Campaign UK - - FRONT PAGE - Chris Clark is the former group head of mar­ket­ing at HSBC

Chris Clark on the leap from agency to client and what 16 years at ‘the world’s lo­cal bank’ has taught him

From fi­nan­cial melt­down to hare-brained ideas, Chris Clark looks back on 16 years at ‘the world’s lo­cal bank’

Peo­ple like to say “I never stopped learn­ing” when they talk about a ca­reer. That’s a good thing but, if we think about what re­ally makes us who we are, isn’t it ex­pe­ri­ences that mat­ter? Ones that give us small scars and grazed knees, or that tell tales of un­likely luck or blind be­lief in a great idea. These are surely the stuff of life.

My land­ing at HSBC was cer­tainly an ex­pe­ri­ence. In 2001, I tran­si­tioned from the comfy seat of an agency ac­count plan­ning department to one of the world’s largest banks with a jolt. The size, scope and scale of the place was daunt­ing (how many coun­tries!?). It did things that I sim­ply did not un­der­stand and that were fun­da­men­tal but for­eign (what is a risk-weighted as­set?).

The power and scale of the place was brought home to me on that dread­ful day of 11 Septem­ber. I was on a busi­ness trip to New York, work­ing with our teams build­ing in­ter­net-banking sys­tems. Tragedy and chaos spread through the city. The team work­ing with us was pulled into a task force. The global fi­nan­cial sys­tem was se­verely stressed, with ma­jor US banks un­able to move fund­ing. That af­ter­noon, credit lines worth bil­lions were put in place and vast sums of money were moved to the right places around the world. This ex­pe­ri­ence showed me how my new or­gan­i­sa­tion mo­bilised. All in­volved kept their heads. Lines of com­mand were clear from the get-go and de­ci­sions were made quickly.

In 2001, though, the mar­ket­ing brief was sim­ple: build a proper brand, not just an ad cam­paign. This was more in my com­fort zone. Once we be­gan to in­ter­ro­gate the com­pany, we found a rich sto­ry­telling cul­ture filled with char­ac­ter and tex­ture. Work­ing with the then Lowe and Part­ners and us­ing the mar­ket­ing man’s great­est ally, the cus­tomers, we found the in­sights that led us to “The world’s lo­cal bank”. This was not a eu­reka mo­ment – it was sim­ply a line that tested well along­side our first cam­paign, “Cul­tural col­li­sions”. This work cel­e­brated things that are the same but dif­fer­ent in places where cul­tures come to­gether.

When pre­sent­ing some of that early work to one of the most se­nior pay­mas­ters at the bank, we gained an in­sight into the com­pany’s man­age­ment style.

“So what do you think?” we asked fear­fully. He took a deep breath, looked us in the eye and said: “What I think is ir­rel­e­vant. I ex­pect you to have got this right. You’ve done your home­work, so I am not of the school of man­age­ment that buys a dog so I can bark my­self.” We took that as ap­proved. All mar­ket­ing was ours to man­age, with no cor­po­rate “helpers”.

The strength of our brand po­si­tion­ing car­ried through to the ap­point­ment of WPP, which, through J Wal­ter Thomp­son, took “The world’s lo­cal bank” to a new level. The agency be­gan to fill our air­port jet­ways with new and thought-pro­vok­ing cre­ative, and we have con­tin­u­ally sought to raise the bar cre­atively. Our Gatwick Air­port sound in­stal­la­tion, “Liv­ing river”, which cel­e­brated the Yangtze river con­ser­va­tion work we have funded, picked up a yel­low Pen­cil at the 2016 D&AD Awards. This bold and slightly hare-brained pro­ject was the prod­uct of trust in our agency born of long-term team con­ti­nu­ity. Joe [Petyan] and Axe [Chalde­cott] from JWT, thank you.

As ex­pe­ri­ences go, the global fi­nan­cial crisis was an­other with plenty to re­flect on. HSBC’S sta­bil­ity and cap­i­tal man­age­ment is a core strength of the bank. Dur­ing these tur­bu­lent times, we took no gov­ern­ment money and con­tin­ued to be a home for peo­ple who feared for their life sav­ings. At the height of the hys­te­ria, we felt it was time to speak, so we pro­duced a cam­paign talk­ing about new funds we were mak­ing avail­able for first-time buy­ers and for small-busi­ness loans. Some wanted to trum­pet that we had not been bailed out, but we felt an act of strength spoke far more deeply. It was a short dis­cus­sion.

So, af­ter 16 years, I have spot­ted that the times they are a-changin’. I could have spent this whole piece talk­ing about dig­i­tal, fin­tech and pro­gram­matic, but others can do that much bet­ter than I can. I be­lieve our ex­pe­ri­ences are pow­er­ful shap­ing forces. Some of these will test you and might even take a lump out of you. Some will nour­ish you and make you three feet taller. Savour them, bot­tle them and draw strength from them. Thank you for tak­ing time to read this. Re­mem­ber, most of us are lucky in our jobs be­cause a great day in mar­ket­ing can’t be beaten and a bad day is still bet­ter than a great day in the finance department.

Clark: ‘We have con­tin­u­ally sought to raise the bar cre­atively’

‘Liv­ing river’: sound in­stal­la­tion won a yel­low Pen­cil at the D&AD Awards last year

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