MW Live – Profile: David Wheldon

Vodafone’s global brand director suggests a recession can be a good time for marketing and says that brands should take advantage of emerging technologies to communicate with customers.


  • 2004-present global brand director, Vodafone
  • 2003-2004 chief executive of team Vodafone at WPP
  • 1999-2003 chief executive, Tempus
  • 1996-1998 president, BBDO Europe
  • 1993-1996 vice-president and global head of advertising, Coca-Cola
  • 1989-1993 managing director, Lowe Howard-Spink
  • 1988-1989 managing partner, WCRS
  • 1983-1988 various account roles, Saatchi & Saatchi

Building an international business in the face of a recession has been a massive challenge for David Wheldon, global brand director at Vodafone. In a world where the mobile phone is now seen as an essential item, he has to make sure the operator’s customers get the best service possible, regardless of economic concerns.

Wheldon attributes his success in his career to what he calls “smart marketing” and hopes to encourage the audience at Marketing Week Live to think of new ways to approach brand building.

“Some of the basic tenets of good marketing don’t change just because the economic environment changes. What has to change is people’s mindset of how you do things,” he says.

“The principles don’t change that much – good creativity is engaging creativity. If you don’t engage people, they don’t listen and they don’t care. That’s just as true if you’re doing mobile marketing as it is with TV ads.”

Wheldon is well respected in the ad world, having run leading agencies such as Lowe Howard-Spink and the BBDO network across Europe. He urges marketers to keep hold of the traditional principles of marketing and maintain the brand strength that customers know and love even though budgets are diminishing.

“I’ve lived through a couple of recessions and the lessons learned haven’t changed. You have to maintain the spirit of the brand, while acknowledging the circumstances. Being optimistic and positive is very important in marketing,” he says, citing motorcycle brand Harley-Davidson as one company that has done this effectively in recent months.

He suggests that for a business like Vodafone, a recession can be a good time for marketing. He says that people need connections with friends and family more than ever when times are tough, so it’s a relevant time for the company to talk to customers.

Wheldon says that marketing as an industry needs to move away from the idea of the person growing up in the Sixties who expected to see an ad on TV, and embrace the model of an 18-year-old who has grown up multitasking with their mobiles, laptops, TVs and iPods.

At Marketing Week Live, he will argue that emerging technologies can change the way brands communicate with their audiences. “Some of the finest ad agencies still think about a TV ad first and the rest of it later, but there is a growing eco-system that don’t think like that and feel it actually starts with Twitter,” he says. “So the real challenge for me is how do marketers keep up with all that technology offers them and how do they make sure they are customer-focused and consumer-centric?”

Wheldon has embraced technology with gusto, and Vodafone has a presence on Twitter with more than 1,200 followers and its own YouTube channel. The company was also one of the first to appear on virtual world Second Life when it allowed players to make real-life phone calls from the virtual environment. But Wheldon admits that he wasn’t fully aware of the environment before Vodafone started testing the concept. “One of my team came to me and said I think we should be on Second Life and I asked: what is Second Life?

“I think that one challenge for a marketer is how to keep up with the pace of expanding technology and media. It’s how to listen and monitor what your customers are saying, thinking, feeling and how to do it so you build a consistent brand in people’s hearts and minds. This isn’t as easy to do as it is to say,” he says.

Given that Vodafone is a telecoms business, Wheldon is keen to ensure it embraces the opportunities provided by the emerging field of mobile marketing. He is excited by the data capture opportunities available and how it can best be used to target consumers effectively.

He isn’t taking consumer interest in mobile marketing for granted, however. “Phenomenally accurate data is good for targeting but also targeted abuse if we don’t observe customers’ rights not to be interrupted,” he warns.

Vodafone was recently valued the eighth most valuable brand in the world by Brand Finance, worth over £16bn. This pleases Wheldon as it puts a tangible fiscal value on his work. He intends to use Marketing Week Live to tell other marketers how technology can inform brand building – as long as everything is pointed towards developing something that is genuinely engaging.

“It’s not just about having a clever viral and letting the customers do all the hard work,” he says. “It is about digital content that people are keen to share with each other.”

David Wheldon will be speaking at the “Smart Marketing in a Recession” panel debate at Marketing Week Live on Wednesday July 1 2009, 1pm-2pm at Olympia, London.

What I want marketers to take from Marketing Week Live

I’d like to see marketers believe in the power and importance of marketing. They should know that marketing is too important to leave to the marketing department. It needs to be done by the company in its entirety and understood.

There is an internal need for people to understand what you’re doing. Marketing is art and science, so marketers need to know that these are not bad times but good times for marketers. There are lots of challenges, but also opportunities and the expanding environment allows for this. The digital area gives you an instant response to what you are doing.

One of my earliest jobs at Saatchi & Saatchi was collecting coupon responses; we ran print ads and manually, we’d look at how many responses we had, what business came of it, which were the best ads and we’d make a report every six months. You can do all that in less time than it takes for me to say all this now. I find all this quite exciting and challenging.

In a recession, marketing has to show its value inside a company to demonstrate the return on investment, so you have to be conscious to “invest”, not to “spend”.

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