Collaborating through disruption with James Bridgman, Head of Global Marketing at Pollinate International

On this episode of the FINITE Podcast, Alex talked with James Bridgman, Head of Global Marketing at Pollinate International, about leveraging partner marketing and pitching ideas to big businesses to create a win-win situation.

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Full transcript

Alex (00:06):

Hello, and welcome back to the FINITE Podcast, where today I’m talking with James Bridgman, head of global marketing at FinTech Pollinate. Being a FinTech business, Pollinate is looking to disrupt a legacy space. And James thinks a lot about how to use partnership and collaboration to carry out that kind of marketing disruption and how we as marketers can think about, particularly when we are a more disruptive space, partnering with those around us to take new and disruptive solutions to market more effectively. And that’s what we’re gonna be diving into. I hope you enjoy.


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Alex (00:57):

Hello James, and welcome to the FINITE Podcast. Thank you for joining me.


James (01:01):

Well, thank you for inviting me. It’s great to be on here.


Alex (01:03):

We’re looking forward to talking. We’re going to be talking all about collaboration, partnerships. I know that within the FinTech world, this is going to be an interesting one in particular, but I think for lots of our other listeners too. 

Working in dynamic businesses, but often in more kind of legacy industries. I know you’ve got some great perspectives on that before we get there. I’ll let you just tell us a little bit about your career journey to this point, your background, current role team, et cetera, and then we’ll dive in.


About James and his role at Pollinate

James (01:31):

Yeah, so I’ve had a bit of an inverted background. As most people would start in a more conventional firm and then get fed up and leave and set up their own business. I set up my own business first and then went back to the clients. So afterwards, so I ran a sort of specialist, brand and marketing strategy agency called Silverleaf for about 18 years. Just north of Old Street, just on the canal there near Angel. 

And we worked with all sorts of businesses, but a lot of tech firms, a lot of founders, a lot of startups. And then we moved out of London as a family and I decided that I’d want to do something a bit different. So I worked, went to the client-side, I’ve worked for a school, I’ve worked for a couple more tech firms as marketing director or head of marketing and all in quite sort of interesting spaces that are being disrupted.


James (02:18):

And you could say that every industry’s being disrupted, but some more than others. And I’m currently working for Pollinate. So we are a company that helps banks compete against FinTechs, particularly with small businesses in mind. 

So we build the technology that allows them to deploy portals and point of sale devices and that sort of thing with a very powerful data back end, which gives the tools to small businesses that normally only really massive businesses would with business analysts and data departments would be able to do. So interesting company. And I’ve been there a couple of years and, lots of interesting things happening there at the moment.


Alex (02:58):

And tell us a bit about the marketing function generally. Have you got a team? How’s it structured?


James (03:03):

Yeah, so I joined, let’s see, it was the beginning of 2020. The office shut four days later. I don’t think it was my fault, but I think it was a pandemic and I was basically the first sort of professional marketer in there. There’d been someone doing the marketing function, but it had sort of been migrated due to necessity into that role. 

So I was brought in to build out the marketing function in the company and to have another look at the brand and how it was positioned and then work with our clients and partners to see if we could accelerate the company and let and scale it up. 

The company was formed through an alliance partnership with NatWest, who wanted to get back into merchant acquiring, which is the point of sale, bit of the transactional activity that small businesses or any merchant would do when they got in the recession in 2008, they had to sell that part of the company, which turned into World Pay, which is massive now. So they want to get back into it and that’s what Pollinate built for them.

And then we’ve been then taking that platform and talking to other businesses and other banks around the world about how to make it work for them.


Alex (04:12):

Interesting. Very cool. I had no idea that World Pay had kind of been born out of NatWest in that way, but that’s interesting. Cool. And so I think a lot of that lessons will be from tech companies. I mean, as you say, most industries are being disrupted, but you know, pretty dynamic businesses that are doing disruption in different places, but we see maybe the word disruption comes up a bit more in the kind of FinTech in SureTech, LegalTech. 

