Carolyn Bendall is the CMO at Swinburne University of Technology. David Angell and Carolyn discuss her transition from Financial Services to Higher Education, which is best, decentralized or centralized marketing structures; managing vulnerable students through a pandemic with the aid of marketing and tech; contrasting feelings about ChatGPT and its predicted rise; and the role of cultural leadership to get the best out of agency partnerships.
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It got enormous coverage because it was something that was different, and it was a lifeline for a whole lot of kids.
Welcome to Managing Marketing, a podcast where we discuss the issues and opportunities facing marketing, media, and advertising with industry thought leaders and practitioners. My name is David Angell, and today I’m joined by Carolyn Bendall, the CMO at Swinburne University of Technology.
Carolyn is one of the best-known marketers in Australia, I think is fair to say. Before her time at Swinburne, Carolyn had a storied career at ANZ (we’ve just been talking offline), and apparently, I had 12 years. It’s been longer than 12 years.
It’s a tad longer.
We can talk about that. During this time, she worked across several parts of that business as Jim of marketing for the Australia Division. Welcome, Carolyn; it’s great to be talking with you today.
Thank you very much, David. It’s a delight to join you and discuss one of my favourite topics.
Fantastic. Alright, let’s start with the topic of transition. The thing that jumps out at me when I look at your history is the leap that you’ve made there from financial services to higher education. Now, on the face of it, two are quite different categories, although I’m sure you can prove me wrong, maybe by highlighting some of the similarities.
How has your transition to higher education been over the last three years, I think it is, and what’s surprised you? What’s challenged you and what’s delighted you?
Yes, for me, it was a big transition, because as you mentioned in your opening, I was at ANZ actually for many years, quite a few more than 12.
Are you going to reveal how many?
Over 20 years.
Oh, my goodness.
So, yeah, indeed. It’s sufficient to say I joined as a graduate, but one of the best things about working for such a big company and a major bank is the opportunities that gives you, and during my time there, I was able to work in Australia and New Zealand. I worked across really every segment from quite a number of different consumer segments all the way through to our commercial and institutional bank.
And so, to me, I felt like I got a great grounding, but when the time came for me to think about making quite a zag regarding my career step, it was clear to me that the change I needed was a new sector.
And I could see there was going to be a lot of really exciting personal growth by getting my teeth stuck into something very different. I’d been fortunate enough to be working on an advisory board for another university, and that really opened my eyes, to the opportunity. And then, when Swinburne came along that just felt right.
So, to get to your question, yes, two very different categories, but actually, I agree with the assertion, there were actually a lot of similarities. Or let’s put it maybe differently, but I found transferrable skills.
As I mentioned, the personal challenge for me was to try and build my acumen around this sector quickly, and the university’s higher education’s actually a very complex sector when it comes to — people will often think of year 12s and graduating, the students finishing school and coming to uni. That’s actually only one small segment, a really important one.
But there are people of all ages and walks of life, and of course, internationally and domestically, come to universities and there are many universities in Australia competing for those segments. So, to really understand and the funding and the way the whole enterprise works was really a great challenge to do.
But when it comes to marketing, I felt I was able to bring fresh eyes, which I think is partly what Swinburne was looking for — for bringing someone in from a different sector that can really have a fresh look.
But when you think about the principles and practice of marketing, it is about the people, it’s about the platforms, it’s about good processes, it’s about building winning propositions. Those things are actually the same, whether I’m working on home loans or whether I’m working on attracting our undergraduate students, for example.
So, I found some real joy in coming into this new sector and having a fresh look right across what we were doing here at Swinburne and then implementing a few things that came along the way.
It’s interesting you bring up transferrable skills. I kind of guess that’s where you might go, but I’ve worked with financial institutions myself and with higher education. And my observation of it is that the position of marketing within financial institutions versus higher education organizationally is very different and culturally can be quite different.
And I think marketing sometimes can struggle to establish itself in such a complex picture that you just painted, so many different angles for a university to look at. Your background at ANZ was so broad commercially as well as in marketing. I’m guessing that really helped you to try and establish yourself and the discipline of marketing at Swinburne.
