Live from SXSW Sydney with Canva, Commonwealth Bank and Telstra
Live from SXSW Sydney with Canva, Commonwealth Bank and Telstra
When SXSW, arguably the world’s most iconic conference, expanded from North America for the first time with a new event in Sydney, it was the perfect opportunity to explore future trends and fundamental truths with the CMOs of the biggest brands in Australia. In this panel discussion, live from SXSW Sydney, we sit down with Zach Kitschke from Canva, Jo Boundy from Commonwealth, and Brent Smart from Telstra for a no-holds-barred conversation on what it takes to build an iconic brand.
Heather Stern: Sydney is the economic gateway to Australia and a leader in tech, innovation, design and brand building. So when SXSW, arguably the world’s most iconic conference, expanded from North America for the first time with a new event in Sydney, it was the perfect opportunity to explore future trends and fundamental truths with the CMOs of the biggest brands in Australia: Zach Kitschke from Canva, Jo Boundy from Commonwealth Bank, and Brent Smart from Telstra.
No topic was off limits—from how to win back customers trust after you’ve lost it to how to be a responsible marketer in this day in age. Today’s episode is the live recording of that conversation from SXSW Sydney. It was heaps of fun and a reminder especially for those based in the states that some of the most inspiring marketing lessons can be found well beyond our borders. So without further ado, live from SXSW Sydney this is The New Playbook for Building Iconic Brands.
I’ll just start with the biggest question. In your opinion, what does make an iconic brand? And I’ll have each of you answer, starting with you, Zach.
Zach Kitschke: Thank you. It’s really great to be here and packed house, so thanks for making it along. For me, I would say an iconic brand is a brand that is synonymous with a category and defines the category, and I look at two very good examples to the left of me. When we think about banking in Australia, our memories go back, at least mine, to the Dollarmites at school. It’s woven through sort of every touchpoint in Australia. And seeing the phone box there, I know everyone gets that sense of nostalgia from that as well. So for me, it’s all about creating and shaping a category.
Heather: Great. Jo.
Jo Boundy: Thanks, Heather. So three core things from my perspective. One is actually you’ve got to be really distinctive. You’ve got to stand for something and be distinctive. Number two, I’d say you’ve got to make a meaningful difference in the lives of your customers and also the lives of the broader community. And the third one, which I see you’ve got coming up, is around innovation, and that’s about whether it’s staying relevant, whether you’re a hundred-plus-year-old company and how you keep innovating to break through or whether it’s starting something really new that breaks through, breaks the mold, gets cut through, shake things up.
Heather: Great. Brent.
Brent Smart: Hi, everyone. Hi, Team Telstra. Yeah, I think iconic is one of those. It’s the second most abused word in marketing; insight, of course, being the most abused I word. I think we throw it around and we call lots of brands iconic, but I think to truly be iconic is a very special, rare, and privileged position that certain brands are able to have. I agree totally what Jo said. I think distinctiveness is the most important thing about any iconic brand. Not many brands pass the test that if I covered the logo, would I know it’s still that brand? I’ve had the pleasure to work on a few brands like that. I think the other thing is it’s just not based on how long you’ve been around. I think there are a lot of brands that have the heritage, the nostalgia, but they haven’t managed to keep reinventing, stay relevant. It’s not enough to just have been round a long time. How many brands have we seen that were so iconic that have now disappeared? So it’s not something you can rest on and it’s not something you can take for granted.
Heather: I think that idea of ever-changing, you know, even icons have to evolve, and I actually think that’s part of a definition of what it means to be iconic. Trust is, in many cases, at an all-time low for institutions and sometimes for brands. I’m going to start with you Brent. How do you build trust and instill trust and how do you win back customers if you’ve made a mistake or you’ve lost their trust?
Brent: The thing with trust that I always say is that trust is an emotional thing, it’s not a rational thing. And I think a lot of brands think that we can sort of rationally argue or persuade our way to you trusting us with proof points, but it’s not a rational thing, it’s a deeply emotional thing. Think about the relationships in your life, the people you trust. It is based on absolutely emotion. So that’s the first thing I’d say. Trust is an emotional thing. It’s also a thing that takes a long time to build, can be lost in seconds and takes even longer to win back. So, I don’t think it’s any secret that Jo and I work in two categories with some trust challenges. Thank God, Qantas came along. But the telco industry does suffer from low trust and Telstra as a brand, when you look at the different rankings and things on trust, we don’t perform too well.
What’s interesting when we unpack that is when I joined Telstra I thought, “Right, we’re going to have a problem with young customers. It’s mom and dad’s brand.” It’s actually the opposite. When we unpack our brand metrics, we’re actually really strong with young customers and all our trust issues are with older customers who have all this baggage of what we used to be, not what we are today.
