In his first year working as Director, Franchise Management and Global Brand Strategy for The Walt Disney Company, Jonathan Waecker (MInstD) and his team were given the mammoth task of taking a television series - using real people as opposed to animation - and turning it into a billion-dollar franchise.
The biggest obstacle - all of Disney’s successful franchises had only come from animated characters and content up until that point.
Working with a team of three, and later, supported by the wider company and its knowledge of the music industry, the Hannah Montana franchise came to life.
Within a year it not only became a billion-dollar franchise, but one that included a top-rating TV show, a global concert tour, two theatrical movies, numerous multi-platinum albums, and billions in merchandise value at the world’s biggest retailer, Walmart.
That same year, Waecker and his team also cracked the code for High School Musical, and it wasn’t long before both franchises were identified as top priorities for the entire Walt Disney Company.
“To this day, I’m not entirely sure how we did it,” says Waecker who likens the experience to making an incredible meal that’s impossible to replicate.
With no recipe, format or guidelines to follow, you could say Waecker's success relates not only to his ability to take risks, but also to continue seeing with fresh eyes.
“I happen to love being an imposter, I’m very open about that,” he laughs.
“There are so many new areas of the business where, while I might not yet have the expertise to know everything about what I’m doing, I’m curious, love learning from others, and growing along the way.”
Hailing from San Francisco, Waecker came to New Zealand on his honeymoon five years ago and that's when he fell in love with the country.
While looking for his next career move, he declined to proceed with a CMO opportunity back in the States. The mass-market retailer in question sold guns, among other things, and ultimately, didn’t align with his own values.
It was after an intensive ‘values’ discussion with his recruiter that the profile for The Warehouse Group popped up. It was an exciting opportunity with the potential to make an impact at a national level.
Prior to coming to New Zealand, Waecker had roles including Vice President of Marketing Communications at Yahoo, and before that he was at Zynga - two companies that he believes ‘made the world a better place.’
Waecker joined The Warehouse Group as Chief Marketing Officer 4 years ago, and in 2021 he became the Chief Customer and Sales Officer, following his appointment to Chief Customer Officer in February 2020.
In his role, Waecker is responsible for maximising customer experiences and sales, leading brand strategy and driving customer engagement across a portfolio of brands, which includes Noel Leeming and Warehouse Stationery.
Three years ago, Waecker was also invited to join the board of TheMarket.com.
It was his first foray into New Zealand governance, enabling him to marry his dual finance and marketing backgrounds, while also representing the customer. And he sees the experience as a stepping stone to move into other director roles in the future.
“The reason I said yes to TheMarket.com was because it’s E-commerce, it's digital, it’s a new brand and it's a dotcom, which for New Zealand means we could think globally in our approach,” he says.
Big on ‘outside-in thinking’ his aim is to help the company to see the world as a bigger place, while also addressing how they show up for their customers.
“Most people see things through business metrics and important,” he says of those who come to board roles often with financial backgrounds.
“But if you build metrics around customer experience everything else falls into place and once you start to think that way, it's really powerful,” he says.
Another appeal of joining the board was the vision for TheMarket.com to innovate and grow, while bringing the talent within the wider Group along with it.
“Imagine building an Amazon inside a Walmart. You don’t actually want it to be so different that it can’t make the mother company stronger,” he says.
For both TheMarket.com and his role at The Warehouse Group, bringing an international lens has also been valuable.
Waecker saw how innovation brought disruption and witnessed the impact it was having overseas in taking down big industries. Although New Zealand has been last in line, that disruption has finally arrived. The only difference - he already knows the script.
“It doesn’t mean you can stop it and change the future, but it does mean that you can start to set yourself up as an organisation that can live in that new world,” he says.
Covid has impacted every single industry, and the same is true when speaking about marketing where Waecker says the consumer mood continues to shift depending on lockdown levels around the world.
“Marketing is as much about culture as it is anything else, but what’s happening is the emotional state of New Zealand is completely different from the rest of the world,” he says of the current climate.
Waecker refers to December 2020 as a time where New Zealand was having a happy Christmas, while overseas, many were in lockdown. This time the tables have turned and the rest of the world looks to be finally getting the happy Christmas they missed last year, while New Zealand is now emerging from its own unique challenges.
“So in a sense, New Zealand continues to chart its own unique cultural rhythm in the world” he says of the tipping scales.
Waecker also says upskilling marketers in New Zealand also presents a challenge as a result of classic marketing training and Kiwi businesses sending their work offshore. Where overseas you're more likely to find specialists within the industry, it's not the same case here.
“Because the talent market is so tight and because the jobs are a bit more T-shaped, people’s skills are more generalised,” he says.
And from what he can tell, that generalised approach also transfers across to Kiwi companies and businesses and their aspirations to be world class at everything they do, which just isn't possible.
He suggests instead that they identify the crown jewels of their business - the one thing they wouldn’t be the same without - and work from there.
“This is like the secret sauce and then everything else gets relegated,” he says.
“Hopefully those things align with who you are as a business and those are things where we need to grow talent and protect them...once you find really good talent, I think it's a great way to help multiply the creation of powerful people.”
For Waecker, people matter a lot. He is drawn to companies and environments that have people, culture, and innovation at their core and says one of the best pieces of advice he was ever given: “It doesn’t matter what you say, it matters what people hear.”
That piece of advice has been invaluable.
Waecker has worked and lived in France and China, and says assimilating in those countries was easier than doing so here.
The biggest mistake he’s seen people make when they come from an English-speaking country and arrive in New Zealand is assuming that speaking the same language means they’ve also ticked off an understanding of the culture.
When Waecker joined The Warehouse Group one of his initial tasks was to restructure nine different customer and marketing areas into a common and unified marketing team, which affected hundreds of people including E-commerce, different brands, research analytics and more.
“The thing I was reminded of is to just shut up for the first 6-months and just listen,” he says.
Waecker joined in November and says he didn’t make any changes until March. By June he had his full team, but says building trust came about by asking people what they thought, and more importantly, listening to what they had to say.
“It took me time to figure out how to say something in a way that people would hear what I actually meant,” he says.
Wacker believes that’s an approach that should and can be used at board level.
“Being able to motivate and steer people without making them feel inconsequential is really powerful,” Waecker says.
“When I see people create motivation for others, what they’re really saying is, ‘don’t do this, do that.’ But they do it in a way that the teams they’re talking to feel inspired. They feel bigger, not smaller - that’s an art.”
Jonathan Waecker is the 10,000th member to join the Institute of Directors. In celebration of achieving this milestone, we have launched Faces of Governance to highlight our members' diverse perspectives and why good governance matters to them.
Find out more about our Faces of Governance and join the campaign.