The CMO Interview

Unlike IRS, H&R Block's Tax Statement in Plain English

CMO Robert Turtledove's Mission Is to Build Trust, Make Prep Easier

By Published on .

NEW YORK ( -- In the 1980s, Robert Turtledove, born and raised in Zimbabwe and an honors student at the University of Cape Town, decided to put his bachelor of business science degree in marketing and business policy to use at Lever Brothers in South Africa -- a move that would ultimately become the foundation for a 25-year marketing career.

Robert Turtledove
Robert Turtledove
Mr. Turtledove has served as VP-product and menu development for Pizza Hut USA; chief concept officer of casual-dining company Metromedia Restaurant Group; CMO of online information service; and, most recently, CMO of, an online employment service focused on the high-paying job market.

But last summer, Mr. Turtledove took on his latest and perhaps greatest marketing challenge when he joined H&R Block as CMO. He stepped into the position at a critical time -- in the midst of marketing planning for the pre-tax season and just after the 55-year-old tax-preparation company dumped its agency of nine years, Campbell Mithun, in favor of DDB. Many speculated the move was sparked by President-CEO Russ Smyth's ties to DDB, solidified after 21 years at McDonald's Corp.

H&R Block has the lion's share of the tax-preparation market, having completed an estimated 15% of all returns last year. But given the confusion about taxes, and consumers' distrust of any financial company, the branding challenges are extensive. Mr. Turtledove's charge is to enhance H&R Block's brand, product, marketing and communication initiatives, as well as the company's brand reputation. That means managing a roughly $120 million marketing budget, according to TNS Media Intelligence, and ensuring consistent communications with customers across the company's more than 12,000 retail locations and 100,000 tax professionals.

With tax season upon us, Mr. Turtledove recently discussed with Ad Age the challenges that lie ahead, and how he intends to tackle them.

Ad Age: We're used to seeing CMOs come in and make a lot of big changes. But when you arrived at H&R Block this summer, it was immediately following a major agency change. Was it strange to step into that situation?

Mr. Turtledove: It could have been weird, but it wasn't, for a couple of reasons. I had a comfort level and existing relationship with Russ [Smyth], and there is a common-mindedness there about what we saw as the strategic challenges for H&R Block. I also knew that the decision was made based on strategy and on caliber. There was no review process. I was very fortunate to have inherited a decision I would have probably made myself.

Ad Age: H&R Block now has its marketing duties consolidated at one holding company. Why do you think that's the optimal strategy?

Mr. Turtledove: For us, the partnership has blossomed and flourished. In addition to DDB handling advertising, we have Tribal doing online and social media, Ketchum doing PR, Alma doing our Latino campaign and Rapp doing direct marketing. The oft-promised integration and synergy of working within a holding company is something we are realizing. There is real-time sharing of information and updating, and we have a more consistent voice now going to market.

Ad Age: Compared to the other categories you've worked in, the marketing of tax preparation sounds far more complicated. Is it a tougher challenge?

Mr. Turtledove: Whether you're dealing with pizza or water or much more familiar categories, you still need to avoid sameness. But yes, for taxes, we feel a piece -- not the whole piece -- of the marketing puzzle is, how can we can make this stuff less confusing and put it in plain English? Only once we do that can we articulate why or how we are simpler or better.

I have a personal philosophy of "whatever it was I did last, I must draw on, rather than close the door on." So in this new position, I'm drawing on what I learned from e-commerce, big brands, small brands and startup brands. That gets you an interesting hybrid of thoughts and ideas and the ability to make unexpected contributions, or at least ones that might not have surfaced otherwise.

Ad Age: You recently launched a new campaign to try and reposition H&R Block as being about answering consumers' tough tax questions. What's behind that move?

Mr. Turtledove: H&R block actually invented the tax-preparation category. But there was a need to determine how the brand goes to market in the new century. Taxes live at the intersection of people's lives and people's money, and that's very tricky territory. You want your brand to play in a space that matters in people's lives, but with that comes responsibility. The category is just fraught with confusion; the tax code is jargon. I'm not sure anyone is going to say that taxes are ever going to be easy, but we can say that they are going to be easier. And we've made a significant commitment to marketing our online software, because we think we can make the experience simpler and more comfortable.

Ad Age: Every company structures its marketing team differently. Can you tell us a little bit about how your marketing team is set up?

Mr. Turtledove: As CMO I'm a member of the senior-executive team that reports into the CEO. Under my charge are three big buckets: our marketing department, product-development group and the communications group, which includes internal and external PR. Within marketing we have everything from brand and field marketing to the advertising component, digital, direct mail. When you get a new leader in place, there's always a certain amount of anxiety. I took the view that if someone came in and changed everything within the first 30 to 60 days, without first getting to understand how we operate, it wouldn't be respected.

That said, we've got a CEO who believes in the team and encourages us to make decisions. His view is, "I'm going to trust my people." That doesn't mean he doesn't ask questions or we don't debate things. But it does mean having a different attitude. I work closely with our CFO, and his attitude is not, "How can I cut the budget?" It's "What can I do to help?"

Ad Age: H&R Block entered a settlement with the New York attorney general over allegedly fraudulent marketing practices. How do you build trust with consumers at a time when their confidence in financial institutions is low?

Mr. Turtledove: I can't speak to the past, but I can speak to what we're doing now. The first piece is making a genuine commitment to consumers in saying that we understand it's really important to get [your taxes] right. We're very focused on our core knowledge -- and that's not just in marketing and advertising, it's in training of tax professionals.

Ad Age: There's a movement under way for the IRS to regulate H&R Block and some of your peers. Do you worry about how that move could impact your marketing initiatives?

Mr. Turtledove: Not at all. Tax preparation is not something that you learn out of a book. The certification process is there so that the person sitting across from the consumer has the right degree of preparation. The government is always trying to figure out the right amount of oversight. You can't practice law without some form of license, and tax preparation should be the same way. There's an opportunity to serve the customer well by being able to trust confidently in the person who is preparing their taxes. It maybe ties back to trying to get some trust back in some of the financial institutions.

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