RBS CMO David Wheldon on retirement and what he has learned in 35 years in marketing

Wheldon speaks exclusively to Marketing Week about his career in marketing, what he loves about the industry and what comes next.

RBS Group’s CMO David Wheldon is to retire at the end of March after almost five years at the bank and more than 35 years in the marketing industry.

Wheldon is stepping down as the bank embarks on a “new era” that will see it change its name from RBS Banking Group to NatWest Banking Group. The rebrand is the result of years of work by the bank and its exec team, including Wheldon, to turn around business performance and brand perceptions following its near-collapse in 2008 and subsequent bailout by the UK government.

With that recovery work completed and the bank back to profitability (it made more than £4bn in operating profit before tax in 2019) it is now looking forward with a new strategy, purpose and corporate vision under CEO Alison Rose, who came on board last November. And having spent the past two years working on this, Wheldon believes it is time for him to leave.

Speaking exclusively to Marketing Week, he says: “With all that done, and with me having [joined RBS in 2015] to support [former CEO] Ross [McEwan] to turn the bank round, make sure it was back to making money, it is time for me to go ‘thank you very much, I think I’m done here’ and step to the next chapter.

“It is daunting and exciting in about equal doses. It is always sad to move on, but the time is right and I’m very proud of what I’ve done and what we’ve done.”

Marketing Week Meets…RBS Group CMO David Wheldon 

When Wheldon joined RBS the bank had not made a profit in years and was beset by issues. He recalls a team that, while it was “brilliant”, always had to be on the defence. He has shifted the focus onto the consumer-facing brands, which include NatWest, Royal Bank of Scotland, Ulster Bank and Coutts, and proactively campaigned to ensure they have a point of view.

This is exemplified by NatWest, which introduced its ‘We are what we do’ brand positioning in 2016 and with its most recent campaign is promoting its ‘MoneySense’ financial education programme for young people.

With the “plumbing in place” to ensure NatWest Group’s success, Wheldon knew it was time to depart. He is not, he says, tempted by another CMO role, although he caveats that McEwan told him the same thing when he left RBS and is now CEO of National Australia Bank.

I will think through carefully about how I can make a difference, where I can make a difference.

David Wheldon, RBS Group

Instead, Wheldon is looking forward to taking some time to decompress from a highly stressful job (and career) and working out what to do next. He would like to keep mentoring for The Marketing Academy and the School of Marketing, both initiatives that Marketing Week partners, and working with the Teenage Cancer Trust.

Coaching and developing people is of particular interest, he admits.

“I take the most pleasure the older I get in helping people develop and grow. I’m going to keep mentoring, and no doubt do other stuff,” he says. “Experience is undervalued and I have accumulated a lot of it, so I want to make the most of that.

He adds: “I have learned something every day of my career. And I will continue to learn in the next chapter because it is one of those careers that gives you endless opportunities to learn, endless zigs and zags. There have been bad times, but on the whole it has been great. And I’m not done yet.

“I will think through carefully about how I can make a difference, where I can make a difference.

Wheldon will be staying in role to do a full handover with a successor. While NatWest Group has not announced who that might be, it is understood that the CMO role is likely to be split in the future.

The highs and lows of being a marketer

Wheldon has spent more than 35 years in the marketing industry. He began his career agency-side at Saatchi & Saatchi in the 1980s before moving to WCRS and Lowe Howard Spink, where he was managing director at the age of just 32.

It was after this that he made the move client-side with Coca-Cola although he was tempted back to agency life to work for BBDO and then set up Tempus, which was bought by WPP. Having set up Team Vodafone at WPP he moved to the telecoms business as global director of brand in 2004, staying for nearly six years.

He then set up his own consultancy before moving back in-house with a role as head of brand, reputation and citizenship at Barclays. RBS Group came calling in 2015.

Wheldon says he will most miss the challenge of being a CMO, as well as the people he has worked with. He talks of a love for the industry and the job, and a love for its creativity and need to understand people.

What he will not miss, however, is internal politics!

What marketers do is the most interesting thing in a company, although it’s not always seen as the most interesting and highly valued.

David Wheldon, RBS Group

“I won’t miss corporate politics, territorial stuff, unnecessary bureaucracy,” he admits. “But there is much more to miss than not to miss. What a great place RBS has been to work, what a fantastic boss Ross was, and a fantastic boss in this transition Alison has been.

“The real thing is, it is great being around people, developing people and I love the fact marketing is a ‘we’ thing not a ‘me’ thing. I will miss them all.”

He considers marketing a “wonderful profession” and would encourage anybody considering it as a career to take the plunge.

“Every company in the world is a marketing company, they just don’t all know that they are,” he says. “What you will be doing is the most interesting thing in a company, although it’s not always seen as the most interesting and highly valued so you have to have a low ego and a high value set. But I would encourage anyone and everyone to get into marketing.”

And his advice for the marketer (or marketers) that have to fill his shoes?

“I hope they will build on the foundations we laid for them and will take the great work that has been done further. I hope they won’t do that thing, that many a new CMO thinks they must do, which is tear up everything that has gone before them because that would be silly. But I don’t think they’ll be able to,” he says.

“And I hope they’ll get the brand to the top of the pile, where it should be, where the people and the bank deserve. I hope they will get customer success and enjoy doing what they are going to do as much as I did. And I hope they’ll look after this wonderful bunch of people.”

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