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Behind Telecom's pink fist: Kieren Cooney spills the beans

Vaughn Davis joins Kieren Cooney for a coffee and retrospective deconstruction of his 18 months in one of the nation's top marketing jobs.

Kieren CooneyFormer Telecom head of marketing Kieren Cooney thought he was in for a quiet few weeks between handing in his notice and leaving the company to take up a position in Australia. Instead he found himself getting his arse kicked on New Zealand telly screens, radio and newspapers as the public face of the All Blacks Abstain for the Game campaign.

How did the Abstain for the Game campaign all come about?

Well for Backing Black, which was the wider campaign, we thought, “Rather than making ads which are about pressure and drive and performance, why don’t we make it about New Zealanders coming together to enjoy the All Blacks?” And that’s what Backing Black was. [Sponsorship manager] Caroline Booth, who built that, created some of the most clever online social networking marketing that I’d seen, with something like 150,000 people participating on Facebook and online. The whole idea was to find a way for people to get closer and get involved.

So as we were leading up to the Rugby World Cup, we asked, “What would a fan club do in the the biggest year of rugby in New Zealand?” And so the team came up with this idea. There’s this mythology around sport, and one of the mythologies is the idea of abstaining before a game. So we thought, what happens if we take this thing which is in itself kind of funny and a little ridiculous and make it absolutely absurd. Why don’t we do it very tongue in cheek but very straight-faced, you know, a request to the nation not from the All Blacks but from fans, to abstain for their favourite game. And so we were building this whole Facebook interactive campaign. I thought it was hilarious myself. I thought it was very funny, and then it got leaked.

What’s behind that, do you think?

I don’t know. The tough thing for me personally is I was leaving. I’d resigned and I was supposed to be in “cruise out of the company” mode …

How far in advance of the launch was it leaked?

A couple of weeks. It was supposed to be rolling out on a schedule. I think the lessons are firstly that these leaks aren’t good, and secondly that viral campaigns don’t launch well on the front page of the Herald. But the big thing is if you’re going to try a risky or humour based campaign, comedy is timing and context and if your timing is taken away from you and your context somewhat ruined, then it’s not funny.

One of the many bizarre things about it was on Close Up, you were confronted by three old white men deciding what the New Zealand population, which is not that old and not that white, does and doesn’t find funny. Did you find that a bit funny?

You know, I didn’t mind that. I actually got a lot of support from that interview.

That was August 17. There you were on TV, standing firm; the next day, the campaign’s scrapped.

Well like I was saying before, once the context and the timing are taken away from you, it’s a pretty easy decision, frankly.

Was it your decision?

We kind of sat round as a group and decided. Put it this way, there weren’t a lot of people going, “No, I think we should run it.” It wasn’t a debate.

So from your perspective was it not so much a screwed campaign but a campaign that was screwed by what had happened?

Yeah, totally.

You fronted the media solo rather than bring your agency along to give their perspective. Did you ever consider doing that?

No, not really. It was happening very fast so there wasn’t a lot of time to lay out a strategy of what to do. We’d commissioned it and signed it off, and we’d co-authored it, so the last thing I thought was appropriate was for us to try and walk away from it.

But then Paul Reynolds kind of did that to you. He said he didn’t sign off on the campaign and really seemed to distance himself from the whole thing.

Well, none of us had signed off, that was the key thing. What got leaked wasn’t the finished product.

But you signed off on the concept at some stage.

Yeah, but were very aware that we were going to be cautious about how we rolled this out. We knew it was going to be based on Facebook and the viral nature of that, so at every step we were creating gates of what we were going to do. So no one had signed it off, and I think the way that it was reported made it sound like Paul was distancing himself more than once. I think what he said was exactly right, which is, “We haven’t signed off on this,” and we hadn’t.

So have you paid much attention to other brand activity around the Rugby World Cup? Who would you rate to be the winners and losers on that?

I think Adidas did an extraordinary job. From a month prior when people were burning their logo, and suddenly everyone’s forgotten about that, so I think that was fantastic.

As you pointed out, maybe the Telecom crisis took its place and everyone forgot about it. Interestingly, when I saw the Telecom ABs ad that eventually ran, it seemed very similar to the Adidas one, at least visually. Was the Telecom ad in the can or planned before you left?

 I think that was probably made in the last four or five weeks. The All Blacks are … I always struggle to call them a brand. They’re this thing that’s interlaced with us as a nation, our hopes and our passions and, you know, it’s pretty amazing. But it feels like there’s a very serious media voice around the All Blacks, whereas going to the games it didn’t feel like that. It feels like the fans can see past that and when they’re there, they love it. They love when Izzy does a funny little duck thing … they love all that. For me, I’m loath to try and pick the mood of the nation but I think the serious media view is slightly off what people actually want, which is to enjoy rugby and enjoy enjoying rugby. And actually have a bit of a laugh on the way.

And you’re off to Australia to help roll out their national broadband network. Any regrets?

