AT&T CMO heralds targeted approach

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David Christopher, CMO, AT&T
David Christopher, CMO, AT&T

Unlike most marketers, David Christopher, AT&T's CMO of Mobility and Consumer Markets, doesn't credit communications and creativity as his primary driving motivators. For Christopher, it's the power and speed of technology that have made his career most rewarding. Ever since the 1970s, when he was enamored with Atari games — and then in the 1980s with the Commodore 64 — Christopher has wanted to be a leading voice championing the consumer value of technology.

His current task is to market new AT&T wireless products and services, hit sales targets, grow AT&T Mobility and Consumer Market's share, increase average revenue per user and increase gross smart phone penetration. To meet these goals, AT&T Mobility leverages a highly targeted, highly integrated approach to direct marketing. The division drives sales using a variety of channels, including direct mail and catalog, email, social media, search, display, television, telemarketing, radio and, of course, mobile marketing.

“We go to market with a very wide array of mediums. We think each has its place,” Christopher says. “AT&T is so big and our media is broad, so you see things that run on general market TV that have to be broad. But what we do in direct marketing is extremely targeted.”

Strengthening the AT&T brand hasn't been easy recently. The company's past year will forever be defined by its failure to acquire T-Mobile USA. The $39 billion deal was blocked by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Department of Justice because the two governing bodies did not believe the transaction “would serve the public interest, convenience, and necessity” and would limit competition and investment in wireless technology, according to an FCC staff report.

Competition has been anything but limited for AT&T, which currently ranks second behind Verizon in wireless subscribers, (107.7 million to 100.7 million as of the end of the third quarter 2011). The acquisition would have yielded more than 30 million subscribers for AT&T.

Christopher says the failed transaction hasn't affected how he goes about his role.

“We're back to business as usual,” he says. “My job is to win in the marketplace with whatever hand I'm dealt. That's what I'm focused on.”

His “hand” currently consists of a marketing team of “well over 1,000” and “a very significant portion of the overall advertising budget for AT&T Inc.,” which totaled $1.2 billion for the first half of 2011 (Christopher would not provide more specific figures).

Leading a team of marketers for a major technology brand has been a dream of Christopher's since his days as an English major at the University of Virginia, when Christopher hung around with engineers who “spoke about technology for technology's sake with an inability to translate it into how it can impact me as a consumer,” he says.

That's when it hit him: He needed to find a way to translate the technological needs of customers into a language they could relate to. His career path was born.

After college Christopher took his English degree to Europe to work for Sara Lee, a job he quickly abandoned when he enrolled as an MBA at Northwestern. “I loved Sara Lee, and it was great experience but I missed technology and the speed of technology,” he explains.

In 1996, he joined Apple's Newton Group, which developed Apple's first tablet platform in 1993. He says the product was “ahead of its time but tried to do too much,” unlike the product developed by his next employer, Palm.

At Palm, Christopher served as VP of product marketing and management, a role that required him to articulate to consumers the power of Palm's Pilot, a personal digital assistant. The Pilot, Christopher says, was a success because it “did just a few things well and didn't try to do too much,” a lesson that he has brought with him to AT&T. “Less is more and you've got to have a focused proposition,” he says.

After seven years at Palm, he moved on to Cingular in 2004 (Cingular was later acquired by AT&T). He initially served as VP of product management and held various senior-level positions until he was named CMO of AT&T's Mobility and Consumer Markets in 2007.

Four years later, the division is in the midst of its most recent campaign, “You've Got a Case,” which launched in late November and features 30 Rock actor Will Arnett. The Facebook campaign was AT&T's witty attempt to connect with the youth consumer leading up to the holiday season. The campaign's app enables a consumer to create a customized legal defense that proves to a gift-giver that the consumer deserves an AT&T smart phone.

“Growing up in the Cingular days we always had a tone that had a wink to it or a little bit of an edge,” Christopher explains. “We activated and targeted this campaign on Facebook and virally as the predominant channels, and we think it will resonate with a younger target audience.”

To reach customers on traditional channels, AT&T produces the seasonal Time Inc.-published AT&T Magazine that highlights new products, services and promotions. It also sends personalized direct mail and email, all of which feature trackable phone numbers, URL and quick response codes where applicable (“We're virtually putting barcodes and QR codes on all our direct pieces now,” he claims).

AT&T partners with a wide variety of advertising and marketing agencies to ensure that each channel is given the appropriate professional support. Partners include advertising agency of record BBDO; MEC for media buying; Interbrand for branding; GSD&M for direct response TV; Hacker Group and Luckie & Co. for direct mail; SolutionSet for catalogs; Bravo, Dieste and Sanders Wingo for Hispanic markets; and Intertrend for Asian American markets.

A diverse mix of agencies enables Christopher and AT&T to integrate a wide variety of channels into one cohesive brand message. “The ability to create immersive interactive campaigns in real-time based on who you are, where you are, in real-time is impressive,” he says. “As a marketer, whether you're at Coca-Cola, AT&T or Walmart, harnessing the power of mobility, smart phones, fast networks, interactivity and social, is a new heyday for us.”

Although Christopher says the marketing industry is just “scratch[ing] the surface in terms of the trend of all of these elements converging,” he says he thinks integration and targeting will “change the way we interact with products, services, providers and with our peers.”

The ability to approach different channels, partners, employees and situations with the appropriate situational judgment is what makes Christopher a strong leader, says Mark Collins, SVP of data and voice products for AT&T Mobility and Consumer Markets. “When you're running an organization as large as his there's not one method that is the key that will turn all ignitions,” Collins explains. “He's got a vast and differentiated set of senior leaders that work for him and he navigates the ability to interact with them the way it should be done, on an individual basis, as opposed to everyone adapting to him. The marketing function is as varied a role as it gets in business. He has a unique ability to manage multiple sets of challenges and demands and never miss a beat.”

Collins says the same situational judgment can be attributed to Christopher's ability to remain a constant presence in the life of his four- and eight-year-old daughters despite international travel and demanding office hours.

“Listening to him get into character as a father is really a unique insight into a man who puts his family first as much as he can given the demands of his job,” Collins says.

When asked how he balances a rigorous professional life with his personal life, he references his love of technology.

“The product that I sell allows people to be connected in real-time wherever they are,” Christopher says, pausing for a second to break free from his own CMO-speak. “I consume that dog food myself as a dad, husband and professional [because] the pace of our lives is so fast and so harried at times that our mobile technology allows you to always stay in touch and that's priceless.”

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