Q&A: H&R Block’s Robert Turtledove

Consumers these days are cutting back on just about everything. But if there’s one thing they shouldn’t do without, it’s sound tax advice. And not just around April 15 either, says Robert Turtledove, H&R Block’s newly hired chief marketing officer. That’s because tough times call for an even closer look at spending, whether it’s maximizing tax dollar returns or getting “the biggest refund back.” For this reason, H&R Block’s been spending more on advertising, including $130 million through April of this year, per Nielsen. (Tax services traditionally spend almost all of their ad budgets in the run-up to April 15.)

But Turtledove, who hails from a food and beverage and executive job search background, including most recently at TheLadders.com, said it’s not how much you spend, but what and how you spend it on that matters. Case in point: The brand is gearing up for a new campaign via DDB that will launch next year. While the details have yet to be announced, Turtledove said it’s an example of how H&R Block’s advertising will focus on the “power, creativity and energy” of the brand to get consumers thinking about it 24/7. He spoke with Brandweek reporter Elaine Wong.

Brandweek: You’re H&R Block’s first CMO since 2007, when Brad Iversen left the post. How’s it feel to occupy a position that’s been vacated for so long? Are you starting anew or picking up after your predecessor?

Robert Turtledove: We’ve had a good pool of talented people shepherd the H&R Block brand for the last couple of years. It always helps to keep a fresh pair of eyes coming in, almost taking stock and evaluating where we’re at in the marketplace. The environment has changed so dramatically in the last few years, that regardless of where we were when we left off, the conditions and environment today really demand a relook at the situation.
What are your goals and expectations for the job? Top three items on your to-do list now.

The focus has always been on the client. This is a consumer/client-centric business. The first thing is listening, learning and immersing myself in the business. [Also], learning how it works, what are the critical issues and opportunities facing the brand and what do consumers think of the brand? And [thirdly], to be completely ready for the 2010 tax season with world-class service and great, knowledgeable and friendly tax professionals. [It’s about] how will we deliver the best-in-class service to existing and new customers.

H&R Block most recently hired Omnicom Group’s DDB. How is that client-agency relationship coming along? Any new work in progress yet?

I have DDB-Omnicom roots myself. (Turtledove spent nine years with TracyLocke, part of the Omnicom Group. He also worked with Omnicom’s BBDO while vp, marketing at Pizza Hut.) I am very familiar with the attitude and approach they have to doing business. We are working very hard on next year’s campaign. We’re definitely on the same page with the work we have in progress. [We feel very comfortable] working together. It’s like riding a bike with an agency and culture you know and are familiar with.

Where are you taking H&R Block next in its marketing efforts? What’s your overall vision/philosophy for this brand?

This is a leadership brand. It takes a leadership role. That means what you can expect from us is leading edge ways to satisfy and reassure clients they are getting what they need in the right way and the way they want it. It means that for the first and next 55 years (H&R Block was founded in 1955) we will continue to be the most trusted name in an area that’s very close and personal to people’s hearts and lives and their families.

You come from a food and beverage and, most recently, executive job search background. How will these experiences help you out in this role?

On the restaurant side, a couple of things. . . . The restaurant service is about satisfying and serving people, so, making them want to go back because they have a special relationship with you, that part is applicable to the H&R Block brand.

[Regarding] some of my experiences later in life, it’s a combination of [offering advice] and helping people out in areas they are not particularly good at, whether it’s writing a resume or looking for jobs. People don’t do that type of thing that often. With taxes, it’s not an area people are particularly good at. They do it once a year and even then, most don’t do it that well. There are some very interesting analogies with helping people out with things they’re not good at.

The Ladders is a trendy, e-commerce Internet digital company. The experience there will translate really well into looking at “What are the multi-facets of the H&R Block brand?” [That is,] the retail, online and digital businesses and all the different ways we can satisfy American taxpayers getting their tax services. So, [I’d sum up my experience as] a combination of digital, the feeling of satisfying customers and [helping consumers with a particular field] of expertise.

What’s the greatest challenge you face today and how are you overcoming that? Does the economy have anything to do with it?

The toughest challenge is, you’ve got a hurting taxpayer base and high unemployment, meaning more than ever people need help. Financially, people are in tougher straits than they’ve been in before. [In times like these,] consumers need to turn to services they can trust, services that can help them. . . . The single biggest way we can help is by helping people navigate these really tough times. It’s a big challenge, but it’s interesting because it’s an opportunity for people to figure out, “How can I be reassured that I’m actually maximizing my opportunity, whether it’s getting the biggest refund back or not paying a penny more in taxes than I need to?” Tough times call for us to be smarter and more judicious with our money and what you spend it on and what resources you use to help with that.

Consumers tend to think of tax preparing and filing as a seasonal business. How do you keep the brand top of mind all year round?

There is a tax season, but the thing we know is tax pertinent events happen year round. You have a business meal — that’s a taxable expense. You are looking for a new job . . . you have a baby. Those are month-in and month-out tax relevant events. We want to make sure people are thinking about [events like these] as part of managing their life cycle, not just January through April, but “Hey, what does that mean to me?” We are looking at lots of ways we can engage them when and where and how [these events] happen to them.

H&R Block has been upping media spending in a recession. (U.S. measured media outlay, online aside, was $130 million through April of this year, compared to $105 million for all of 2008, per Nielsen.) Do you plan to continue that?

We’re going to spend whatever is necessary to get the job done right. That’s not necessarily a specific number; it is, “what is going to accomplish the growth we seek?” We believe that spending smarter, with more focus and in the right areas is just as critical. The wiser you spend, the more bang you get for your buck. A huge [component] of next year’s plan will be the power, creativity and energy of our messages. If you spend $100 or $180 million on a message that is good/great, it will feel one way. If you spent the same amount of money on a message that is powerful, resonate and makes an impact, [those dollars will have] a multiplier effect. It’s about spending it on the right things and spending it wisely and putting powerful, resonating and relevant messages behind it, so the [quality of the] creative is a huge part of our spending strategy.

What are we likely to see from H&R Block in the coming weeks/months? Any big marketing projects you’re working on?

Everything we’re working on right now is fully focused on being ready for the next tax season, which starts late November/early December. As all of our efforts and big projects are focused on that launch, you are probably not going to hear a lot from us in the next six to eight weeks because we are working like crazy to get [that campaign] up and out the door.

Where are you taking the “You’ve got people” campaign next?

“You’ve got people” was an area for us to talk about the experience and dedication of the 100,000+ tax professionals we have at H&R Block. They are the ones who are servicing this huge client base. We are looking at how we can continue to build on that and take that to the next logical step. What you will see is not a departure from that advertising, but building on and expanding those ideas. A lot of it is still about how we have the most dedicated tax professionals here, here is what they do for you — it will be a continuation and extension of that.

What’s your take on digital and social media?

At 50,000 feet, the landscape is very interesting in terms of digital and online realities and complexities. It is an area we are very well aware of and we’re making sure our brand goes to market in the way the American taxpayer is consuming its tax services, needs and products. What you will have is a brand and company that looks very much like it’s a part of the new way of doing business and remains very relevant and up-to-date and is also very flexible in how it satisfies this particular client base.

Random funny fact about yourself.

I have perfected the art of requesting a tax filing extension. I always pay my taxes, but unfortunately, I never pay them by April 15. However, I feel confident in saying that next year, I will be paying my taxes on time because I think I know some people who can help me with that.

Nielsen Business Media