So that gives me great hope and optimism that we can be trusted and that we can have a very different role in people’s lives. But we’ve just got all this sort of baggage, which is really, really hard to break down, takes a long time. It’s something we’re working on, and ultimately it’s not what we say in advertising. It’s obviously what we deliver day-in and day-out to customers that is going to really change that. It can be a very deep-seated, hard-to-move thing that certain brands really struggle with. So we see it as a real long-term thing to move that and we want to be one of the most trusted brands in Australia. It’s going to take time to get there.
Jo: It’s interesting to hear you say that because that’s not dissimilar to our customers and people have very long memories. As you say, it takes a very long time to build trust. I think trust is paramount for every single brand, but there are some categories where I think trust is actually God, and two that I’ve had close experience with: Aviation, you are trusting that brand with your life. Banking, you’re trusting that brand with your money, and trust is so important in some categories. And it’s not just, as you say, how you actually build it, but it’s actually how you respond in or post a crisis that actually is really what makes brands iconic.
And I think it’s also from my experience, not just how you respond to your own crises, and that can be the make or break, but also how you show up for other people’s crises. And I think one of the things we’re really proud of at CBA—I think Telstra does this really well, too—is actually how you show up when the nation needs you. I think in recent years for us with bush fires, with floods, what we did in COVID to actually pause all home loan payments for people who couldn’t actually make their repayments during their own times of financial difficulty—how you show up for others and play a leadership role and support others is actually a huge component of how you build trust.
Heather: When you’re new, right on the street, I think it’s a lot of openness that people have, but it will take some time. Talk to me about how you think about it and is that a metric that you are tracking and hoping to achieve?
Zach: Yeah, definitely. I mean Canva’s been around 10 years as of August, and so definitely a little newer on the scene, but I think about it in the same way. I remember at school one teacher had this kind of analogy of building trust and it was about putting cookies in the jar, and it takes a long time to fill the jar up, but not very long to get through the cookies. And so I think about trust in the same way: It’s sort of earned each and every day through every interaction. And we’ve just spoken about what that looks like in aviation or banking or something mission-critical, and for Canva, it’s a reality that we’ve got 150 million people using our product every month for really important things.
There’s people presenting presentations live on stage, and if something goes wrong with the product, you lose that trust in an instant. And so I think it goes to every touchpoint from the product up. And I guess the way that we’ve thought about that is, our mission is to empower the world to design. And so empowerment is the core essence of our brand, and so everything that we are trying to do is to make sure that we’re delivering on that.
Heather: Jo, you said something that we believe very strongly in, which is about not what you say but how you show up, and we’re in a day and age where there’s a lot of social and political issues that people care about that could be divisive in some ways. What role do you think brand has in taking a stand on some of these issues and how do you navigate that? I’d love others after to answer.
Jo: I think it’s got to be unique to the organization and it has to be part of your purpose. Having a purpose is very important, and whilst a customer may not care what your specific purpose is, it’s actually all about how you show up and your values and what you stand for. And that’s very important to your customers because that’s everything about your proposition and the products and services that you bring to life. So I think for different organizations, their purpose will determine the role that they play in the community. For us, our organizational purpose is actually building a brighter future for all. We are really proud to be the bank for all Australians, and in that, it’s actually about not just being there for our customers, but actually helping the economy forward, helping the nation forward and taking a leadership position for the betterment of everybody.
Our brand purpose is a bit of a take on that, but a slight nuance and it’s actually about being hopeful and useful. So for our customers, we provide utility. We’re a service. We provide banking solutions. We want to be useful, we want to be really simple and easy and useful, but we also want to be hopeful for the nation and provide this optimistic leadership, and I think over our 110 years, we have continued to push the nation forward. We’re proud of that. We’re proud of what we do with the economy and we’re proud of actually being provocative and taking a stand on things that we believe help the nation progress forward.
Brent: Yeah. Look, I mean, I think how much has been written and said about the importance of brands to have a purpose and to be more than just the transactional relationship of our category. I mean, for me, I think I see so many companies who have got that purpose statement and can articulate it and put up in a PowerPoint slide, and then you look at what the company’s doing and you’re like, “What?” It’s ultimately what you do, and I think that it’s really important that you’re doing things that are useful and hopeful’s fantastic, but do things that are actually genuinely going to make a difference for customers. And I think when you work on a brand or business like CommBank or Telstra, there’s also a bit of a responsibility to do things that help Australia, which is interesting.
I haven’t felt that working on other brands before. There is this sort of responsibility that we have. I mean, at Telstra, there are certain communities around the country that could not be connected if it wasn’t for us, and we don’t connect them to make profit. We do it because we see there’s a responsibility to serve those communities, and I think that’s just a great demonstration that you mean what you say in terms of purpose. But I flip it a little bit. I do think marketers and brands have got a bit caught up in the whole, we have to have a purpose that saves the world. Because I think the important thing for me is to do work that is purposeful. And if I think about the country footy work that we’ve just done at Telstra, which I’m immensely proud of, that comes from the fact that we’ve supported footy in this country for a long, long time.
