Before Frank Boulben accepted his high-profile job as Research In Motion Ltd.’s new chief marketing officer, he performed two acts of due diligence.
First, Mr. Boulben, a French telecommunications veteran who has held senior roles at both Vodafone and Orange before joining RIM in May, reached out to his contacts at global wireless companies.
There, he says, he found “unanimous support” for RIM’s attempt to create an entirely new smartphone platform – called BlackBerry 10 – to compete against Apple Inc.’s hugely popular iOS ecosystem and Google Inc.’s seemingly unstoppable Android software.
Carriers in many emerging markets, where RIM has long been a dominant smartphone presence, were even more bullish on the company’s efforts, he said.
Mr. Boulben then spoke to his more software-oriented acquaintances.
They gave him “very good feedback” about the technical attributes of RIM’s upcoming BlackBerry 10 platform, he said, convincing him that RIM had a real chance of creating a viable alternative mobile ecosystem where others, such as Microsoft Corp. and Nokia Corp., have stumbled.
Though Mr. Boulben was eventually reassured, it is difficult to fault him for his initial hesitation: RIM has been truly battered by the smartphone wars, and despite a global base of 78 million subscribers, the Waterloo, Ont.-based company has ceded vast market share to its larger, fast-moving competitors.
As RIM prepares to hold its annual meeting Tuesday after releasing disastrous financial results in late June, many Canadians have been left wondering about the company’s very survival. RIM, with a shrunken stock price and multiple missteps over the past year, could face intense questioning from shareholders in Waterloo.
Amid such questions, Mr. Boulben is now one of the top executives under pressure at RIM to change the company’s outlook.
But the affable New York-based executive said he is not concerned by the negativity and looks forward to the challenge of ironing out what he calls a “lack of consistency” in RIM’s marketing.
“The past is of no great interest to me,” Mr. Boulben said on Monday, chatting over a salad at the Bauer Kitchen in Waterloo. “Give me a bit of time.
The primary focus now, Mr. Boulben explained, is crafting a unified message for BlackBerry 10, a product on which RIM has essentially staked its future. A recently announced delay of BlackBerry 10 until early 2013, though, has deflated some of the company’s momentum. Some bearish industry analysts doubt that RIM has the capacity to execute this major transition to a new platform, especially since the company is the middle of laying off 5,000 people in addition to 2,000 laid off last summer.
But even though the delay will have assuredly thrown some confusion into the wireless carrier’s holiday marketing plans, Mr. Boulben sees a silver lining. The delay means RIM will not have to compete for attention in a crowded marketplace at Christmas time – when harried shoppers will be more interested in ripping familiar devices off the shelves, and wireless carriers will be busy promoting a slew of competing products.
Though Mr. Boulben said he has not been on the job long enough to offer detailed glimpses of RIM’s revamped marketing efforts, he said he will use his relationships with wireless carriers to his advantage. He also said his team will tap into the enthusiasm of diehard BlackBerry addicts around the world who still prize the device for its productivity. In less developed markets, where RIM sees a lot of opportunity for growth as people upgrade from simple cellphones to smartphones in large numbers, Mr. Boulben said the company will emphasize BlackBerry Messenger, RIM’s popular instant messaging app.
When Thorsten Heins took over as RIM’s chief executive officer in late January, he made several public comments about the search for a high-profile marketing chief, raising expectations for a big hire. Mr. Boulben was most recently an executive at LightSquared, a U.S. mobile broadband company that has since filed for bankruptcy amid regulatory trouble. Hedge fund investor Eric Jackson, founder of Ironfire Capital LLC, was particularly skeptical, and asked why RIM’s marketing bench would be strengthened by a hire from a company such as LightSquared.
Mr. Boulben, though, says there was a strong lobby against LightSquared’s business model and that the U.S. telecom regulator offered resistance that was unprecedented in his 20-plus years in the sector. “The strategy was bang on,” Mr. Boulben says, noting he signed 40 contracts with wireless giants such as Sprint. “I was not dealing with the regulatory part of it.”