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Learning from adversity: Mel Hopkins shares the bold thinking, bravery and instincts that drive her as a CMO

ADMA Global Forum

4 Aug 2023

Former Optus marketing chief and now Seven Network’s CMO, Mel Hopkins, shares the career learnings that have helped her foster boldness, bravery and determination as a marketer and where she sees the future of marketing leadership.

It’s not often marketers get a behind-the-scenes look at how a chief marketing officer really proves their mettle when thrown into the fire. But at this year’s ADMA Global Forum 2023, former Optus VP of marketing and now chief marketing and audience officer for Seven Network, Mel Hopkins, will pull back the curtain on her experiences during the unprecedented Optus data breach of 2022 and share invaluable learnings about what it takes to be a brand custodian in a time of crisis.

With an apt conference theme this year of ‘elevate your marketing game’, ADMA caught up with Hopkins to hear about the incredible insights she’s bringing to the stage this year, what she sees for the future of marketing, and why she’s one of the boldest, bravest marketing leaders out there right now in this country.

What’s one thing you’ve done in the last year that’s helped elevate your marketing game?

Melissa Hopkins (MH): I changed roles. I’m not always encouraging people to chop and change – I was proudly at Optus for six years. But moving into a new role, industry and a more expanded role has set me up to think forward, consider new things and how I need to elevate what I felt was maybe common thinking. I was super comfortable at Optus and we did great work. But I’ve been thrown into a new industry and for the first time in my career, I have to market something for free. What I mean is you don’t pay for television. I haven’t done that in my entire career.

What’s one bold brand bet you are most proud of making during your career and how did it pay off?

MH: It was around 2008 when I was working on the British Army doing a campaign called ‘Start thinking solider’. It was a very bold recruitment campaign, primarily aimed at infantry soldiers, when the British Army was in the thick of Afghanistan. We came up with a concept and idea that tapped into what we felt the audience would love, which was gaming. We used a lot of Army training modules, pushed them through gaming systems, then shot a campaign with interspersed real and gaming footage. We then built an incredibly expansive CRM platform in order to drive recruitment.

It was incredibly successful. The reason it’s bold is that the Army felt it [gamification] may indeed be a fad. We had to demonstrate how looking at and recruiting people differently was going to pay off, versus the traditional model, which wasn’t actually garnering them the right soldiers.

I encourage marketers to go check out the case study. It was way ahead of its time and changed the trajectory of my career.

With a presentation talking about the challenges of Optus’ 2022 data breach at ADMA Global Forum, you’re clearly a brave operator. How do you define and encourage bravery as a leader and across your team?

MH: By example. I think it is super important I show the way of how to be brave. That’s often by making tough decisions, being vulnerable, authentic, admitting when mistakes have happened, and errors, and that you learn from them. I believe that’s the best way of doing it – from the ground up and by demonstrating being brave isn’t scary and if you fall down, you’ll always have a team around you to pick you up again.

Do marketers have to be braver than other executives in business today?

MH: The expectation is you are super brave. In terms of our cyberattack, that’s something I will talk about. I was the voice of the customer and people were asking, Mel, what should we do? Without doubt, there is an expectation you are brave and it’s where some marketers fall over. There are those who carry on they don’t get the seat at the table because they’re not brave enough. So many decisions we make, to be honest, are based on professional instinct.

What’s one skill you believe every marketing team should be investing in now that’ll better help them face the future?

MH: There is a core skill for the future of marketing we need to work on and that is commercial nous. When I talk about commercial nous, I’m talking about the company P&L, how it operates, how it makes money, what the imperatives are, what the corporate strategy is. I say to people in my team and indeed agency partners: Don’t speak to me about any strategy or delivery if you’ve not read the annual report.

You need to understand the investment the business puts into marketing and be able to garner that return.

Privacy and compliance isn't just regulation, it’s a matter of trust. What’s one lesson the Optus data breach taught you about building and restoring trust with consumers?

MH: Restoring trust in customers is impossible if you haven’t built it in the first place. It’s something I learnt firsthand during the cyberattack at Optus last year. There has to have been trust there in the first place. We very much took an approach where we believed it was important to be transparent with customers, to come out and be open around what happened early, and at times share that we didn’t have every single detail to answer every though some people got frustrated about it.

Post-breach, we went through a period where we fell off the Richter Scale in terms of trust. But the brand has bounced back in astounding fashion. I believe it’s because the brand was trusted first, we acted with integrity throughout that entire process, and we were willing to stand up and get beaten down when people were frustrated.

Ensure you have trust in the first place, because if something out of your control comes and knocks it down, you have no hope in building it back up.

Why was it important to talk about this topic at ADMA Global Forum?

MH: I felt it was super important to share my experiences as a CMO leading the brand through a cyberattack with Optus with the rest of the industry. There’s this odd oxymoron: We say we fight to ensure the business really appreciates the value of the brand day-to-day, but I can assure you when a crisis hits, the one core focus is on brand.

It's really important to learn in this industry from both the highs and lows, and indeed challenges. Last year, I experienced the biggest crisis of any brand within Australia, which was the cyber incident while I was at Optus. It was deeply unfortunate, it was highly publicised, and it came with a whole lot of curveballs, examples and incidents I could never have imagined dealing with in my career.

I see it as my responsibility to go and share that with the marketing community so they can take on-board my learnings – the good learnings, plus some of the learnings I found maybe a little tough along the way. I look forward to sharing it with everyone.

What’s one thing that excites you about the future of marketing?

MH: The one thing I’m excited about in marketing is what’s next. In the past three years, the world has changed so quickly – I’ve learnt more, there is more technology, more media channels, more fragmentation. I’m excited about throwing myself all-in to learn.

It’s things like ADMA and Global Forum that give you the opportunity to stay on top of some of these new trends. Because no-one knows what the future is going to look like.

Hear from Mel and many other marketing thought leaders live at ADMA Global Forum 2023.

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