You know, I guess when the solutions that are going into what a tradition, you considered slightly more legacy industries that are in certain respects, sometimes a bit more behind the curve or just due to size, kind of can’t move with the same agility and it just takes time for them to catch up. So when we dive into this subject and we talk about collaboration, collaborating through disruption, what are we talking about in broad term when we talk about collaboration?


What is the definition of collaboration in B2B tech

James (05:03):

Yeah. So the financial services, particularly banking is quite an interesting case just due to the very fact that we everyone’s dealing with people’s money, people have to be a bit more conservative, bit more trust first. It’s obviously a huge amount of regulation as well, which comes along with it, which means that banking hasn’t been and disrupted in the same way up to this point as a lot of the other more, faster-moving industries in retail and more consumer-based industries. 

So like you say, some of the more legacy industries have taken a bit longer and banking is one of them, but now it’s coming out thick and fast. They’re suddenly realising they have a window where the big FinTechs and the TechFins. So the Google and Facebook of this world are building payment capability. They’re building banks or they’re using the banks to offer their own financial services, which means that the banks have an existential threat.


James (06:01):

They risk just being the dumb pipes that sit in the background and then you’ll get all your cards and all your financial services from Google and from Facebook and from Square and from all the other services that are out there. So everything is massively hotted up. And of course, the stakes are enormous because the sums of money are enormous. So it’s a really interesting industry and because it’s moving so quickly, the actual disruption of the technology is only half the story.

It’s actually the way people think about finance and the way people think about brand and credibility of financial institutions. And they’re not thinking about them in the same way they did 20 years ago. And particularly in our space with small businesses, 20 years ago, 30 years ago, if you wanted to set up a business, you went to the local bank manager who probably knew you are ready, talked to him in discussion about what you wanted to do.


James (06:57):

And then you kept in touch with him and he would offer you different products and services to solve your issues. Of course, that doesn’t exist anymore. To a large extent, branches are closed. Local brand managers don’t know the local businesses as well. And so it’s being replaced by the hyper-personalised, hyper specialised FinTechs who get to know all these customers through data analysis.

And that’s been the thing that everyone suddenly realized that the ticket to the game for the next 30 years is the data on your customers. If you know the data, you know your customers, and if you know your customers, you can sell them all services. So everything’s shifting around, everyone’s scrambling around, to try and solve this problem. Everyone’s doing it in different ways and the banks are looking to FinTechs to help them. And the FinTechs are looking to banks to scale because that’s the hard thing. 

Everyone’s looking for scale when you’re a tech business, but within a highly regulated industry, it’s actually quite difficult to do.


Alex (07:55):

Yeah. Interesting. And so I guess, as we know, a lot of these banks are you have, they’ve been making big investments in technology and have big internal teams often, as you say, are working with FinTech and providers and third parties that can deliver these solutions. 

So from your perspective and from a marketing angle, where does the opportunity lie in this form of collaboration? Because I guess, as you say, there’s that ability to scale and for the banks themselves, is there an element of by working with a FinTech and talking about it and shouting about it, they actually come across as more dynamic and future-looking.


The opportunity of working with big businesses

James (08:36):

Yeah, I think what we’ve found from we working with banks, as we say slightly different, we work with them rather than compete with them. What we found is that the problem with banks is they’re just culturally, they’re not set up to innovate in the speed that a technology firm would be. They’re not used to agile ways of working. They have lots of processes, they’re regulated a lot more than the other companies. 

So some of it’s not even all their fault. It’s the sit, they’re a bit squeezed in the middle that they would love to do more innovative things. And often there’s leadership from the top to say: Yes, we’ve got to do more tech, we’ve got to be. You’ve got to match all the oncoming competitors. And we’ve got to do all these things to change, but it’s incredibly difficult. I mean, I don’t the latest stats, but a typical bank is likely to have 30 to 40 legacy IT systems.