It’s a great observation and true. But even in banking, I would say to you that banking is not a marketing-centred business, unlike a fast-moving consumer goods organization where marketing usually is at the absolute centre of how everything is put together.
So, I think I actually felt fairly well-versed in being able to position marketing, but it takes work and it takes focus, it takes confidence to be able to demonstrate the value that marketing can do as a growth driver, not as the cost centre. I know there will use turns as, it’s the usual thing.
It’s the usual thing. Absolutely, FS, I mean, applies just as much to any category.
Absolutely, so accountability for hard results, not just marketing metrics, but actual hard numbers. And to be able to prove the value to lots of different stakeholders that the marketing team can provide. So, again, I would say there are some similarities.
I’m fortunate enough that I came into an organization, of course, I did my due diligence before I joined, but there was a centralized approach to marketing. I know some other universities have a decentralized approach, and that makes the task even harder for marketing to establish itself and really affect change and growth.
I’m fortunate enough to have those functions all together, including the communications and media team, which again, in my view, is another essential lever for actually delivering, in a broad sense, the right marketing propositions. And really, at the end of the day, building brand distinction and providing compelling reasons for students in this case to choose you.
I must admit that I’m a big fan of centralized marketing structures generally. To be blunt about it, I think they give you teeth versus a decentralized structure.
And I’m inferring (tell me if I’m wrong) that’s kind of what you’re saying. It gives you a mandate and it gives you some clarity around actions you can take as opposed to 100% influence.
I think that’s right, and generally, it comes with more senior leadership. So, in this case, the Chief Marketing Officer. In decentralized structures, you will usually or often see GMs or directors who don’t necessarily have a marketing background, but as we all know, everybody has a view on how marketing should be. Everyone can copyright, and everyone has great creative ideas.
So, I do agree with you, I’m happy to clear my bias on that, I think marketing is stronger together.
Fantastic, we haven’t mentioned the word challenge, but there will always be challenges in this kind of role. And I think it’s safe to say you joined Swinburne at one of the most challenging moments for the sector in its entire history. We’ve worked with a few of your competitors, and we’ve worked with you as well.
But, with COVID and everything else, really, really challenging internationally and domestically. What has the experience of piloting a university through COVID taught you, and what fundamentals have changed in the way you now need to market a university?
Without a doubt, I commenced Swinburne in March of 2020 in Melbourne for those of you listening from other areas. And within four days of starting, we went into the first of many lockdowns.
But the reality for universities in Melbourne was that we essentially moved our students and staff off campus for almost two years. There was very little return in that time, a little bit, very limited, and usually, then cut short at zero notice. So, absolutely, and of course, I didn’t anticipate that, so that added a whole other realm.
So, there were enormous challenges for everybody. When I’ve reflected on that time, I think what it did, though, was unlock some opportunities. And I very much had the mindset of, not only did I need to understand the new business I was coming into, but also, all of the challenges that were hitting this business, like a tidal wave.
So, to me, I was very focused on — well, first and foremost, it’s actually about the care for your key stakeholders, and in this case, it was for the staff and our current students.
I have current student communications in my team as well, and that was the moment that mattered the most, actually, was just about some people who knew what to do, and knew that the organization cared for them and were able to do that.
But of course, we couldn’t take our eye off the ball, which for us in university, marketing is our prospective students, and that is an ongoing pipeline that has to keep going.
So, everything changed so much of sort of university engagement around prospective students were often physical events, and of course, the flag appal being the open days. We had to reimagine that very, very quickly and do different things.
And that’s where we created a platform called Zoomtopia, which came to life in a very short … we built that over eight weeks, which was quite an extraordinary effort, and something I remain exceedingly proud of my team who rallied around it.
And I think the role that I played was just an enabling role, that I really challenged them and cleared the way for them to come up with the very best solution that they could do. So, we have this wonderful, gamified platform instead of an open day.
But in terms of the fundamentals and what’s COVID taught us and me, and what’s changed, I think it has meant the prospective student, and we’re still seeing it to this day, particularly the young ones, those going through year 11 and 12 now, we’re exceedingly destabilized.
