Career Profile: The starting quarterback, David Scribner

David ‘Scribbles’ Scribner, now in the enviable position of being a marketer in charge of the company, reflects on the career path that got him here and the wisdom learned along the way.

We have tried to get hold of David Scribner to conduct this interview for almost 12 months. As CMO, he was in a great position, when we started, to talk about Virgin Mobile Australia’s most successful campaign ever, ‘Fair Go Bro,’ starring the world’s most famous brother, Doug Pitt. It’s a good thing we waited.

Now, as company head, Scribner is running the show, and we finally catch up with him on the launch of a new campaign, one that’s not only put Pitt out to pasture but marks the biggest change in strategic direction Virgin Mobile has made in its 13-year history.

Marketing: There isn’t a large proportion of MDs or CEOs that were marketers – is that changing?

David Scribner: I think it will, and I think it will as the customer becomes more important. I don’t mean to be flippant about it, but it is basically: who is the quarterback, or who is running your organisation? In the evolution of the shared economy and the fact that the customer has a bigger voice, you will start to get a scenario where marketers will come to the fore.

The interesting thing for marketers is if they will evolve into the ‘chief customer officer’ concept. It’s more about marketers taking the mantle than some- body else taking it, so they don’t get wedded into areas they probably more historically were.

Virgin is a very customer-orientated brand, so it gave the freedom for a marketer to step up, but a mar- keter hadn’t led it before, so the element of being the customer at the core of everything we do and being about retention lent itself to a marketer being the best placed person to do that.

I think that will evolve, and it will [differ] depend- ing on particular industries. From my experience, I think we’re coming back to the future a little bit. I started with Nestlé as a graduate and, at that time, marketers were very much the rockstars of the organisation. They ran a full P&L and they were in the scenario where they were actually making decisions across the organisation.

I think that over the last 20 years, the role of the marketer has diluted a bit as other disciplines started to rise in terms of their position within a company.

Where did you study and how did you get into a graduate program with Nestlé?

I studied at the University of New South Wales, Bachelor of Commerce, majored in marketing. [I did the] Bachelor of Commerce because I wanted to get into business. I didn’t really understand what marketing was, but once I got in there I did a lot of work on customer behaviour. That appealed to me, the psychological parts of it and everything else, and probably an aversion to going too far down the maths, heavy finance part, got me into marketing.

At the end of the year, Nestlé used to hire three graduates. I was one of those. Fantastically, they sent me to Brisbane, where I worked as a sales rep, which taught me a lot about business, but also taught me a lot about personal relationships. It was an exciting time.

I worked there for about a year and a half, came back and I was then in the marketing mix. I worked with Nestlé for eight years, including a stint in Swit- zerland and the US. In head office in Switzerland, I looked after the Milo brand, and ended up there as the manager for frozen foods. That really was a fantastic grounding in that customer piece, running a P&L and being very business orientated.

After that, you moved to Telstra?

After that, the telecommunications area was open- ing up, and I was lucky enough to secure a job with Telstra. Telstra, at the time, wanted to get the FMCG smarts into what they were doing.

I looked after long distance calling at a very com- petitive time, which was really exciting. It was Telstra versus Optus, new TVCs every week trying to position ourselves as the best alternative to the Australian cus- tomer. It was like a political campaign.

It was great to be involved in such an iconic brand as the Australian brand of Telstra, and at that time it was unique. It was breaking out of the shackles of gov- ernment ownership and monopoly scenario, growing into a young energetic competitor.

We were able to grow and I was able to be involved in some really strategic changes for the telecommu- nications market, such as the introduction of capped calling, which was a real success.

I then ended up in the mobile space and worked as the general manager for mobile, marketing and opera- tions in there.

Your time at Telstra straddled a period of extremely high change in any sort of technology or communications industry – as a marketer and a manager, how do you keep up with that stuff?

You have to make an absolute effort to do it. You, as a marketer, cannot be a laggard. You cannot be the per- son that talks about, ‘I don’t do it that way’. Marketers, and especially if they’re going to evolve into this chief customer officer, need to embrace new technology, need to really be at the forefront.

I really spent a lot of time investigating what was happening, because as opposed to food, which I had come from, which everyone has a core understanding of, if you don’t understand telecommunications and know what’s happening with it, it’s very hard to have a conversation with the engineers and the network people at the table.

You didn’t intend on doing marketing when you started the commerce degree. What did you want to do?

At 18, I’m not too sure, to be honest with you. I knew that business was important, and I did all right at economics at school, and I thought that would be a good thing to pursue. I had a dream of living in New York, so I don’t know if that had anything to do with business, but I thought that was a tool to make me do that. I’m sure other 18-year-olds have that. But then, marketing, I liked it, liked it as a career choice, was well-positioned at the time, and I think it was a real golden age. It was the golden age for the agencies, it was the golden age for the marketers. It was good fun.

With the work in the US for Nestlé, did you fulfil that dream to work in New York?

No, I didn’t. I worked in a little town called Solon, which is south of Cleveland, which was great fun.

It was quite brilliant actually because they were doing the same thing [as Australian marketers] but because the volume of the population was so big, they had bigger teams, so you had people doing slivers of work. Being an Aussie walking into that was really intriguing. I was able to deep dive on a particular area, but they really appreciated the broadness of my knowledge because it was across a whole range of marketing aspects. It was a really interesting cultural shock, but it was fun.

A bigger cultural shock than Switzerland?