James (09:28):

I know some banks still have whole systems based on COBOL, you know, one of the original programming languages and it’s just horrendous to try and replace these systems. So they’ve got to deal with all that. 

And they’re looking to the FinTechs really to say, how do we cut through all these issues, not just technologically, which is obviously probably the biggest part of it in terms of how can we put systems on top of our legacy systems and transform quicker rather than having to have a 15 year it project to replace them. 

But how also can we use work with FinTechs to try and change the way we understand we approach business and how we change the culture slightly within our company. And that’s a real challenge for both sides.


Alex (10:13):

Yeah. And do you think from a marketing and growth and a scale angle, this is something that could span lots of different industries, but it feels more relevant in disruptive spaces, such as these where you kind of, as you’ve alluded to both need each other to some extent. 

And when we think about how you grow at tech companies are zooming out and all the different marketing channels and all the different things you can do actually is partnering up almost just like a fast track way of getting that to some extent.


The position where Pollinate stands with big banks

James (10:43):

Yeah. So the FinTechs want scale. They want access to the bank’s customers in some shape or form, and really the banks, what they need from the FinTechs is that sort of understanding of the next generation of consumers and bankers and businesses, they’re going to use these services. So in terms of marketing, there are a lot of channels that both will use to reach those people, but fundamentally banks still have the reach. 

They still have that trusted relationship. Even the neobank have a relatively small share of what you call bank accounts. So bank accounts that people actually pay their salaries into a lot of bank accounts out there that they’re not used for those core things, but that window’s closing, you know, that opportunity is fleeting. So the banks are desperately trying to retool themselves, but it’s actually a fundamental change, which makes it really difficult for their them.


James (11:39):

And what we try to do Pollinate in terms of marketing is actually say to the bank: Look, we can do things that you can’t, you can do things that we wouldn’t be allowed to. Let’s sit down and work out how we can help each other, you know, how can we plan, what channels can we affect more easily than you? What budgets can be allocated in different areas so that we can both benefit. And I think that’s key to a successful partnership is having a really honest conversation about “Look, you can’t do this because of this case, probably regulation, team size, that sort of thing. And we can’t do those things because we don’t have the budget or we don’t have the reach, or we don’t have the direct interaction with customers.” 

And we’ve got other partners as well who have similar problems. So we work with Mastercard, working with Dun & Bradstreet now, Microsoft, and it’s all a matter of having that honest conversation, where’s the win-win for both sides. And I think to be able to have that conversation at a high enough level, so that has executive sponsorship. Suddenly you have something, right. It’s not, if something’s going to happen, it’s what’s going to happen. And that’s when you really lean into it and push hard for the best outcomes and the best projects that you can possibly think of.


Alex (13:00):

Yeah. And does it always feel balanced in that sense? And because I can imagine a marketing team at a big bank thinking, “God, we’re giving these guys a fair amount of reach. We’ve got this huge audience and email lists and imagine a thousand, if not millions of users, customers to contact.” 

Can there be some back and forth or is it actually just the case that you’re both so focused on the final outcome that the marketing that happens to get there is just a must.


James (13:28):

Yeah. I mean, to be quite honest, I try and avoid the main marketing team in the bank, if I can. There’s normally a satellite project, which is related to what you are working on or what your company’s working on with the bank. So it’s much easier then because they, you are both trying to be successful in the same space. 

And it does mean that they’re more receptive to this normally also because it’s a relatively recent project, which is being given a green light by someone, usually the CEO or at least that part of the organisation. 

Then there’s sort of a little bit more wiggle room in terms of, you’re not trying to do something new, which has been done hundreds of times before you’re doing something totally in a different sort of territory that the bank has done before. So you’ve got that.


James (14:17):

So a little bit more freedom. Having said that regulation in banking is a nightmare and to try and move at the speed. So you’ve got to, and what we try to do, is we try and have a two speed strategy. So we work at the speed of the bank, which is generally quite slow to say: Okay, over time, if we have, you know, the sort of incremental wins, we get them to do these 10 things this year that we know will win them more customers or will roll out the platform quicker or whatever it might be.” 

