After a year of boardroom battles and falling share prices, Vodafone’s global brand chief David Wheldon is keen to rebuild the mobile operator’s reputation around new sponsorship deals with McLaren-Mercedes and the UEFA Champions League. Robert Lester met up with him in Monaco
David Wheldon, Vodafone’s global brand chief, has ridden out the storm that engulfed the company’s boardroom earlier this year and is now setting out his goals for the job ahead.
The past 12 months have not been easy for the Newbury-based telecoms giant, and Wheldon has had to use all of his experience to ensure that the brand has not been affected by the company’s widely reported troubles.
Vodafone, still recovering from a top-level feud that resulted in 10% of its investors voting against the re-election of chief executive Arun Sarin, lost its crown as the world’s largest mobile phone operator earlier this month to China Mobile. Its share price has fallen 5% during the three years that Sarin has been in charge, and in May the company announced a record £14.9bn loss after a writedown on the value of its assets.
But Wheldon, the company’s global director of brand and customer experience, is hoping that the company’s new-look sponsorship portfolio will give it a much-needed shot in the arm. High-profile deals with Manchester United and the Ferrari Formula 1 team have played a significant part in establishing Vodafone as a global brand, but at the end of last year it took the decision to dump Ferrari in favour of McLaren-Mercedes, for which it will be the title sponsor from the start of next season. Vodafone also terminated its shirt sponsorship with Man Utd halfway through a four-year contract to become a headline sponsor of the UEFA Champions League.
A new deal
Wheldon flew into Monaco last week for the Champions League draw and to outline plans at the start of the deal. As a Luton Town fan, this is the self-confessed sports nut’s first taste of Europe’s premier football competition but it is clear that he believes the sponsorship will also bring more tangible benefits.
According to research from Millward Brown, 40% of the population in Vodafone territories are aware of the Ferrari and Man Utd deals, and 26% of all consumers view the mobile brand more favourably based on its global sponsorships. Added to that, 67% of 16- to 65-year-olds surveyed said they were either “interested” or “very interested” in the Champions League.
Wheldon, who has just celebrated his 50th birthday, unveiled Vodafone’s Champions League idents – which were created by Bartle Bogle Hegarty – in Monaco. They feature a “magical messenger” character that acts as a metaphor for the role Vodafone can play by sending people Champions League news to their mobiles.
Wheldon says: “We have to find new ways to engage with people. Media is fragmenting and it’s very difficult to reach audiences in a multi-platform age, but the Champions League and Formula 1 get 5 billion viewers a year between them.”
However, he was not always so convinced of the value of sponsorship. As an ad man, running agencies including Lowe Howard-Spink and the BBDO network across Europe, Wheldon says he thought sponsorship was a “vague indulgence”. But he began to see its potential when he moved client-side as global director of advertising for Coca-Cola, where he was responsible for the “Eat Football, Sleep Football, Drink Coca-Cola” campaign.
He adds: “I returned to advertising and waxed lyrical about sponsorship but all everyone wanted to talk about was TV ads. It was like pulling teeth. The ad industry needs to look at sponsorship and what it does because, done properly, it can be extremely effective.”
Wheldon certainly talks a good game and it is easy to see why he commands such respect from both the advertising and marketing industries. He is affable but not afraid to speak his mind, a trait one former Lowe Howard-Spink colleague attributes to his time working under Sir Frank Lowe.
“David had titanic battles with Frank,” says the source. “He stood up for himself when a lot of people didn’t, but eventually he got bored of taking Frank on.”
Wheldon clearly still has a lot of affection for the advertising industry but plays down suggestions he will return one day. “One thing that I love about being the client is that I make things happen,” he says. “I’m happy to be accountable whether I get things right or wrong. Advertising is a great industry and if it got a bit more business-focused it would be even better.”
It seems there are no hard feelings between Vodafone and Man Utd following their split, as the club’s chief executive, David Gill, who was also in Monaco for the draw, took the time to speak to Wheldon.
One advertising source who has worked with Wheldon describes him as “probably the best client I’ve ever had” and adds: “He has a brilliant instinct for good advertising, but he has a highly complex job at Vodafone because he’s juggling a lot of balls and manoeuvring between the politics of the organisation.”
Best still to come?
Wheldon joined Vodafone two years ago (MW January 22, 2004) but one observer suggests that he has not yet produced an iconic “Honda-style” ad campaign despite having a huge marketing budget. Wheldon says his favourite Vodafone campaign is May Fly, which has won several awards, and admits he would love to win the Grand Prix at the advertising festival in Cannes: “I’m envious of the work Honda has done and wish we could do that. Some people in this business say they don’t care about awards but that’s rubbish. I aspire to us winning all the awards we can.”
However, he says he does not want to fall into the trap of making ads for the advertising industry: “There have been some great ads that have been completely useless in the market. We don’t listen to what the ad industry thinks. We listen very hard to our consumers.”
The man responsible for the award-winning Honda ads, Simon Thompson – who is now European marketing chief at Motorola – told Marketing Week earlier this year that he thought procurement was the biggest threat to the creative process.
But Wheldon takes a different view: “I disagree with that violently. Procurement is our biggest ally in ensuring that we get value for money and agencies get paid for good work. The biggest threat to the creative process is if it is indulgent and not focused on business results. We’re not here to fund agencies’ unnecessary and excessive overheads.”
Wheldon committed his future to Vodafone in April amid rumours that he was about to leave following the appointment of Frank Rovekamp as chief marketing officer to replace Peter Bamford, who was ousted by Sarin (MW April 13).
The company has since been restructured into three business units, including one to work on fixed-line services such as broadband, but it was hit by the departure of newly installed European chief Bill Morrow in July.
That followed the decision to cut 200 group marketing roles, and Wheldon says: “It’s been a tough year and difficult to feel good about Vodafone. But the changes were handled as professionally and compassionately as possible. Now we’re re-energising ourselves and need to show what we can do.”
Various account roles at Saatchi & Saatchi
WCRS managing partner
Lowe Howard-Spink managing director
Coca-Cola vice-president and global head of advertising
BBDO Europe president
Tempus chief executive
Chief executive of Team Vodafone at WPP
Global director of marketing and brand communications at Vodafone (now global director of brand and customer experience)