We think the role that footy plays in country communities is really important and we’ve sort of celebrated that and we’re supporting that in meaningful ways. It is not changing climate change, but it’s something that’s really important to the communities we serve. I think sometimes we can get a bit caught up looking for that big, lofty save-the-planet purpose, whereas I think some of the best work—certainly I’ve been involved in—it’s purposeful. It’s really relevant to our brand, but we don’t have to ladder all the way up to solving climate change all the time. I do think businesses have a role to play in that, but I do think brands and marketers have got a bit caught up in that.
Heather: So SXSW is really all about creativity and the industry as a creative force. Talk about something that you’ve done as a marketer at each of your organizations that was really bold: Creativity and action to get people excited.
Zach: Good question. I think for us, our community is really the core to Canva’s success. We’ve grown to 150 million people using the platform over the last decade or so, and that has come from fostering that sense of community, and actually our largest driver of growth these days is word of mouth. And so that I think has come from building with the community in mind, and so every single product or feature that we build, we actually rigorously user-test these days. And that actually started when we first launched before the product was even live. We’d invite members from the community in and run design workshops. And let me tell you, if you want to know how your product stacks up, put it in front of some real people and you’ll get some pretty honest opinions; maybe that you don’t want to hear necessarily. But seeing the things that people really struggle with or they find confusing, there’s no substitute for that exposure.
And so we learned a lot in those early days around the user experience and we continue to do that today, and we ask this simple question for every feature and product that we build. We’ll get people to try it, give us feedback, and then ask a question, “How likely are you to recommend Canva to a friend or coworker?” And if it’s not nines or tens, it’s back to the drawing board and rethinking the feature. We also do that with our advertising, like our creative. If it’s not cutting through enough that someone is a, “Hell yes. I want to use that and I’m going to recommend that,” it’s back to the drawing board, and we found that is the best predictor for virality and word of mouth.
Heather: Brent, there’s some big news this week, speaking of creativity and creative partners. So would love for you to talk about +61.
Brent: First of all, before I talk about our new partners, I just want to acknowledge that we had a few partners who were with us for quite some time and had done some really good work and really contributed to Telstra’s business. And it’s not at all about them, what they’d done, it’s about how we evolve and move forward. So I just want to sort of say that. But yeah, I mean, I’m from agencies. I did 20 years in agencies, and I think I was really striving for a new model and a new way of working with agencies. I think my strongest belief is that creativity must lead, and creativity must be at the core of anything that we do. So this new model we’ve built is absolutely creative-led, unapologetically creative-led, and it’s really about getting what I believe is the best of both worlds that you can’t normally find in one agency partner.
So it’s the creativity of a small, independent, creative agency—Bear Meets Eagle On Fire, silly name, great agency. And the strategic muscle and the ability to integrate across all capabilities and all channels and operational excellence that you need for a big business like ours—which we get from a network agency like TWA, but one that’s about disruption, which is great. If you’re a market leader, I think you’ve got to disrupt yourself. So it’s a really interesting model how those two agencies are coming together in a really integrated way. OMD, our media partner, is also the third piece of that. And they’re an equal partner in how we’ve built it, and really what it’s trying to do. It’s trying to put creativity at the heart, have true integration and be able to access all the capabilities we need through one account team, through one commercial arrangement. So it’s very exciting. I don’t think there’s anything else like it. It’s not one of these one-client agencies, which are built for efficiency. It’s not that. It’s a unique partnership and we’re really excited to get going with it.
Jo: It’s very innovative. You’re talking about innovation, I think your thinking is very progressive and innovative.
Heather: Talk to me, Jo, about creativity and the role that it plays in what you’re doing in connecting and serving customers.
Jo: Where do you go after that? Creativity. So it’s absolutely critical in how you communicate and build relationships with customers. One of the things that I think is a bit of maybe a dying art, maybe it’s just me, but where we’ve seen some recent success, it’s all around storytelling. What we do as marketers and brands is storytelling and building an emotional connection with people through stories, and I think that is where there’s an opportunity for so many brands. For us in banking land, we participate in an industry and a topic that bizarrely is a taboo subject for most Australians. We don’t talk about money, but we really love money, but we don’t talk about money. Someone said to me recently, “People would be more prepared to tell you how many people they’ve slept with than what their salary is like.” Now, in America, that’s quite different, right? We don’t really like talking …
Yeah, we don’t talk about either of them. So I think we’ve got a job to do in this country around how we make the conversation about money really relevant, and I mean educating people, doing that storytelling, connecting creatively with people on a topic that they don’t necessarily like to talk about or think about. It’s a bit of a drudge job that you have to deal with on the weekend if you have to deal with your finances, but money should be sexy, money should be amazing. It actually powers dreams.