And then we have sort of five or six things that we really want to do that we need their support with. And then we sort of work our way through those lists, but we will be able to do things far quicker than they will. But it’s about really having an honest conversation at the beginning and saying, look, we really want to do these two things and we’d love if we could help you to do these other things and then see what the conversation gets you.

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Alex (15:36):

Are there other examples of campaigns of this nature, the things where you’ve collaborated that you can talk about?


An example of successful collaboration

James (15:40):

Yeah. So probably the best examples last year, we ran a competition with Mastercard, a global competition of filmmakers about small businesses. We signed an agreement with global corporation agreement with Mastercard about 18 months ago. And in the agreement, there was a page about marketing, but basically didn’t say anything except we would like to work together on marketing. That was about the extent of the detail that they’d put in the contract. 

So we then had discussions with the global marketing team at Mastercard and just basically said: Okay, what are your problems? What are your key issues? And we sort of ran through them and then we explained ours as well. And I went away basically and said: Right, okay, what are the campaign ideas I can come up with, which will solve both problems like ours and theirs. And the idea was to crowdsource small business stories because Mastercard like us, we don’t have any direct customers.


James (16:36):

It’s through a third party. One of their main goals is to support small business around the world. And one of our main goals is to also through our technology support small businesses. So let’s create some stories. And so we created this competition called Ingenious, which ended up being run in 31 countries. And we ended up with sort of 50 or so broadcast quality films talking about different businesses all over the world and how they’d responded against COVID and how they’d survived and thrived against that. 

And Mastercard supported us financially. So they gave us the weight, but we basically ended up acting like an agency for them. We took a lot of the risk off their plate. But we were able to execute the campaign with our name next to theirs. So it was a big brand win for us. Great win in terms of collateral and storytelling around the issues that we care about and these issue they care about. 

So, a really nice campaign. And I think what it proved was if you really listen carefully to their problems and you can say, give them credible good ideas that might deal with those, then you’ve got a really good chance of having a really fruitful collaboration.


Alex (17:55):

Yeah. It sounds like your agency background was an advantage in this case when you make that parallel to acting like an agency.


James (18:01):

Yeah, basically. So I just tend to do that all the time. Anyway, within any business, I work with all four that I tend to pitch ideas all the time. And if people blow me out, then, you know, you don’t try, you don’t get it. So you might as well just pitch.


Alex (18:18):

And I imagine that when Mastercard, I assume happy to have a partner that could execute at speed and probably felt more agile working with you if they were trying to do all of this themselves internally.


James (18:31):

Yeah, exactly. And they have a lot of partnerships. So there are a lot of partnerships that these big companies will sign, which will end up with quite average outcomes. They’ll do a case study together or they’ll do something, which to be honest, it’s been seen thousand times before, and it’s sort of good for the smaller partner, but won’t really move the needle on for the larger partner very much. 

But over aggregate, once you’ve added up all these partnerships, it does a great job for them, but I don’t really think that way. So I’d sort of trying to think of something much bigger that could be scaled and repeated. And they’ve used it in conference presentations. They’ve used a big internal global events as an example, they’ve done interviews on LinkedIn live with some of the businesses who are filmed, all sorts of things because it’s just something that they haven’t otherwise done because it’s not their natural go to in terms of what the activity they would do.

And we are planning again for this year. So hopefully bigger and better than before I am pitching that they really should show to Cannes Film Festival as they do sponsor it. But I’m not quite sure whether that’s gone down.


Alex (19:44):

Well, as you say, don’t ask you don’t get so.


James (19:47):

Yeah. So I’m hoping for it.


Alex (19:48):

We talk about this as collaboration and collaborating through disruption. I mean, this is partnership marketing, channel marketing, channel sales, all of these different things I guess been talked about for a long time, is this different and does it fall into one of these boxes?