And we learned to actually reach out and actually understand and try and get under the layer more emotively around how they’re making the decisions and how they’re feeling and how we could help them. And so, that in itself, brought more innovation and change.
And I don’t want to do a disservice to the many marketing leaders that have come before me, both at this institution and elsewhere. But I felt there was a fair amount of sameness in the year in, year out; we do this at this time, and then in the middle of the year, and this towards the end of the year. COVID shook that all up for us.
And that remains changed, and we are continuously now trying to evolve the way we engage, of course, digital channels. And being a university of technology, it’s incumbent upon us to use digital and technology in clever ways, and it’s a way to demonstrate our brand in actions.
So, we brought many different ways to engage to the table and continue to do that to this day. But I would say the fundamentals of a lot of what we have done have actually changed.
Well, I wanted to pick up on that point about the existing students, that really is a differentiator as a marketer and as a category. You’ve got a relatively young extensive body of people who can be quite vulnerable in this time. Some of whom might be not native to Australia, I mean, that’s a really important consideration.
And it sort of goes to the complexity that I mentioned at the start, you’re absolutely right. We had some very young international students who were not able to return to their home country in 2020.
So, again, that notion of first things first, our duty of care and ensuring that they felt the support and had the support that they needed had to come before even some of those other really important things that we were doing in terms of marketing the university and attracting our future students because we do have a duty of care.
And I guess banking taught me that — because the other thing that of course, education and banking have in common is they’re not fast-moving consumer goods, they’re long-term relationships. In the case of education, in many cases, it’s three years, but we aspire it to be a lifelong relationship now just as we do in banking.
So, it taught me the importance of caring for your existing customer base and the power of their advocacy in actually driving your brand and attracting new customers.
And I wouldn’t ever say anything good about COVID specifically, but I do like the way you’ve kind of — that circumstance created opportunity.
Is what I’m hearing. It did create opportunity in all sorts of ways in life. You’ve really seized on that to shake things up and change the way in which you are fundamentally engaged.
And some things remain … and I will give another example. We talked about the young people and their vulnerability; what we heard loud and clear for those year 12 students in 2020, their world was just — it’s the biggest year of their school life, and they’re all sent home, they’re working from home, and they’re quite traumatized of course, about what’s next, and, “Will I get into that uni or that course that I’ve been aspiring to?”
So, again, in terms of creating an opportunity, we were able to lead and build the case here to trial an ATAR-free early entry program and then bring that to market in June of that year. It got enormous coverage because it was different, and it was a lifeline for a whole lot of kids who, from an anxiety point of view, were really worried about their ATAR.
So, of course, it wasn’t about don’t give it your best efforts and getting whatever, but we could give hundreds of students a place and guaranteed entry irrespective of their ATAR as long as they passed their VCE overall.
That to me, was able to crack open actually a discussion that’s been held for many years about ATAR. And not only were we able to provide a solution then, but that’s an enduring program that we have in place now, an early entry program.
So, you’re right, these sorts of crises do actually enable organizations if they’ve got the right focus, to try some new things and actually innovate. And again, that’s part of what we are all about here at the university.
That’s great, and crisis is one thing but I’m thinking here about the undergraduate element of your customer base and perspective, particularly — crisis aside, whether COVID had happened or not, I’m guessing that the needs and the wants and mindsets of young people and their relationship, their views about higher education, that’s in a state of constant flux as things develop, technology develops and everything else.
How challenging is that for you as a marketer, and what’s critical do you think, when trying to engage with potential undergraduate candidates?
I do place a huge amount of emphasis on research and insight, I actually think. And certainly, I’m well beyond the age of my target customer base when we’re talking about undergraduates. I might have a couple living with me in the house, but they’re not me.
But no, I really do believe in ensuring that we have got the right insights, and so that has been another thing that I have really instilled in the team. We’ve introduced some new capabilities around customer experience and user experience management. And we test, we bring in the users and we listen to them, and we really try and draw out in a more formal sense, choice driver research.
And again, that’s been quite a big investment to make sure we know the things that matter, but also in terms of shaping the right experiences through the journey of making a choice, but also a journey of then joining the university and staying because that’s the other thing.