Financial literacy in this country is falling off a cliff, so we have an obligation and a responsibility to get better in helping Australians with their own personal finances. And that’s actually where we’ve seen a bit of a breakthrough in the last few months, leaning in a lot more around content storytelling, making financial content engaging, accessible, and something that people actually want to connect with. So it’s not the big ideas, sometimes it’s actually about going back to the basics and thinking about what is the core as a brand, what’s the essence of what we’re trying to do? And that’s connect with our customers about the products and services that we offer in a really engaging way.
Heather: I also think innovation is at the core of it, and so kind of flipping to that theme. What role do you play in driving the innovation agenda and what are you particularly excited about as it relates to what the bank is doing?
Jo: So we are shamelessly proud of our innovation agenda. As I said, 110 years old. If you’ve stood the test of time, you get there by continuing to innovate. I actually think a lot of people inside our organization think we’re a technology company or a data company. And I think that’s amazing because we do so much to continue to innovate with the products and services that we offer. I had a little chuckle. We had one of our board members doing a speech yesterday and she was talking about how the concept of AI was actually first discussed in 1956. It feels like we’re all suddenly caught up to the party, but we’ve been using AI for a very long time at CBA.
We use it to fight financial crime. We’ve got a fun little project we’re working on behind the scenes to fight financial crime. We use it to fight domestic violence and domestic abuse. We use it to create better products and services for our customers. We’ve got this awesome tool that actually helps you find any money that you might have that’s lost out in the ether, and we’ve helped reunite Australians with a billion dollars. Reunite. See, money can be fun. We’ve found a billion dollars of lost money for Australians that’s out there in either shares or money that they have held up in different accounts and the like. So we continue to innovate. There’s a lot of stuff that we are doing particularly at the moment around scams and frauds, helping customers with cost of living, and I really love that we keep pushing forward on that tech agenda.
Heather: And I think Canva’s continually applauded for the work that you’re doing and the way you’re bringing these new products and offers to market. Tell me about the role of innovation, AI was brought up. I know you just recently introduced some big tools last week or two weeks ago, so we’d love to hear about that.
Zach: For us, I think innovation is just par for the course and the world is moving and evolving so quickly that the only way to survive is to keep up and have innovation baked into everything that we do. When we launched Canva, that was really at a time when the only way to create a piece of visual content was to go and battle Adobe Photoshop, spending years learning how to use it, spending thousands of dollars, going through a really cumbersome process or hacking something together with clip art, and so neither were great options. And so that was really the space that Canva came in, and for the first time, brought everything into one place and simplified that design journey. And over the years we’ve continued to expand what you can do, building on not just creating things like social content, but presentations is now one of our biggest categories, videos, whiteboarding, documents, the list goes on and on and on.
And so when we think about the mission for us, it’s really empowering anyone to take an idea that’s in their head and get it onto the page as quickly as possible. And so the way that we view new technology is really how does it help enable that journey. And AI has just been an accelerant for that. A fortnight ago, we launched a suite of new AI products called Magic Studio, which is a lot of fun, and sort of taking that notion of how do we get you as quickly from your idea to a design page, to being able to describe a presentation, like an onboarding plan for a colleague, and we’ll generate it on the spot.
One of the favorite use cases internally, we’ve launched a feature called Magic Switch. We’ve all been in a room where we’ve been brainstorming lots of ideas with colleagues, and then someone’s got to go and codify all of the sticky notes and summarize it all up and it takes hours and hours. And one of the other cool features, with a click of a button, is to be able to take a whiteboard and turn it into a document or a summary. So things like that are really meaningful step changes to people’s workflow.
Heather: Brent, you had talked earlier about the baggage that can come with being an institution that’s been around for so long. How do you find the culture at Telstra and how are you driving innovation in the brand?
Brent: The culture’s great at Telstra. It’s really interesting for me, I worked in the sexy industry of insurance before I went to telcos, but what’s amazing for me at a company like Telstra is the incredible engineering talent and product talent and digital talent we’ve got in the business. It’s extraordinary. So I just love how smart they are and being able to bounce off them and it’s inspiring. So that’s awesome.
In terms of what culture are we trying to create in marketing, I mean, I’m really focused on trying to build a creative culture inside a corporation. I always say there’s nothing that’s ever been invented in the history of mankind that is as good at killing an idea as a corporation. So if you’re able to create a culture inside a corporation that’s creative, that is able to generate really innovative and creative thinking; but not only that, win the trust and support of the broader organization so that that creativity can actually survive and thrive, actually live and not die like it does in most corporations. I think that’s an incredible competitive advantage for any big corporation.
So that is certainly the culture we’re trying to build in marketing at Telstra, and at the heart of it is two things, yes, building a creative culture, but also treating creativity as a capability. All of us as CMOs and marketing leaders, you can list all the capabilities we’ve all got: marketing automation, data and AI, media, studio capabilities, design capabilities. What about creative capability? It’s the most important capability, I believe, for any marketing team. We’ve got a head of creative excellence, we’ve got creative excellence as a capability in marketing at Telstra, and it is rewiring the way we work, the way we brief, the way we judge creative work, the way we feedback creative work all through the lens of how do we make this more creative, how do we make this more effective?