James (20:03):

So what I think is different about marketing now as it was probably just five years ago, is that values principles, whether the brand or of society as a whole are much more important as they used to be. We’ve got some existential challenges around climate change and around inequality and various other issues, nationality and all sorts of things. 

But I think on people’s minds a lot more than they used to be. And I think brands should even small brands should lean and put them much more front and centre. And I sort of think of it as brand partnerships rather than in any of the others. And, but the others will naturally fall out of those sort of values-based campaigns. So we are building a whole load of assets for sales lead gen, and for brand promotions that has come out of the Ingenious campaign that we’ve got reports and things that Mastercard have done around small business that we’re leveraging. 

We’ve got all the videos that have come out of the competition that we’re using. And we’re combining that with our other strands of marketing and the other themes that we’ve been building up to create some much more interesting collateral and to be the basis of some lead gen in the future. And of course, it’s great to be able to talk to other people, other brands about what you’ve done with Mastercard to try and do a similar thing and be similarly ambitious.


Alex (21:30):

Exactly. It’s a pretty good case study to have. What does success look like when you sit down and I guess this is partly defined by partner marketing? 

Are we just trying to drive brand awareness or are we actually trying to drive leads and real kind of live opportunities, but when you sit down and kick-off a campaign like that with Mastercard, I assume you’re defining some measures of success, but is it a number of impressions of videos or is it accounts influenced or what kind of things are you looking at?


 How to measure the success of partner marketing

James (21:58):

Yeah, so I think there’s a lot of influence there. So not just our clients who obviously, so for example, we invited several of our clients onto the judging panel for the competition and because we have an international business. 

So we tend to have only one big client per country. It does mean that we’ve got assets, which are directly from that country, which is a great, great way of talking to people within that market. So there’s a lot of influence marketing in terms of the key stakeholders that we work with these massive banks. 

Because our projects with these banks are, you know, they last for five, seven years, at least. So we need to make sure that strategically and sort of on the ground, they’re aligned with us and they’re involved with us. So that really helps with that type of activity is not just the day to day aligning their developers with our developers sort of thing.


James (22:52):

It’s actually a bit more of an emotional hook for them to be involved with these types of projects. I think the other thing is that it is ROI based, but slightly over a longer period. Our sales cycle is probably about two years. 

So the assets that fall out of this will become powerful raw material for lots of different campaigns that we can run sort of verticals in terms of different sectors, specialisms, banks may service, for example, you know, they may have a particularly stronghold in one market in the hospitality sector, for example. So we will need some collateral. 

We need some powerful stories for that particular sector for that particular country. So the more those sort of things that we have, the more ammunition we have for the lead gen, that’s not just another FinTech. Because I think that’s the danger, you know, there’s only so many sort of geometric people in colorful jumpers that are drawn on the screen that will stretch across all the FinTechs and other tech companies in the world. And I think people struggle to remember, which is which once you get to that level abstraction.


Alex (24:02):

Yeah. Do you think this is, I mean, as we’ve talked about, more common in these disruptive environments. Do you think this is often overlooked as an approach just more generally? Because I think a lot of marketers that I talk to in B2B tech and SaaS companies, all different shapes and sizes, partnerships, activities, and marketing, I guess it will vary a lot from company to company, sector to sector.

But typically isn’t that has a list, when you think about the budgets that go into SEO and pay channels and all the other things they might be doing, why do you think that is?


The reason digital marketing is more common than partner marketing

James (24:38):

My personal view is that I think a lot of digital unless your consumer brand has been slightly overplayed. I think if you look at how the really successful brands have lasted and grown over a reasonable amount of time, actually the sort of old principles of brand awareness and sort of brand availability in people’s minds is much more important than people pay credit for. 

And I think that’s the time scale that we are dealing with. You know, we get a lot of pressure from our exec team or whatever it is to produce results. And digital’s great at that because you can draw charts and you can do all these things, but actually, if you look at what will move the needle over time, what you’re going actually change about something you need quite a lot of leverage to change things within your market.