It’s keeping them engaged and well-supported. I believe there’s no substitute to speaking with your users always. And as in good human-centred design methodology, your extreme users are actually really the insightful ones.
So, those who are super engaged and keen and determined to study, as well as those who actually are wavering a little bit and not sure about their future. They give you insights that actually help you build the right propositions for the broader middle.
So, we do. We talk to students a lot. And what we’ve found, and this increased over COVID, their alliance on influencers has been — and I don’t mean influencers in a social media sense per see, although we do, quite a bit of that.
Even though it’s about their future, choice of university, and study, they are heavily influenced by cohorts such as their careers advisors and teachers at school, and of course, their parents and often older siblings at home.
So, in terms of reaching and influencing a prospective young undergraduate student, it’s actually not just reaching them, it’s actually reaching the others around them who will help guide their decision. And from a channel sense, that then brings its own challenges because the channels, there’s more and more every day.
And that young cohort can be actually quite fickle in terms of channels they are actively using and then move on to something else. But equally, there’s a lot of then the broader and broadcast-type channels that we need to continue to utilize to reach their influence base.
I was going to pick up on that because, obviously, from a marketing channel point of view, that’s hard enough, but I think this particular age group, they’re fickle when it comes to advertising full stop.
And drilling down into advertising just as a subset almost, I think what you’ve talked about in research and insights is clearly critical for strategic development, for creative development, for execution, and for channel selection just within advertising if nothing else.
And that brings agencies into the picture. I guess no interview with a CMO such as yourself is complete without an agency-related question, and it was an agency-related project where we met some time ago.
You’ve worked with them for long enough, I think, so what, in your view — and you can apply this to higher education if you like; what in your view should the agency sector stop, start, and continue with regards to how it’s currently perceived, how it’s currently operating?
I think I have a few interesting philosophies around agencies, and one of them, I’ll actually start with the client before I jump to the agency. Over my journey, I have seen where the agency-client relationships fragment or aren’t particularly productive is where often, there is a client view of agencies as vendors.
And I think one of the magic ingredients is very much about, once you have selected your agency partners, really bringing them into the house and treating them as partners. And I really am a very big believer that the more you bring your agencies as partners, you share your information, you really help engender genuine care for the results, treating them as partners.
So, to me, that’s something incumbent upon clients and, obviously, CMOs and marketing leaders to keep that culture there that agencies are putting their best foot forward in most cases and to really work closely with them.
In terms of what agencies can do for ourselves, I agree with you in that it is about thinking and helping clients evolve. Often, there might be a quite clear, even the way briefs are often structured sort of requirements, “Well, I need a TV, and I wanted this and that”.
I really do love to keep briefs, even briefer. A good brief is just absolutely sharply to the point of what it is you’re trying to solve for, not the how. And to really help enable your agencies to come up with great ideas. And often, that’s not traditional media. I think brand activations and experiential-type solutions can be great solutions and something that’s quite different.
In terms of what I’d love to see agencies do, all marketing teams and businesses have more than one agency. They’ll often have a creative and media agency, they might have a different PR agency, and they’ll have others. And I like to throw my research agencies because, as I’ve indicated before, I’m a big believer in having the right research partners in there too.
Getting them to work together, I’d love to see them do more of the actually working across and not be precious about — great ideas can come from anywhere, including great creative ideas that can come out of your media agency just as fantastic, media activations ideas can come out of your creative agency, and indeed, from the client. So, to me, trying to bring together and do that, I see a huge value.
One thing I’d love to start seeing agencies do more of, is I’ve always been very interested in the other clients that an agency has and have always enjoyed as a CMO when we might have the occasional get-together to share information with other CMOs.
I think there’s still more in terms of ideas to activate around a client or using multiple partners or clients of that agency together. And so, let’s take an example of a university. You think about all the categories that if we, again, focus on the younger undergraduate element, but all the other categories that they’re consuming, from food delivery services to sporting associations, whatever it is.
But I still believe there are some really fantastic and which it’s very non-traditional engagement opportunities that we can do together to be creative. So, yeah, I’d very much like to see more of that.