And we spend as much time on that as the capabilities we do on all those other capabilities. Whereas I think most marketing departments that I’ve worked in or worked for—creative—is this sort of, I don’t know, magic thing that sort of happens over there. We don’t spend enough time and energy, I believe, on what is the most important capability for building brands.
Heather: I think another important aspect of innovation can be found in collaboration and in partnerships, and Jo, I know you have some amazing partnerships. Tell me how you think about that and how you think about that as part of a way to build the brand.
Jo: Yeah, it’s a great question. I love the idea that you’re not an island when you’re building your brand and that connecting with partners is critical, but it goes back to your earlier question around what makes a brand iconic, and I think that distinctiveness and what you stand for has to ring true and carry through if you are going to partner with someone. What is your purpose? What do you want to stand for? Don’t just whack a logo on something and try and get the halo of the entity you’re sponsoring. I think partnerships need to be, and certainly for us, they are very considered. They need to actually align to our values and our purpose. Building a brighter future for all, that is core to actually us making a decision about who we’re going to partner with.
And also particularly at CommBank, it’s about making a lasting difference. It’s not just about a flash in the pan, it’s actually if we’re going to partner with someone, it’s for the long haul, and we actually genuinely want to make a difference in that partnership for the benefit of both entities, and actually more broadly, the community as a whole. We’re pretty chuffed about our recent partnership with the CommBank Matildas Football Australia. Yes, woo. Go Tillies. But that wasn’t just … I think Australia’s all still on a high after their success in the recent Women’s World Cup, but that started at CommBank 23 years ago. We made a conscious decision because our organization really wanted to focus on diversity and inclusion; 23 years ago, we started supporting women in sport and people with a disability in sport.
Three years ago, we had the opportunity. Football Australia was really financially troubled and financially challenged and they were struggling to actually get a partner. They had a big partner who walked away from them, and they were struggling to actually get support. And actually CommBank—true to purpose, vision, and our ongoing legacy for making a difference to women, diversity, inclusion in sport—actually came out and said, “Yeah, we’re going to partner with you and we’re going to partner with the CommBank Matildas, the Pararoos, the ParaMatildas as well.” And I think having that vision and then not only just, again, putting a logo on. It was so much more than that. It was so deeply integrated, and it touched not only our employ. It was working with our employees, our customers, the community, everything from grassroots level all the way up to the amazing elite combat Matildas team is something we’re incredibly proud of and we believe has ticked all of our original goals—all of our original objectives of having a partnership.
It’s one of many examples. I think here at South by Southwest, we see this as a long-lasting legacy partnership, that’s all around our innovation and tech credentials. We do work with Next Chapter, in partnership with an organization called Good Shepherd, which is all about fighting financial abuse and coercive control. They’re all things we believe really passionately about, they’re all linked to our purpose, and I think a partnership actually has to be true to your purpose and has to be long-lasting and legacy, purpose-led partnerships.
Heather: Yeah. Let’s flip to Canva because you have a global remit and are growing globally. Tell me about how you’re approaching that as a CMO and what the goal is in terms of having global influence.
Zach: For sure.
Brent: You need to clap that loud.
Heather: Yes. Louder.
Zach: Yeah, that sounds fun, that one, doesn’t it? Yeah, for us, we have been global from day one, and so when we launched Canva … I remember my first day was coming in to write the media release for our first funding round, and we were writing that with a US audience in mind, and I had to bite my tongue and swallow my pride and use Zs instead of S’es and throw out the British English. But yeah, that’s been kind of ingrained from those very early days. So we had very much a focus on the US market when we launched and from about 2016 onwards we’ve been global. So we set out a crazy goal in 2016 to roll out Canva in a hundred languages, and I guess that was really … In realizing that Australia, the US, the UK, are about a fraction of the population in the world, and so the missions to empower everyone, we actually needed to be available to everyone around the world, and so went on this journey and within a year had localized the product into a hundred languages.
These days, we’re now used in 190 countries, pretty much every single country in the world. I looked recently and there’s a few users in the Vatican and all these kind of little strange pockets of the world. I don’t know what the Pope’s up to. But yeah, we really are around the world, and I think we’ve thought about that from building from the fundamentals up. So we have always thought, “What’s the first piece of localization?” And so that was the language. Then we really started to build local content libraries, and only just now are we really starting to build more hyper-local marketing. So one of the priorities for me and the marketing team at the moment is actually starting to build out local marketing, so in Europe and Southeast Asia and others; and so that’s really about showing up with that more kind of local mindset in the communities that we’re in. But yeah, it’s been interesting figuring it all out from sunny little Sydney.
Heather: So I’m going to flip it around a little bit and I’m going to have each of you ask a question of each other. I’m going to start with you, Brent, and you’re going to ask Jo a question.
Jo: Oh no.