Alex (25:28):

That’s actually a good question is I guess for you within Pollinate and C-suite and others that you kind of have to have on board when signing off an idea like this, does that come up? Is that like, well, James, this sounds great, but when are we going to see the impact and what are the results going to be? 

And what are the numbers like? Is that a conversation? I think for me, this always starts at the top and some founders, CEOs and others are just, they get marketing, they understand it and others just don’t and they just want to see a chart and a graph.


Great materials bring out great ROI

James (25:57):

So I’m really at Pollinate in that term that I’ve a lot of support from the founders and exec team. In terms of sort of thing, I think it would helped that we are a company that sells slightly from the top down. So we sell from a sort of strategic point of view rather than a SaaS or a mass-market point of view. So that does help because people are appreciative of the fact that brand is important. Relationships and partnerships are critical for us to get our next client. 

You know, if you’re talking about clients, if we get 20 clients, the business is sort of finished because we can’t get more than that. If there’s one per country, that’s a pretty massive business either. So we are quite unusual in that respect, I have had similar conversations in the past with other CEOs about, you know, where’s the ROI, but I think you have to go back to the fact that if you’re going to create great campaigns that have great ROI, you have to have great material to work with. And just coming up with that yourself, rather than going back to what’s happening in the real world, you know, whether it’s research or whether it’s sort of crowdsource like this was, or whether it’s commissioned, you have to have great materials to get a great ROI.


Alex (27:12):

Yeah. And I guess it helps that it’s Mastercard right too. And that maybe this is a more fundamental point of because we talked so much about investing in brands and how that’s difficult and how often it’s hard to unlock the budget and this whole kind of brand versus performance. 

We put them at one end as opposites rather than things that can both be invested in at the same time, which is really the reality. But maybe partnerships is a way of unlocking some of that brand campaign because which CEO’s going to say no to a joint campaign with Mastercard. Right. If you’re a FinTech.


James (27:39):

Yeah, exactly. So, the easiest way to have the conversation is in this example: “Oh, Mastercard wants to do this campaign with us rather than I want to do this campaign with Mastercard.”


Alex (27:51):

To a Brand. Yeah, exactly.


James (27:53):

So if you can get them on board and that depends on listening really carefully to what their problems, if you are solving their problems and just coincidentally solving yours at the same time, then you are much more likely to get buy-in for it. And you know, it wasn’t a tough sell because I think they saw the value of the concept straight away, but it has grown significantly since we started doing it and get more and more traction as we’ve gone through using the campaign, using the output, seeing the output what’s come out of it. 

And it’s done a lot of favors in terms of working with Mastercard because it just, you know, to actually do a project together is the thing that proves the people right.You can talk a great talk and marketers very good at that, but to actually get something substantial at the end of it is the real proof of the pudding and, you know, people want to go back to it.


James (28:45):

Well, why did you do that? If you can say, well, X and Y and we got all this out of it and this is what flowed from here. And, you know, we created these relationships which led to this campaign and all the rest of it. Then I think suddenly it becomes easy. 

The first one’s always the hardest one, but I would encourage people to think of yourselves a bit like an agency pitching, if you’re going to approach your potential partner and say: Okay, we’ve really got to sell this to them. If they’re on board, it’s much more likely for us to get on board and also funding. If it becomes a co-funded event, suddenly you are actually adding to the budget rather than taking away.


Alex (29:24):

Yeah. Those are great tips. I think on which to wrap up as we’re pretty much out of time, but I think, yeah, even for myself, lots of things to think about on partnerships it’s I think any marketer that hasn’t yet explored, it’s got some great tips there in terms of solving the partners, challenges, thinking about how you frame the conversation for budget. Some great thoughtful tips and advice. So I appreciate you coming on. Thanks for your time James.


James (29:47):

No worries. Great to come on. Look forward to the next episode.


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