Well, that’s a fascinating answer, I think, for a few reasons, actually. A lot of what you’ve touched on there, a lot of people talk it, not many people do it. In my own personal experience, gaining trust and traction for those kinds of things, that kind of developments and evolutions can be really tricky.
But the interesting thing is that the first part of your answer correlates and enables the second part of your answer. The first part of your answer is about the cultural leadership of your agency and by extension, your agency roster, which does take leadership from a client.
Because just saying to the agencies, “Off you go,” is an abdication, and it doesn’t necessarily produce the best results. But that first part of your answer, if that’s done right, agencies get confident, and confidence breeds confidence. An agency then feels more empowered to answer a brief differently or to work together without the threat of having its turf taken over.
It all stems from that culture and leaders, and of course, it comes from the top down. And so, really, really, it’s like a hand-in-glove thing.
And I do think that setting the right cultural environment, both internally in a marketing team and by extension into your agency partners, is in my view, a key thing a leader must do, a marketing leader must do.
And one of the ways I have brought that to life, both back in my ANZ days and also here, is that once and sometimes twice a year, I will bring all those agency partners together and we run our own — I borrow the term upfronts, but we will run our own upfronts about as a business what’s important to us, here’s our strategy.
Taking the time to share that strategy, but creating a creative environment to let our partners workshop and get to know each other together but work together on some of the things we might want to experiment with or try this year. So, it’s about creating the environment.
But it also means that agencies aren’t so afflicted with myopia. Again, I’m just talking from my own experience here. Agencies often are almost like in an ivory tower, that they’re focused so hard on what their remit is.
They’re not thinking organizationally enough and doing things like upfront and curating that kind of thing, it just allows so much more context around what it is you’re trying to do as a marketing function and as a commercial entity or as a business or whatever the case may be. And that engenders and empowers better responses, more motivated, and more interested people.
And it’s an interesting environment, isn’t it, that when someone’s working at an agency and say they’re working on a category like higher education or banking for that matter, they’re working on that category. Still, they’re not working in it.
We’re the ones working in the category. So, the more I can do to help engage the people at the agencies into that category, understand how it ticks, give them exposure to clients or prospective customers, and give them more of a sense of what it’s all about, of course, that’s going to make them more engaged.
Absolutely. And part of what you rely on from your agency is some insight into the next big play. I’m sure you’ve got some thoughts on your own. Thinking about the short-to-medium-term future of marketing, what do you see out there? What’s coming down the pipe that really excites you or scares you even because it is a bit scary sometimes?
Yeah, totally, and it’s so funny, I remember it’s probably 5 or 10 years ago, coming across this quote that, “Marketing and technology have changed more in the last five years than it has in the previous 50.”
Now, let’s take ourselves 10 years down the track and it’s like, holy, nothing is slowing down. So, there is a combination of excitement. I think in embracing change in opportunity is always exciting, but there’s no doubt there is also a bit of a scary element.
So, probably, an obvious answer, but that rapid, rapid rise of AI and the discussions around ChatGPT, of course, that’s going to have big impacts on our industry as marketing and, more broadly, communications and what have you.
But I also feel marketing in many ways has expanded. In fact, many roles I’ve seen in senior leadership roles have morphed from being sort of a Chief Marketing Officer to a Chief Experience Officer. And I still feel we hold a very special and unique role in being able to help shape that very best experience for a prospective customer and, indeed, as they come on board as a customer.
So, it’s how, again, can we use these sorts of technologies and not shy away from them, but of course, there are some big questions.
I think the other thing that is probably not what scares me, but I do have reasonable concern about how do we continue to ensure that our investments in marketing technology are the right ones and that we can leverage through our people and our processes, all of the tech that we’ve actually invested in, and it’s not as straight forward as it’s often showcased to be from some of the big tech providers.
It’s not. Tech’s the enabler; tech’s not the solution in and of itself. And I think it’s an ethical question as much as something else, but the automation of creativity is where ChatGPT is taking … you’re absolutely right.