Brent: Hi, Jo.
Jo: Hi, Brent.
Brent: So I think most of you know that Jo Boundy was CMO at Qantas before she was CMO at CommBank. So you said I could go there. You said I could go. So I’m interested, you’re not there now, if you had been CMO still, through the last horror of a 12-month period that Qantas has had, what would you have done?
Heather: Do you want me to take back the responsibilities of moderating?
Jo: Are there any Qantas people in the room? No? Okay.
Brent: They don’t pay you a bonus anymore. It doesn’t matter, Jo.
Jo: I think what an incredible organization. I’m very proud of my time at Qantas, and I think one of the interesting things about the Qantas brand is it’s such an iconic Australian brand, and every one of us has a really unique relationship with it. And you actually treat it almost like a family member like, “I can bag the shit out of it, but no one else can say anything bad about it.” We used to always find that a fascinating phenomenon when I worked there. I think at the moment, they’re going through a tough time. They went through a really tough time in COVID, the organization nearly went under. So give them some props for the fact that they’re still flying and still keeping the country connected and connected to the globe. Yes, they’re facing a challenging time at the moment. I think it goes back to the original piece around trust, right.
That organization, this is not the first crisis Qantas has ever faced, and they have a very … I mean, actually they’re almost perennially in crisis, not of their own doing. And I mean this in, if you run an airline and you fly to every continent on the globe, you are constantly managing the crises that are happening in other places, whether it’s weather-related, whether it’s a political crisis. I remember when we had to divert the planes because we couldn’t fly over Afghanistan anymore. Anything that happens around the globe impacts a global airline. So they’re used to managing through crisis. It’s different when the crisis is actually facing you. And they will get through this. I mean, the planes are actually still full, so customers will continue to fly with them. This is more of a corporate trust challenge, I think, than a safety or a customer trust. I mean, I know some of the customer service has fallen off a bit in the last little while, but they will rebuild, and I think what they’re doing is the right thing in the playbook, leaning in, saying they’re sorry, investing more in customer experience, getting to the root cause of the problem, aiming to fix it. And I take my hats off to them. I don’t think any of us would want to be in the situation they’re in, but they’ll come back bigger and better because of it, and I think we’ve seen many big brands who’ve stood the test of time. Those that do lean in and fight through a crisis are the ones that bounce back bigger and better.
Brent: And can I just say amazing timing with your career?
Heather: All right. Jo, why don’t you ask Zach?
Jo: Okay, Zach. So let’s go AI. I know we said this wasn’t an AI forum, but you have had big news in the last few weeks on AI and how you’re using AI for some pretty cool new features within Canva. Can you talk us through the flip side, like when you’re thinking about introducing new AI features that benefit from a consumer level, how do you make sure you avoid the potential risks and pitfalls? The dark side of AI.
Zach: I mean, it’s something we’ve been thinking a lot about, as I’m sure you can imagine. One of our other values … Our first value’s set crazy big goals and make them happen, but one of our other core values is to be a force for good, and so we really think very deeply about that, and that’s such an important part of the responsibility that we all hold, and so for us, it’s been this balancing act of embracing the new technology because the world is moving there really, really quickly, but also making sure that we’re building with those principles in mind to support our community. One really tangible example: We are introducing a lot of design AI to create that presentation with a prompt or generate a video for you. And I guess the way that we’re able to build the models around that is using design information and sort of data that we have from the templates that real people have contributed to Canva, to our library.
And so we’ve really thought long and hard about how do we make sure that we can provide a revenue stream for creators and ensure that they can opt into those programs as well. And so recently, we launched a $200 million fund for creators to go along this journey with us, and we see that human contribution being integral as we go forward. And I guess alongside that, I think organizations, enterprises are all looking at this space with interest, but also trepidation as well, and so they’re thinking a lot about things like copyright and trust and safety, and so that is paramount for us as well. But the world is moving really, really quickly in this space, and so I think it’s just trying to be led by our values.
Heather: Brent’s in the hot seat now, Zach.
Zach: My question to you, you know, you’ve been at Telstra now just over a year, I think. What has been one of the best marketing moves you’ve been most proud of in the first year?
Brent: Yeah, good question. So speaking of great timing, like Jo, I had the great timing of I moved to Telstra and the Optus leak happened in my third week in the job, the Optus breach, and …
Jo: Does that have something to do with you? I know how you operate.
Brent: I speak a little Russian, I speak a little Russian. I’d been there five minutes right, I did not know what I didn’t know, but I couldn’t help but feel that that was an opportunity for our brand. And it was interesting because I think what a lot of big companies would do in that situation, and there were many voices within our company would be, “It could happen to us. Let’s just keep our head down and let’s just be the company that didn’t have the breach. That’ll be just fine.” But what I’m really proud of is that our leadership got behind this idea we had to do an ad about cybersecurity, and I just felt there was such an opportunity to turn what some people might see as sort of big boring Telstra into actually big safe Telstra, and we created this …
Zach: Boring in a good way.
