Skip to main content

Leader

Express delivery: CMO Amber Collins on how her Coles tenure might shape Australia Post gig

By Paul McIntyre - Executive Editor

15 March 2020 6min read

“We can’t just assume that we can land products that are one size fits all, or those products should be landed individually. They should be bundled, potentially, to make it easier for customers to buy," Ex-Coles marketer, turned AusPost CMO, Amber Collins

By Paul McIntyre - Executive Editor

15 March 2020 6min read

When former Coles marketing heavy Amber Collins was approached by Australia Post to take the CMO role, she immediately said ‘no thanks’. But former News Corp exec and Collins’ new boss, Nicole Sheffield, eventually got her way. Collins unpacks her media, marketing and agency lessons from Coles - and how she hopes to harness them to help deliver the "seismic change" required at Australia Post.

Delivering change

When Australia Post first approached Amber Collins, she flat refused. But then the 210-year-old institution spelt out its vision – diversify or die – and convinced her that nothing was off the table. So she signed up.

She says the scale of Australia Post makes even supermarkets “look quite small”, and its role at the heart of the nation is second to none. That, she says, is untapped opportunity.

Then there is the added bonus of reconnecting with Nicole Sheffield. The two did brisk trade when Collins was at Coles and Sheffield at News Corp. “A visionary with more ideas than anyone I have ever worked with,” says Collins of her now boss. “And an absolute hoot.”

Now the two are setting about making their ideas the basis of Australia Post’s future.

“Ian McLeod upped the game in a way that was just phenomenal. He brought obsession with the customer that no one had seen in the business before. He and John Durkin … believed that if you did the right thing for customers, the sales would come. And they did.”

- Amber Collins

Supermarket tales

Collins spends most of the interview answering questions about Coles, where she spent seven and half years across two stints.

“It’s okay.  Everyone wants to talk about Coles, even at a barbecue. It will never go away, I’ll always be in the family.”

But it is Collins’ experience of change management at the retailer while helping to deliver growth that likely brought Australia Post knocking at her door.

Collins was at Coles prior to Wesfarmer’s 2007 acquisition, with Ian McLeod promptly hired to turn it around. The former UK retailer said it would take five years, but did it in half the time.

“Ian McLeod completely transformed the business – it was electric in the place,” says Collins. Australia’s supermarkets had been  “lazy… cruising along” as a cosy twosome – and they were in for a shock.

“Ian upped the game in a way that was just phenomenal. He brought obsession with the customer that no one had seen in the business before,” says Collins. “Coles was a very supply-led business. He moved it to being a customer-led business. He and [successor] John Durkin … believed that if you did the right thing for customers, the sales would come. And they did.”

 

Why brands won’t die

Collins was quickly put in charge of own brand goods, or ‘house brands’ – a 3,500 SKU portfolio which she repositioned from a single ‘You’ll Love Coles’ brand to three tiers. She says that “gave people a reason to choose Coles over Woolworths; you were able to get value and have confidence in the product”.

Collins was therefore the nemesis of a number of brand marketers at that time. Given the subsequent rise of own brand goods, what advice does Collins offer brands feeling the pinch?

“The challenge is always there and that dynamic is sometimes tricky. But innovation – keeping and maintaining your brand strength, constantly innovating and delivering a great product is what marketing is all about,” says Collins. “If the brand owners are doing that then they have nothing to fear.”

In Australia, she says, they have less to fear anyway.

“The penetration of house brand in the UK has far exceeds where we’ve got to even in the last 10 years at Coles.  Australians like choice.  They like brands.  I don’t see that changing dramatically.”

“People talk about transformation and think a bit loosely.  This isn’t about a company that’s having a minor reputation or crisis or some slowing down in sales.  This is an organisation that has to seismically change the way it does business.”

- Amber Collins

Leveraging brand trust

Many brands, however, face existential threats from shifting consumer tastes, habits and agile competition – Australia Post more than most.

In its core business, fewer and fewer letters are being sent. While there is growth in parcels, there are nimble competitors unencumbered by bureaucratic constraint.

But Australia Post has a mandate to serve communities all over Australia, and it has two centuries worth of brand trust. Collins aims to harness to that to push the state-owned company into new markets.

“There’s no brand in Australia that has the relationship with Australians that Australia Post does.  It’s at the door.  Posties are going up and down the street.  They’re checking on vulnerable people within regional towns.”

In some towns, Australia Post is “actually one of the only community organisations left – and the trust in the brand is extraordinary. We have the trust to go into new products and services that many other brands don’t. That is an opportunity we should take.”

The message from the top is that no growth area should be off the table, with “whip-smart” CEO Christine Holgate a “brilliant leader” driving a transformation agenda, says Collins.

“People talk about transformation and think a bit loosely.  This isn’t about a company that’s having a minor reputation or crisis or some slowing down in sales.  This is an organisation that has to seismically change the way it does business, the way it deals with stakeholders and the way we create future revenue opportunities.”

Collins’ priorities this year are therefore “new marketplaces, new revenue opportunities” but crucially, “making sure people understand the role that Australia Post plays in their lives, that it plays in Australia - and not take it for granted.”

“Each leader wants to disrupt. But if you have constant disruption, things don’t get bedded down. When you’re dealing with plans that are often a year in the making, that can cause problems within the rhythm of the business.”