How do you safeguard investment in people? You literally said it. There has to be a human component, but that actually scares me quite a lot and when I see that “Oh, yep, they can write ads now. You don’t need people anymore, you don’t need creatives. Are you sure about that?” I think a huge part of marketing would be lost if that truth eventuated.
I totally agree with you, and yet there is a part of me that believes it won’t be, it will change. There is no doubt the tools that we use both as creatives and agencies, but also as marketers, our tools will change, it’s the same as our students. And we’ve just been working through what are the guidelines around ChatGPT for students when they’re preparing assignments and assessments and everything else.
It’s got huge implications on the other side of that.
But again, as a university of technology, even more so, it’s incumbent upon us to explore how do we bring the people and that technology together and use it for good, and use it to grow as opposed to step away from it.
Because the reality is, that these things continue to evolve, and so I choose to remain optimistic that we will find ways, and there will always, in my view, be a need for the human element and the people to use these technologies.
Yes, certainly, from a marketing perspective, it is funny when you were talking there, it made me think about the infiltration of computers into classrooms, full stop. I mean, that was a huge — how people dealt with that has had to evolve … I mean, my kids now have iPads.
They’re on laptops and iPads. When I was at school, we had one computer in the whole building.
I was just going to say … I was reluctant to declare my age, but I can remember having a …
We’re both over 27 let’s just say that.
That’s right, going into a computer lab to use the computer. But that’s right, it has changed. That being said, the VCE exams are still handwritten, which I find extraordinary because that is not keeping up with the times for our students. But anyways, that’s a whole other thing.
Well, I’m not surprised that you called out AI, I think it’s on everyone’s minds now, and it will be fascinating. It will be fascinating to see how agencies deal with it, how marketers deal with it, how organizations deal with it.
And I think you’re right, it will of course, evolve. I don’t think the trajectory proposed by the owners of ChatGPT, who let’s face it, aren’t exactly objective in this. I don’t think that is a simplistic line of yep, in this … in two years, they’re going to be doing this, they’re going to be doing that.
I do think there are always predictions, but let’s take Twitter as an example. A few years ago, people wouldn’t have thought Twitter would end up where it currently is, and it’ll probably continue to change. Things won’t always go in what the first sort of view of direction will be.
And that’s what keeps us all in jobs. That’s what keeps us all excited. Now, I do have one final question I sometimes do this and sometimes don’t, and it really depends, I honestly don’t think about it beforehand. So, it depends if I’m sharp enough to actually think of one when we’ve been talking together.
But my final question for you is, if I had a magic wand — we’ve just mentioned we’re both over 27, but if I had a magic wand, I could take you back to being an undergraduate. What course at Swinburne would you want to do? Is there anything that has really sparked your own interest as an individual as opposed to as a professional?
Absolutely, that is one of the pure joys of working at a university, and indeed, working at Swinburne is the amazing things that they do here, and the richness of different programs and insights and researchers and academics, it’s just quite extraordinary.
Aside from marketing and of course, I would love to do our marketing course now because the units are very, very different.
We could all learn from that.
They’re very different to what I did. But leaving marketing to the side if I was to do a course, I would do something in the design space. Because personally, I love it and I appreciate the cleverness of people who can design just incredible things.
And Swinburne has just some amazing facilities and teachers here. So, to me, it would be something around design and probably in a product design area, because I’d love to see how now the design is such a leading part of the way products and propositions are developed and manufactured and delivered these days to create really beautiful experiences and beautiful products. So, that’s what I’d work on.
Well, have you heard it here first, everyone? Carolyn is about to start her own product design agency, watch this space.
Hey, thank you so much; it’s been a really great conversation, I really enjoyed chatting to you. All the best with everything you do.
We’re sitting in a soundproof box in Swinburne at the moment. It’s a lovely sunny day outside and the university is looking amazing with the mural that you put … anyone who’s coming down Hawthorne Road and wants …
At Burwood Road.
Burwood Road, apologies, and wants to see an amazing mural that Carolyn commissioned; it’s well worth a look.
We’re very proud of it. It’s a beautiful piece of work by an artist called Matt Adnate. But it’s been a real delight to speak to you as well. So, thanks for the invitation, David.
Thank you so much.