No, Switzerland is a very big cultural shock. Both work scenarios were quite different. In the US, because there are so many people on deck, there is a lot of collaboration and meeting protocol that takes place. Switzerland tends to be quite hierarchical, but the fortunate thing about there was we looked after a major brand that was an Australian invention for the Nestlé company, Milo. You were always able to give that Aussie feel, whereas I think if it was Nescafé or Maggi you wouldn’t have been given as much freedom. There would have been more rules to follow.

Your experience of the US was that marketers there are more specialist than generalist. When you’re hiring people now, what do you look for, and is it one or the other?

What I try to find is, especially with the Virgin com- pany, is a behavioural match and an attitude match. Usually, if you get that right, the skills can come. It’s great to have some subject expertise, depending on the role, but in a pure marketing role as long as you get the behaviour and attitude right through the interview process, you can really match those skills.

I think Virgin has probably taught me that we would not necessarily go to the marketing graduate world to find something – doesn’t mean we wouldn’t and we might find the right person there – but if somebody came up through somewhere else and they had the match, we would absolutely hire them.

How do you assess that sort of thing?

We have a pretty robust range of questions that we go about through the interview process. It’s not a daunt- ing process, but at the end of the day, we really try to focus on what makes people tick and how they will fit in and how they will have the attitude for it. The Virgin companies tend to have a strong work ethic, but they also have a strong play ethic, and we are also quite egalitarian. They are the kinds of the things that start to come out in the interview process.

I’m curious, throughout your career, if you have had any particular mentors, whether formal or informal, and what they taught you?

I think the best mentor I’ve had is the head of mar- keting at Nestlé when I started off, and I think that’s usually where you get your best mentors, when you’re starting off. He was a really brilliant man. He was softly spoken. He let a lot of people speak before he spoke. He listened well. But he was very focused on the end game and the goal, and he would really cut through the clutter to get to where that had to be. So he wouldn’t deep dive into issues, but he would be very clear on the top of the triangle the bits that needed to happen. He was an outstanding person in that way.

What was his name?

His name is Brian Hanley. I think he’s in Bali now surfing the breaks, 60-plus. Interesting character.

From the sounds of that, the soft skills and the emotional intelligence side of it are as important as, say, your technical skills in marketing?

Absolutely. In fact, completely outweigh it. I think in all industries… I’ve only worked in a few, but particu- larly in the food industry, you’re dealing with such an emotional component of feeding a family or fulfilling an energy need or whatever that may be, and that’s really, really important.

He was a man who was quite small in stature, but he had a fantastic presence as well. He wasn’t revered as in was not approachable, but he was revered in his intelligence. What I really liked about him is he actually left as chief of marketing and then became a teacher.

On Virgin Mobile’s new brand direction, where does the confidence come from to move away from a really successful campaign like ‘Fair Go’ and change direction completely from acquisition to retention?

That [decision] was easy. The easy but wrong choice would have been to continue doing what we did, and I think a trap for a lot of marketers is that when some- thing great happens, you wear it out. If we used Doug Pitt again, or we used another similar sort of celebrity brother or sister, it would have been passé and we would have never got the success that we wanted.

It comes back to who’s making the decisions. To those CEOs, if they had the Doug Pitt campaign, an easy sell would have been to do the same thing again, give me the same amount of money. The harder sell, but the better sell, is that it really worked [but] we’re going to jump again and we’re going to leapfrog the competition again by doing something different. So that’s what we did.

And with a marketer at the head of the company, it’s easier to sell…

It is easier to sell that. It’s true.

Do you think businesses in general don’t focus enough on retention, on keeping their existing customers happy?

In my humble view, yes. It’s hard to comment on others, and I don’t like to comment on others, but I think what I found historically as a marketer is how influenced the sales manager is in the discussion. Now there is always a healthy tension between sales and marketing, but if your sales manager is running the show, then acquisition will always be the thing that you will focus on.

What we’ve done is changed that so the first people you talk about are the customers that left us last week, these are the reasons why, can we plug that hole in the bucket that changes the conversation?

So the go-to question should always be ‘is the customer happy?’

Is the customer happy and why have they left? We have no tolerance for anybody leaving, doesn’t matter how small the figure is.

Whether it’s something you’ve done or whether it’s completely out of your control, is the not knowing the dangerous part?

Absolutely. Because that little hole in the bucket might turn into a huge gushing thing and that’s usually what happens, and I think people use minimising lan- guage and they minimise it by saying it’s only a small amount of people. But it doesn’t feel right.

If you had to pick a career highlight, what would it be?

That’s a really good question… I wouldn’t probably like to focus on one, but there are a few that mean a lot to me, probably in the three major areas. I was very involved in turning the frozen food business around to make it profitable while I was at Nestlé after a very, very, very long time not being profitable. I can’t remember the exact time, but it was like 15 years or something, so that was a real highlight.

I think then being involved in telecommunications and changing the way that people use long distance, and really showing and demonstrating that through a campaign. I think one of the pleasing aspects of that was that I gave a human face to Telstra, in a way, and what we were able to do with that, taking it from being that monolithic government organisation to some- thing that gave back to the customer, with capped long distance calling.

And then the other stuff is I think the evolution of what we’ve been able to do at Virgin Mobile, turning that into a grown-up brand that is a credible alterna- tive to the big three is a big thing with a significant market share, it’s a credible brand.

Any time throughout your career you thought ‘I wish I was doing something else’?

No, I’m a marketer. I love it. I’m not a marketer anymore, but I can’t resist it. I watch campaigns, I consume stuff. I love the whole thing about it.