Brent: Boring in a good way, yeah. I hope my kids would say that about me. So we made this really sort of very big security ad. You’ve probably all seen it with the helicopters and it’s pretty over-the-top, but the idea being that there’s no such thing as too much security, but of course, when something like that happens and you’re trying to respond to what’s going on in culture, you can’t wait. You can’t take six months
to … You’ve got to make it and you’ve got to get it out, and you’ve got to get into market while it’s topical. So I don’t think it’s the best bit of work I’ve made, but what I’m really proud of is that our company was prepared. We talked about what does iconic look like earlier. I think iconic is about being confident, and I love that we were confident enough to go out there and make a big statement around cybersecurity and that we do it well at Telstra; and we do have 800 people working around the clock to keep our customers safe. And Jo mentioned before, we work with CommBank and other big organizations to help keep their customers safe. I love that we were confident and proud and were prepared to go out there and make a statement around cybersecurity. Where I think a lot of corporates wouldn’t have done that, and I think that’s testament … You asked me about the culture of Telstra, I think that’s really testament to our leadership that they’ll prepare to stand behind the good work we’re doing in cybersecurity with real confidence, even though a breach could happen to anyone at any time, right? It’s a lot of anxiety and worry around that for many, many companies and many people. So I’m proud that we made that statement.
Heather: Bold moves, I think, is also part of being iconic and being unapologetic and confident. So we’re going to flip to your roles as CMO. There’s often lots of talk about the changing role and changing capabilities. What do you think is really core to being a great CMO?
Zach: I actually think the most important quality is being really good at learning. I think the world is changing faster than ever. We can’t really predict what next year or the year after will look like, and the organizations that are going to be best placed to adapt and thrive are the ones that have a learning culture. I think as a CMO, that is in my mind the most important aspect, and being able to be clear and open and not feel bad about being honest about the things that you don’t know. A big part of our job is finding the expertise, whether it’s internal or external, going and getting the insight, the people, the pieces of the puzzle that need to come together, and so having that focus on a learning culture is the number one thing for me.
Heather: Great. Jo?
Jo: I think it’s about people, and I say that because it’s about the leadership of your team, it’s about understanding the behaviors of your consumers, it’s about understanding what’s going on in culture and society, it’s about the ability to navigate stakeholders. I think one of my strengths is people. I am so not the smartest marketer even in this room, let alone in this country, but I think one of the …
Brent: You are on this panel though.
Zach: That’s not a high bar.
Brent: All right, Zach.
Jo: But I think being a good human and understanding people and being able to connect with people, that’s the very heart of what marketing is about, is about understanding consumer behavior and connecting with people. So that for me is the big one.
Brent: Yeah. I mean, I think there’s three things. I think the first thing that’s really, really important is to be decisive. And I think you’re the chief marketing officer, so be the chief marketing officer, make a call, make a decision, rally the team behind that decision, move things forward. I think the reason I wanted to become a CMO was I spent a long time in advertising agencies becoming increasingly frustrated with marketers who wouldn’t make a decision or would make the wrong decision or wouldn’t stand by the decision or wouldn’t protect the decision. And I’m like, “Well, what if I could make the decision?” And that was sort of my motivation and inspiration to become a CMO. So I think the first thing is you’ve got to be decisive. Be really decisive around the work, around your people, around the plan, around the budget. Make decisions and stick by those decisions. I think decisiveness is really powerful in business, especially in big corporations.
I think the second thing is the ability to influence is actually, I would say, where I spend most of my time. The ability to be able to get support from the organization, whether that we need to spend more on brand and less on short-term retail tactics. That takes a lot of influencing and a lot of stakeholder management. If you want to get a really interesting original creative idea through, that’s going to take a lot more influencing than a very average mediocre idea that everyone’s seen before, so you better be good at influencing and better be good at sort of explaining why we’re doing what we’re doing. I think that’s a really critical skill.
And the third one, which I think is massively underrated and maybe feels a bit diametrically opposed to decisiveness, is patience. I just think marketers … I mean, we get bored with the work just when the consumers are getting used to the work all the time. I sound like Mark Ritson, but all the time. I think when you go on a journey of brand-building, it looks shithouse in the first year and it looks brilliant in the third year, and you have to have, yes, the conviction and the courage, but also just the patience to know that it’s going to work out. Let’s just all sort of cool our jets and just not look at this quarter’s numbers, but look at the longer-term opportunity here. You need a bit of patience. And anyone who works with me will say I’m the worst for patience. They’ll probably laugh at me, going, “He’s not patient.” But I think on the biggest strategic brand building, you’ve got to be patient and you got to give it time to work, and it’s going to be a much better three-year story than it’s going to be at this quarter story.
Heather: And that’s a challenge, but that’s when the influencing comes in as well. We’re going to open it up for questions, but before we do, we’ll do a rapid fire series of questions, so one- or two-word answers. A brand that you think is winning right now that you admire?