Apparently pride’s a bad thing but I’m really proud of what we’ve done. You have to put it in the context of when I joined. The brand was not in a great state. They’d just been decimated through some major technical outages. And now by our brand measures Telecom’s in the strongest position it’s been in in three and a half years. So not only has it recovered, which I think is extraordinary to do in a year and a half, but it’s actually gotten better than it was.

If you believe in the Abstain campaign as much as you say you do, you must regret that it didn’t have the chance to succeed?

The campaign created a lot of oxygen in the media but in terms of the things that we were working on, it was a small campaign. I don’t mean to downplay it, but we were rolling out massive mobile programmes, massive broadband programmes and that’s naturally where our attention was focused as an organisation. If it worked incredibly well or it didn’t, it wasn’t really going to hit our financial performance. So I don’t see it as unfinished business.

One of your first jobs was as a presenter on (Auckland music channel) Max TV, which was known for having a pretty edgy approach to things. Did that experience shape your approach to marketing?

No, not really.

Well that screws that question, pretty much.

Well maybe it did … when I got into it, I had no interest in being on TV. It felt like we were making it up as we went along. There weren’t a lot of people there who’d done it before so there weren’t a lot of people going, “No, that’s not how you do it.” So there was a fair amount of do-it-yourself, “what feels right” and a fair amount of big mistakes that you’d learn on the way so … all of those are good lessons.

Talking of doing things for the first time, the CMO job at Telecom, certainly in terms of your job title, seems to have been your first marketing role.

Yeah, but marketing’s a broad kettle of fish now. Marketing in terms of making ads and doing brand development at the Telecom job was probably 10 percent. Most of it was the company’s commercial programme, from new product developments to propositions and offers. The whole strategy about what we were going to do in mobile or broadband was coming out of that area. So I had a brilliant team who ran the actual ads, and I had very little to do with that because they were exceptional at what they did.

You’ve largely been a telco guy, Paul Hamburger before you was largely a telco guy, but Jason Paris coming in, he’s spent time at Nokia but on the whole he’s hardly been a telco guy at all. Do you think that’s an advantage or a disadvantage for him?

I think it will be an advantage. I think he’ll play to his strengths. So rather than it being about trying to out-telco the telco people, he’ll out-customer them. He’ll operate from the position of, “it’s fine to understand those technical limitations or requirements but actually, the customer doesn’t want that.” I came from a technology background, and I think you can be too sympathetic to the limitations of the technology.

There’s been a lot of change at Telecom over the last few years and there’s more coming. Was that stimulating or disruptive?

Maybe it’s because I came from the online world, I always expected change. I look at the amount of change and frankly there probably should be more. The the world is moving so fast, so our industry has to move as quickly to be part of that change, or be changed.

Can an organisation that at least somewhere deep in its bones is still the Post Office ever move that quickly?

I think one of its challenges is to decide if it’s to be defined by its past or by its future. If it’s defined by its future then it needs to really embrace change. There will be people who really struggle, but there’ll be others who say, “This is fantastic. I have no idea what I’m going to be doing in six months.”

Talking about change, people of our age can probably look at the last 20 years and rattle off a string of Telecom ads among their favourite ones ever. But maybe in the last five years, there haven’t been so many runs on the board. Do you think there was any one thing that took Telecom off the boil?

People don’t understand a brand in isolation. They understand it in the context of other brands, so when you add Vodafone it changes what Telecom means. You add 2degrees and it changes what Vodafone means, so it’s the inter-relationship of those brands. I think Telecom had a heritage-style brand. Then you throw the Vodafone cat amongst those pigeons, which was a voice of challenge. I think the biggest challenge that Telecom had over that period was being consistent.

The campaigns for me that really showed what kind of a quality machine Telecom was were things like the Gary $10 Text, where it was able to completely reinvent itself, base itself round some really great customer insights and take itself from a position where it was largely dormant to become the attacker, and do it in just a month or two.

Some of your former colleagues have described you as a fan of the old Saatchi & Saatchi ‘Win Ugly’ philosophy ...

I didn’t realise ‘Win Ugly’ was Saatchis’! I thought we were making that up as we went along. When I joined Telecom there’d just been a massive set of XT outages. We’d done no commercial activity for six months, literally just stopped putting out offers, promotions and advertising. So it was a pretty scary environment, and I felt we didn’t have time to paint the perfect strategy. So we just got in there and did stuff. We said, “Let’s try and do it well, but let’s attack hard, then while that bullet’s in air, let’s get back and win with a little bit more eloquence.” So I was a big fan of ‘Win Ugly’ as part of a necessity, rather than it being the overriding ongoing strategy.

Did having Kevin Roberts, the Saatchi & Saatchi worldwide boss, on the Telecom board, affect your role?

Just that he’s a very good marketer, and a very good businessperson, so having access to someone like that was an advantage. He was pretty clear right from the start about this huge delineation between his role as director of Telecom and his role for Saatchi & Saatchi. He was a fantastic weapon to have on the board. He’s clearly bloody experienced and he’s a great marketer.