- Amber Collins

Consumer focus

To make the pivot work, Australia Post has to become far more customer centric - the first thing Ian McLeod focused on at Coles.

That is: “Trying to change the way we do business,” says Collins. “Not just landing products in the market, rather coming from the other side - genuinely looking at what customers want, how we’re going to build experiences that make it easy for them to buy and chose products from Australia Post rather than just individual product areas, developing new initiatives that may or may not land.”

Collins ran financial services marketing at Coles. She thinks that sector is an area of obvious improvement for Australia Post.

“We can’t just assume that we can land products that are one size fits all, or those products should be landed individually. They should be bundled, potentially, to make it easier for customers to buy.”

Meanwhile, the broader brand requires a broader play, says Collins.

“We have to give people reasons to walk into the stores and we have to get reasons for people to go online. That means creating sales driving activity as well as brand building activity in a very traditional sense of the word.

“So it won’t just be about community good news stories and it won’t just be about ‘buy these products’. It will be an integrated way of looking at how Australia Post can fulfil customer’s expectations around various shopping missions,” says Collins. “And that’s what’s exciting.”

“No one can be in business without making money - so I want [my agency partners] to make money.  I want their people to be happy to do a good job in our business. But we want to see where the money is going.”

- Amber Collins

Changing pitch

While Collins hopes to apply lessons learnt from Coles’ transformation to Australia Post, she’s aware from her second stint at the retailer, between 2015 and 2019, that too much simultaneous change can be counterproductive.

Coles had a “very disciplined approach to running the business [during that period], but there was also quite a lot of change in the management at that time,” she says.

“Each leader wants to disrupt. But if you have constant disruption, things don’t get bedded down. When you’re dealing with plans that are often a year in the making, that can cause problems within the rhythm of the business.”

One change that was thrust upon her was the switch of media agency, where Coles left UM for OMD. Collins did not want to pitch – and as general manager of digital it was not her call – but she says the outcome was ultimately positive.

“I did not want to go to market that year and advised against it. But the marketing director at the time wanted to. So my peer took the pitch to market.

“Unfortunately, he decided to leave during that process, and I inherited it,” says Collins. “Most people in the market knew I didn’t really want to run the pitch, but now I was running the pitch.”

Coles had been with UM for almost 13 years at that point. “I was very happy with UM. I didn’t think it was the time to change.” By the time she took over the pitch “we were half baked, so we had to continue.”

However, the “process actually became a very good one, “ Collins continues.

“Unanimously, the group chose OMD. Their thinking was superb, culturally they were a tight fit, Peter Horgan and Aimee Buchanan run a tight ship, and we appreciated the change in accountability,” says Collins.

“We appreciated the change in transparency too,” she says, “but we forced that through. Agency relationships are about what you do too, not just what you accept. So we got to a very good position of trust and constant improvement over that period of time.”

“The next five years will be absolutely fascinating as we see change, but I don’t believe you can build brands with single inch squares on websites.  Brands take multiple media channels. They take the right media mix.”

- Amber Collins

Transparency + fair remuneration = less pitching

While Collins says Coles “forced transparency through very brutally”, that is only feasible if clients aren’t trying to squeeze the pips out of agency partners. She says some marketers are guilty of cost cutting to put runs on the board – and “have done the industry a disservice by driving too much money out of agencies” eroding their service capabilities and creating a spiral of negativity.

Short-termism, she suggests, is to blame.

“I think that when the agencies know that we want to be genuine partners for a long time; that we are not going to pitch; we are going to be here for at least five years.  We want them to make money and to service us well - but we want to see where the money is going. When you’re in that situation and you have that open dialogue, it makes it easy for them with confidence bring to the table how they’re charging,” says Collins.

“No one can be in business without making money - so I want them to make money.  I want their people to be happy to do a good job in our business, but we want to see where the money is going.”

More open and more even relationships enable more honest conversations around costs and adjustments, she says, which need to be made on an ongoing basis, “not in some dramatic flourish every three years in the pitch situation”.

 

Lazy is as lazy does

Given the task ahead at Australia Post, the business will need all the channels it can get to reach, engage and convert Australians to new products and services.

Collins suggests there is life left in traditional media – particularly those that are innovating.

“People can get lost in media and metrics very quickly and lose sight of the real goal.

“I don’t like hearing about the death of television, the death radio.  I don’t like hearing people say that no one reads newspapers. Even the big boys on the tech platforms come to the newspapers when they want their message out,” says Collins.

“But it is a complex market.  I think the smart publishers are very quickly moving to enable greater transparency, greater targeting, customer IDs.  We’ve seen Nine making some good moves in that space,” she adds.

“So the next five years will be absolutely fascinating as we see change, but I don’t believe you can build brands with single inch squares on websites.  Brands take multiple media channels. They take the right media mix.”

Does that mean she thinks legacy media can fight back?

“It’s possible. Some may have left it a bit late to adapt. But the tech platforms can’t own everything - and lazy marketers will use them at their peril, because there’s much more complexity and richness to be gained by using a variety of media.”

Publishers, however, need to join forces, suggests Collins, and make it easier for media agencies to buy their audiences. Otherwise, those “lazy” marketers will continue to take a social route.

As with Australia Post, it’s now or never.

 

Let’s go. What do you think?

By Paul McIntyre - Executive Editor

15 March 2020 6min read