Brent: Next question.
Heather: Most overused term in the branding lexicon? I think you said it was insight and then iconic, so you’ll have to come up with another one.
Jo: I’d say pivot.
Zach: Low-hanging fruit.
Heather: Yes. Most important trend for marketers to be ahead of?
Jo: Privacy and regulation.
Brent: Too much fucking content.
Heather: Who has the upper hand, incumbents or challenger brands?
Zach: Challenger brands.
Heather: SXSW, Austin, or Sydney?
Jo: 1, 2, 3? Sydney.
Brent: Austin. No, Sydney. Joking.
Heather: All right. Well, we have time for questions and a mic here. I think there’s one back there.
Audience: Thank you all for sharing all of your insight. I’ve got a question for Brent. Brent, when you first took over, and Optus had their data breach, a Roy Morgan poll showed that Telstra was the third most distrusted brand in Australia. So what tangible action you’ve just said in your own …
Brent: My mom’s really proud.
Audience: I can imagine. So you said that the first year is often, to use your words, shithouse when you’re planning to turn a brand around. So what’s on your whip in terms of elevating Telstra’s brand reputation?
Brent: Yeah, that’s a great question. I always say that if you want to change how people feel about your brand, you need to change how your brand feels. So we’re working really hard to change the way Telstra feels. We did some really interesting ethnographic work when I first arrived. We’ve all got the brand tracking and the metrics and the data that tells us about our brands, but I think you need to do really deep ethnographic work, spend time with people in the places they live, in the places they drink, with friendship circles and really understand what they really say about your brand. And we did a whole bunch of ethnographic work and what was really clear to us is it’s just the way the brand feels, the personality, the way it talks, the way it shows up. So we’ve really been trying to pivot our brand personality and to just sort of show a new Telstra that feels more approachable, feels more on the customer side, feels more generous. There’s a whole bunch of important ways we want the brand to feel.
So that’s the first thing, we’re just trying to change to the brand feel. And obviously, we’re working on our positioning and trying to get clear what the brand stands for, but I … This is only the second time I’ve been a CMO. I think you can get in the job, and you can sort of put all your energy in your first year to try and tackle those really big questions, like what should the brand stand for and what’s the positioning, and that work takes a long time. And I think it’s very hard to get right when you’re first in the job and you don’t really know the company. I would rather start making some things and putting them out into the world, and start to make the brand feel a bit different and get some feedback and get some momentum going that this brand feels a bit different to how it was—even though I’m not that clear on what the final destination is in terms of the positioning.
Because I see a lot of CMOs who they go straight to that big job, they take 18 months to do it, and everyone’s going like, “Well, what’s the new CMO done?” I think you’re better off getting in there, make some stuff, put it out into the world, start moving the brand, changing how the brand feels, and then you probably start learning what you need to know to then position the brand correctly anyway. So we’re just starting to do that work now in my second year.
Heather: Great. Other questions?
Audience: Hello there. Question on responsible marketing. You guys have touched on responsibility as organizations, we’re seeing purpose come up in conversations, we’ve got all sorts of things going on. What I’d love to hear from each of you as respective CMOs is what are you doing practically in your teams right now to be responsible marketers? What does that actually mean in practice? Because I suspect 2024 is going to be the year of the responsible marketer.
Brent: I’m screwed then. Jokes. Jokes.
Jo: Do you want me to go first? You’ve got to be responsible around what you’re saying, you’ve got to be responsible about how you’re saying it, and you’ve got to have the right frameworks internally to make sure that the processes that you’re going through, that you’re marketing team, the steps your team are following to get work out the door, make sure that you are not exposed; whether it be your own category regulations, financial services regulations, whether it’s the communications, whether it’s consumer rights. So you need to make sure that you are communicating in a way that meets all of those objectives, but actually that I think you should still have a stance and a view.
Brent: Yeah. Well, I mean, well said, and I think we both work in highly regulated categories, and I think that’s super important. Everything Jo said is super important and I agree with and we’re doing. I would answer the question slightly differently. I feel a responsibility to the audience and that responsibility is not to bore them, to respect their time, earn their attention, and actually put a bit of something in the world that’s not pollution, like most advertising; something that’s actually worthy of them spending time with, and for me, that’s the biggest responsibility as a marketer.
Zach: I agree with all of that, and I think there’s just different lenses to look at that through. It could be representation in your marketing. For us, like data privacy is a huge thing and always being on the sort of extreme side conservatively there, and so I think it’s different for every brand and for every category as well, but they’re some of the things that are top of mind for us.
Jo: We should all be first and foremost ethical in how we are delivering our marketing.
Brent: Yeah, it’s table stakes for any …
Jo: Non-negotiable. Full circle back to trust. That’s the starting point, yeah.
Heather: Thank you all so much. Please give a big round of applause to our iconic marketers.
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