A strong, independent chief marketing officer might seem an indispensable executive boardroom fixture of every major corporation these days. Not at Vodafone, however, which has taken the controversial step of abolishing the role and putting its recently imported incumbent, Wendy Becker, out to pasture.
Why? Becker seems to have been less a casualty of new thinking about who should occupy the C-Suite than the victim of a power struggle at the top of the company, in which she lost out.
A former managing director of broadband supplier TalkTalk, Becker was hired only a year ago to replace Frank Rovekamp with a no-holds-barred brief to clean up Vodafone’s messy marketing. That meant not only bringing sadly needed coherence to Vodafone’s confused global brand image, but a full-scale purge of its bloated marketing department. Her dynamism did not disappoint. Out, in short order, went global brand director David Wheldon and global director of customer insight Andy Moore. In, at least on a temporary basis, came Vodafone India high-flier Harit Nagpal to combine the two roles. At the same time 10% of the marketing department – some 90 people in the sluggish European markets of Britain, Germany and Denmark – were made surplus to requirements. WPP-owned The Partners was appointed to conduct a global brand identity review, and Becker applied some arc-light scrutiny to the underperforming mobile advertising business.
Whatever she may have achieved, it was not enough to convince Vodafone chief executive Vittorio Colao to back her cause. In a root-and-branch corporate restructure which has seen marketing subsumed into a new “group commercial” unit that also includes business services, “global enterprise and partner markets”, the big winner seems to have been Vodafone’s European ceo, Michel Combes. The world has been divided into two operating theatres, Europe and Africa/Middle East/Asia Pacific – which sensibly reflect Vodafone’s two-speed growth path. The high-speed emerging markets will report to Nick Read (who already heads Asia and the Middle East); while sluggish Europe, which nonetheless accounts for 80% of Vodafone’s business, remains in Combes’ capable hands. On closer inspection, however, it becomes apparent that polytechnicien Combes has actually strengthened his hand by adding high-scoring markets in Eastern Europe and Turkey to his existing domain. Heir to the throne? Not necessarily, but certainly he’s received a big slap on the back from Colao.
Which is more than can be said for Becker and her marketing department. Becker, who already reports to Combes, sought to establish a new reporting line directly to the overall boss. But Colao (not to mention Combes) was having none of it. Becker resigned and marketing was humiliatingly put back in its place – or rather, into a subordinate role in the commerce department under former Africa and Central Europe chief Morten Lundal . For the time being Becker will concern herself with “customer experience and engagement”, but that’s just a fig leaf: she’s in the departure lounge. Nagpal, who was in any case an interim appointment, has quit to become ceo of Sky India. The timing of his exit – in late August – may not have been entirely coincidental. All the less so given his deputy David Erixon is also leaving.