View from the C-Suite: Ian MacDonald’s lessons from ‘abroad’

The CMO of Trader Corporation is putting time spent agency-side to the service of the brand he helped restore in the mid-2010s.

Ian MacDonald Headshot

Last year, after a short hiatus from the brand, Ian MacDonald returned to Trader Corporation – his “first love” as a marketer.

The U.K. native came to Canada in 2012 after serving as head of consumer marketing for AutoTrader U.K. for nearly four years. He helped restore the brand in Canada and oversaw its transition from print to digital. Between his arrival and 2016, visits to AutoTrader.ca, the company’s flagship marketplace for used and new cars, grew 212% to just under 14M visits a month, while unaided brand awareness grew from 24% to 59%.

Even after leaving for the agency side, MacDonald maintained a relationship with the brand, serving as a consultant for AutoTrader with Toronto agency Co-Op and, eventually, as an independent consultant. Now he’s back at Trader Corporation, with the new title of CMO, and plans to use that experience to continue pushing the boundaries of automotive retail.

He spoke to strategy about AutoTrader’s new retailing pilot (enabling customers to purchase a car directly on the platform), consumer habits during the pandemic, and the lessons learned “abroad.”

As CMO of Trader Corporation, you lead marketing for the flagship AutoTrader marketplace, as well as several other brands, including many B2B. How does your day-to-day differ from a marketer responsible for selling one particular brand or product? 

The major difference is the business model. We are an intermediary; we have to balance both the supply and the demand in that marketplace in order to create value. There’s an awful lot involved with the dealer-facing side of the equation, as well as the consumer-facing side of the equation. You could have the strongest consumer brand, but ultimately, if consumers come to the marketplace and there are no cars, then that brand’s not going to last very long. And vice versa. It’s a balancing act.

We have to articulate our role in the middle of this equation. And that has become increasingly challenging because dealers themselves are becoming more savvy at marketing. The larger dealer groups are actually competing with us for clicks in places like Google Search. So we have to be on our game every single day in terms of creating and articulating the value that we offer as an intermediary both to consumers and to dealers.

The auto industry is sometimes criticized for being slow to digitize compared to other industries. What role do you believe AutoTrader can play in accelerating that transformation? 

There’s a part of me that thinks that critique is a little bit unfair, when you think about the price points and the significance of a car purchase versus other purchases. There are other significant purchases that have yet to adopt full ecommerce – real estate is an obvious one, but also luxury watches and [other products]. Each dealer is unique in terms of financial packages or leasing or inspections, so it’s not as easy as it might seem to digitize [the experience]. Especially in the used [car] space.

We need to push the boundaries. That’s why we’re the first car marketplace of any scale to implement retailing on our site. We have it running in pilot right now with 150 customers. Our role is going to be educating consumers on why this is the future. The other side is just as important. We have to inform and educate dealers not just of the opportunity – consumer demand is growing – but also to develop products that enable them to shift operationally into a digital retailing world.

The AutoTrader platform has hit new milestones with 22 million visitors to the site in June, up from 20 million in May – also a record. What’s driving that growth in traffic? 

When COVID arrived, we and other competing marketplaces offered dealers fairly deep discounts. In our case, we went completely free for dealers between April and May, because we recognized the extreme strain this pandemic was going to put on their cashflow and their business. But we kept investing in consumer marketing for April and May, because we wanted to deliver as many leads as possible through this whole thing. Our competitors stopped spending on consumer marketing. That has definitely played a role.

We’ve also been doing some tactical work, both creatively and from a targeting standpoint. We created a brand response video called “Haven,” based on research that we’ve done with consumers during COVID. People were saying they regarded their cars as this kind of safe space. Using that insight, we developed this visual asset that talks about the car as a haven. And we’ve done some tweaking on targeting as well. With that, combined with demand returning swiftly since May, we’ve ridden the wave really well.

Over the years, you’ve worked with Trader Corporation in many different capacities. How have those experiences shaped your thinking about the marketing needs of the business? 

There’s something that keeps drawing me back to this brand. I think it has to do with the emotional investment I made in 2012, when I arrived in Canada and tried to turn around [AutoTrader], which was in a slight decline and was pretty dusty as a brand entity. [Later], being on the agency side and the consultancy side, I was able to learn and experience things with other clients and apply them to the AutoTrader business. That period gave me a better appreciation of why you need to have a combination of an internal team and external vendors working with you to be successful.

Since I’ve been back, I [see] opportunities I missed between 2012 and 2015, during my first tenure. I now see the future strategy of AutoTrader with incredible clarity, whereas I think I lacked the diverse experience [needed] to do that during my first stint.

What kind of missed opportunities? 

There were times during my first tenure when I may have over-complicated the task at hand. We had too many messages in the market. We were making four or five different TV spots per year for these products [we were launching]. At the time, I was thinking about the sum of the parts – if we [promote] these different products in a consistent way under a brand umbrella, we’ll get the best lift in brand and raise awareness of these specific products. I probably overlooked the fact that there are still users who don’t use marketplaces because they don’t fundamentally understand the value proposition.

Going back to basics a bit and thinking hard about the most clear and most concise messaging around that value proposition to the right segments, that is something that seems clear to me now. That’s how we can break new ground and generate new audiences. There’s a cliche in marketing that goes, ‘If you throw me three balls I won’t catch them; if you throw me one, I’ll catch it.’ We all know that. But you can know the theory so well, and then in practice, lose sight of it. It’s only when you step back a few years later that you can see clearly what’s happening.

This interview is part of a series for Strategy C-Suite, a weekly email briefing on how Canada’s brand leaders are responding to market challenges and acting on new opportunities. Sign-up for the newsletter here to receive the latest stories directly to your inbox every Tuesday.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.