After four years plying his trade as a marketing consultant, former Barclays marketing chief Simon Gulliford is returning to the industry – albeit for three days a week – as chief marketing officer of Standard Life.
For Gulliford, who has embarked on a number of consultancy projects and non-executive director posts since leaving Barclays in the summer of 2004, Standard Life marks a high-profile comeback. For Standard Life, it underlines the determination of the Edinburgh-based financial institution to build the brand and business both at home and abroad.
Gulliford will oversee all marketing and communications at Standard Life, both globally and across market sectors (MW last week). But he faces a tough time transforming the once-troubled, recently demutualised insurance giant, which is run by one-man powerhouse chief executive Sandy Crombie, but which will miss the counter-balance of departing UK chief Trevor Matthews.
Gulliford will report to Crombie and sit on the group executive board. He will have responsibility for global marketing and communications strategy and oversee the existing marketing teams across the assurance, bank and healthcare arms.
He seems suitably equipped for the challenge. During three years at Barclays, he oversaw the global brand and marketing divisions, including Barclaycard and the bank’s mighty sponsorship remit. It was the first and last time Barclays packaged so much marketing responsibility into one role. He was also responsible for the “Fluent in Finance” strapline – swiftly axed by his successor Jim Hytner – that underlined his status as a “big ideas” marketer.
Add several years at EMAP Consumer Media, where he launched magazines Red and Heat, as well as expanding men’s monthly FHM into an international brand, and few would deny that, on paper, Gulliford is an ideal fit.
Yet, while some label Gulliford a “visionary” and a marketers’ marketer, able to talk as convincingly about business strategy as about branding, others suggest that years out of full-time employment and a lucrative consultancy career may have dulled his skills and ambitions.
The Welshman certainly divides opinion. He has a dedicated band of advertising executives and former employees who proclaim him “the best”, while other executives suggest he is driven by ego and arrogance; unable at times to step outside his own aura.
Homeserve product director Mark Till says his career owes much to Gulliford. Till, a former Barclays Insurance marketing director, says: “Simon is the finest marketer I have ever come across. He is motivating and charismatic, knowledgeable and intelligent. He was the reason I switched from banking to marketing and the reason I believe that I am a rounded marketer.”
Another executive who has worked with Gulliford agrees he is “bright” and “dynamic”, qualities sometimes in short supply in the world of financial services.
The source adds: “In that regard, it is an interesting appointment, and he is very much an agent of change. He can also be quite arrogant and, along with being dynamic and action-oriented, he is also very obdurate. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and Gulliford’s definition of a ‘fool’ seems pretty damn wide.
“He is not very consultative or collaborative as an individual. It is his way or the highway. His treatment of agencies and suppliers, in general, can be very high-handed.”
Yet another source qualifies this assessment of Gulliford, who he says operates with “passion” rather than arrogance and will listen and act on the opinions of others.
He adds: “Simon is passionate, there is no doubt about that. He is intellectual and has strong ideas. He will bring people with him and has the ability to set the direction.”
Indeed, it is expected that Gulliford will bring a team with him to revitalise the historic brand. Standard Life’s agency of record Saatchi & Saatchi will no doubt be watching with interest. At Barclays, Gulliford axed incumbent Leagas Delaney, bringing in Bartle Bogle Hegarty, with whom he had worked at EMAP and where he later took on consultancy projects.
Yet it is not clear just how wide Gulliford’s remit will be. Standard Life’s divisional
marketing directors are expected to continue with “business as usual”. Some also wonder
about his relationship with group chief executive Crombie, who was appointed in January 2004. “Sparks will fly”, predicts one Scottish financial services executive.
Strong-willed Crombie, who is being pressured by the City to name his successor, is seen by many as the heart of Standard Life, but some believe he is too quick to implement his preferences across the business. The equally strong-willed Gulliford may resent this, says the executive, who believes Gulliford will be a short-term appointment.
Another insider suggests that Standard Life’s UK advertising budget is “minute”, with the bulk of its marketing spend going on business-to-business communications to independent financial advisers. The insider says this is an “alien world for Gulliford, who is used to mega-budgets and high-concept campaigns”.
But few doubt that Gulliford will relish the challenge of building the Standard Life brand, which has yo-yoed since its humble beginnings as the Standard Life Assurance Company in 1825.
Eighteen months ago, the company demutualised, floating on the London Stock Exchange, and turning its back on a strategy that, until then, had been staunchly committed to its mutual status.
Now, as well as satisfying customers it must bend to the whims of the City and institutional shareholders. It has also been forced to change its sales strategy and focus on higher-margin products like Sipps.
The about-turn followed a difficult few years for Standard Life. It did well to stay afloat in an industry rocked by the pensions mis-selling fiasco, which saw the spectacular demise of rival Equitable Life, now owned by Halifax.
The Equitable Life debacle led to the introduction of stricter reporting rules imposed by the Financial Services Authority. This forced Standard Life to reduce the proportion of its total investments in equities, and to switch to less risky but lower yielding investments, such as bonds, just as equities began to rise.
Under Crombie’s leadership, Standard Life has aimed to win back consumer trust, and shift strategy to maximise sales and profits. With Gulliford on board, the challenge is to create a consistent and trusted brand message. As a spokesman for the assurance company says: “It is becoming increasingly important in financial services to have a respected, trusted and identifiable brand.”