Stella David’s ‘work hard, play hard’ ethos has worked wonders for Bacardi in the UK, but can she repeat the trick now that she has been given global responsibility for the brand? By Sonoo Singh
Few marketers can truthfully claim to embody the spirit of the brands they promote, but Stella David, Bacardi’s new global ambassador, has seldom been at odds with the drink’s carefree image. A “work hard, play hard” ethos may not have given the media-shy David a high profile in the marketing industry, but her belief in the brand only stops short of her donning a Bacardi bat-emblazoned suit to work.
Possessed with a boundless energy, her 12-year stint at the secretive, family-owned company has featured highlights such as the re-energising of Bacardi’s advertising, the creation and demise of the Breezer brand’s iconic Tom Cat character, and the launch of several spin-off products.
David’s successful reign on this side of the Atlantic has not gone unnoticed. The former boss of the Bacardi-Martini UK business has been promoted to global marketing chief for Bacardi (MW last week). Based in Weybridge, she will report to Andreas Gembler, president and chief executive of Bacardi Ltd. Her being awarded this new role is not surprising to those who know her. Indeed, friends say it is astonishing the company took so long to reward her skills.
She was almost given a global role in October last year when her mentor, Javier Ferran, president and chief executive officer of Bacardi Ltd, wanted to promote her to president at Bacardi US (MW October 28, 2004). It was intended that she would eventually oversee Bacardi’s entire North American operation, but her appointment failed to see the light of day, with sources suggesting internal politics were to blame.
But the reason rapidly came to light when Ferran unexpectedly resigned, and her fortunes only recovered when she was able ot take on the newly created role of managing director for global procurement, production and manufacturing, with additional responsibilities as managing director of the Asia-Pacific region (MW February 3, 2005). David, however, remains unfazed about the episode. She says, cryptically: “In reality, it was bad timing. Javier had a vision, but there are times when a business is not ready for certain changes.”
Her new role comes at a pivotal moment, in the middle of a &£90m global advertising pitch for the brand. She will be responsible for managing the pitch, pitting UK incumbent Fallon against Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, David & Goliath and Wieden & Kennedy Oregon.
Chris Hunton, managing director of Lowe London and former chief executive of McCann Erickson, the agency responsible for creating Tom Cat, says: “If there is someone who can regain the glory days of advertising for the Bacardi brand, it is Stella. She has never been shy of challenging people, and knows the entire business.”
David’s protÃ©gÃ©, Maurice Doyle, who has been promoted to managing director for global travel retail, says: “Stella’s leadership has earned the respect of all around her. Her winning combination of being tough and straight-talking, but with a sense of fun, comes across as inspiring.”
Luke White, a former creative director at McCann Erickson, adds: “She is able to seamlessly hold all the aspects of marketing together, from advertising and direct mail to packaging and digital. And her training as an engineer seems to give her an extra set of skills needed to run a company the size of Bacardi in the UK.”
Born in North Yorkshire, David trained as an engineer at King’s College, Cambridge, where she met her karate instructor husband. Her early career was spent as an engineer at Thorn EMI, after which she ventured into marketing at Golden Wonder in the early 1990s and worked on the Pot Noodle brand.
The five-foot “pocket dynamo” usually dresses in black and is described by one associate as “an inspiring powerhouse, always on the go”. She loves partying, has a penchant for arm-wrestling, and contemporaries say that her nervous energy can be tiring. Saatchi & Saatchi chairman and chief executive Lee Daley says: “You need to have hellish powers of persuasion to work with her because she has definite and strong points of view.”
Another advertising executive adds: “She likes to do things in style. Not only does she like a bit of fun herself, she also indulges those around her.” The source recounts how once when McCann hit its advertising target and qualified for a &£250,000 bonus, she organised a dinner to present an oversized cheque to the agency.
David admits that she does not allow herself, or those around her, to “luxuriate in processes”. She explains: “I do not think that a creative process needs to be a long, drawn-out affair to be a quality product. Advertising, when it is done right, happens quickly and effectively.”
Many regard David as media-shy, though she is not averse to talking about her own achievements. “I would like to talk about my lifetime achievement award, for which I give not only myself, but also people who work for the company full credit,” she says. This year she was handed the accolade after Bacardi-Martini UK finished in the top ten of The Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For for an “unprecedented” five years in a row. The fact that the she has mixed with employees, eating lunch in the canteen with a different member of staff every day, has won her a few brownie points internally as well.
That David is no armchair leader can be seen in the creation of Tom Cat, in which she was very much involved. Equally, she led from the front in the decision to axe the character after three very successful years. The company claims that under her leadership Breezer rose to its highest sales level ever, and Bacardi rum sales rose 25 per cent.
Though benefiting from management experience, the new global role undoubtedly projects David into a much bigger league. The first female executive at Bacardi, her training as a karate expert and early mornings spent at the gym suggest she is highly unlikely to be overawed in a male-dominated environment. Daley says that there is no sense of her falling into the stereotype of “being a woman”. “She is all about getting results and her new role is more of a strategic move than just a simple promotion, to influence the future of Bacardi,” he adds.
David’s elevation comes at a time when the spirits group is under immense pressure from rivals such as Diageo, and the combined powers of Allied Domecq and Pernod Ricard. She has been given the task of continuing to drive the brand globally, while remaining undistracted by destructive Bacardi family squabbles. According to those who know her, this petite woman is very much the “big girl” who will cope with the challenge.”