sector. As other people turned up conversation turned naturally from Mark’s incredible experience’s in advertising to first direct’s fresh approaches in a sometimes stale industry. But even where they succeed in breaking down B2C barrier’s he put it to us, ‘What was the last truly innovative thing to come out of the banking sector?’

A CEO and a marketer?

There may not have been a genuine banking innovation since ATM/Credit card system, but being a great marketer is more about finding new ways to communicate and being able to grasp new technologies and using them rather than starting from scratch.

Now, much has been written about the inability of business leaders to truly grasp the importance of marketing. It also seems that few CEOs are known for getting involved in customer communications. Last year The Fournaise Marketing Group released a statement on some research they’d conducted into the perceived credibility of marketers among CEOs:

“73% of CEOs think Marketers lack business credibility and are not the business growth generators they should be: they are still too far from being able to demonstrate how the cross-channel marketing strategies and campaigns they deploy grow their organisations’ top line in terms of more customer demand, more sales, more prospects, more conversions or more market share. “**

So does having a marketer at the helm make first direct better able to adapt to the fast-changing world of modern marketing?

So far since Mullen became CEO, First Direct has been voted one of the UK’s coolest brands for the 6th year in a row; Met bloggers at their Dialogue Festival; Commissioned a report on “The Future of Customer Service“; Got involved in plenty of charity work and sat down with us bloggers last Monday.

With first direct’s history of innovation, you could argue that these are activities had little to do with the newly positioned Chief exec. But in fact strategies that Mullen signed off as Head of Marketing back in 2008 are still in operation today.

first direct’s online community

Gorging myself on a variety of yummy nibbles, the conversation gently spun through the limitations of security into my area of interest social media. We talked about using the Facebook platform, choosing which queries to answer, and how successful their Twitter feed has been and how you shouldn’t underestimate the customer.

As ‘America’s greatest marketer’ Seth Godin puts it “Conversations among the members of your marketplace happen whether you like it or not. Good marketing encourages the right sort of conversations.”

Mullen’s approach to banking focusses on improving those customer conversations, and he points out to Adrian Swinscoe that it’s first direct’s strong culture of respect that makes it, “a truly customer-centric, customer obsessed business.” He then went on to discuss the effect of new technology on the customer:

“The new technology, and specifically the internet has had a profound role in the power of consumer in pretty much every industry category. The fact that it has taken probably 12 years of evolution to get us to the point where the customer’s level of control and level of transparency is such that today a tolerance level, that might not of even existed in 1988, 1998 is in your face.”

With an outlook that seems forward thinking in this sector it’s not as surprising that when Mullen held the post of Head of Marketing 4-years-ago (when most banks didn’t even have Twitter accounts), first direct launched their online community Little Black Book. This site allows customers to share personal recommendations and tips on businesses, venues and restaurants around the globe, and gained 17,000 users within a few weeks of launching in 2008, proving at least that there was a customer interest and perhaps even a definite need for such a platform.

Mullen was also involved in Talking Point (part of the first direct lab), where staff can put questions to the community. By the number of comments on some threads it appears to have been incredibly successful.

More from Mark

Mark Mullen was an interesting person to talk to with plenty of views on new technology and where he sees the banking sector so I felt where possible I should let him explain his own views. In October Mark was interviewed on video by  the fantastic Christophe Langois from Visible Banking who also attended the meetup.

Here Mullen explains that to him:

“Social media is a representation of a conversation that has always been happening… social media has allowed people like me to see the conversation real-time, warts and all…the conversation today has an amplification that we wouldn’t have dreamt about ten years ago”.

He also thinks that the biggest challenge in the future of banking is “How to crowd-source and out-source value-added IT development.”

I won’t say any more but it’s well worth watching parts one and two which I’ve embedded below.

It’s clear that first direct are consistently being forward thinking and with a marketer at the helm who seems to really get what people want. I would say that they’re in a great position to stay at the head of their market, social media-wise at least.

I very much enjoyed speaking with Amanda and Mark on Monday and hope that similar blogger-meets are organised in the future so we can get the real down and dirty on new first direct innovations. I also hope to see Mark blogging or vlogging in the future.

Other interesting articles:

*Quote taken from the podcasted interview.

**Based on findings from 600 interviews with large corporation and SMB CEOs and decision-makers in the US, Europe, Asia and Australia.

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7 responses »

  1. Hi Charlotte,
    I liked the post and thanks for the namecheck to the interview I did with Mark.

    First Direct do a great job and are blazing a trail. Long may others follow.


    • charlotteelizabethclark says:

      Hey Adrian.

      Thought your interview was very good, and love to link to useful posts. They definitely are blazing a trail. Don’t think many top-of-the-pile blokes would take time out to speak to bloggers even now.

      Look forward to seeing more updates on your blog. I really like what you said about not all bloggers being journalists. Too true! I’ve worked on enough blogger outreach schemes now to know that it must be done slowly and carefully with care being taken to really understand who you’re contacting and what they can really offer.


  2. Chris Haddaway says:

    first direct just skanked me out of £125 in charges, taking money from the unemployed, shame on you first direct

    • Holly Smith says:

      I opened an account with First Direct today and because of the customer service agent and her unpleasant attitude I am closing it tomorrow. Come back Lloyds TSB all is forgiven.

  3. Nicholas says:

    Absolutely Chris and Holly, just been relieved of £125 in charges for 5 days overdrawn by First Direct great after 4 months off work recovering from cancer, well done First Direct caring and sharing not!!!

  4. My partner and I stumbled over here from a different page and thought I should check things out.
    I like what I see so i am just following you. Look forward to finding out about your web page for a second time.

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