Amanda Mackenzie is that rarest of sights in the financial services world of the City of London: a feminine figure in an area of work still dominated by men. All the decor at Aviva’s black-glassed global headquarters carries masculine connotations – a grandfather clock, the dark wood of the chairman’s office on the 23rd floor and the view of the Gherkin building. Mackenzie herself is a sharp contrast; a petite figure with red curly hair in a printed dress, running up the stairs to be photographed.
Mackenzie is in the unique position of being Aviva’s first chief marketing officer, the first woman on its executive committee and probably one of the only people to have held senior marketing roles in three of the world’s toughest sectors to promote: utilities, telecoms and insurance and pensions.
Given that Mackenzie has just arrived back from Hong Kong after being stuck in Asia owing to the Icelandic volcano ash cloud, you might expect her energy and humour to be lacking. But this doesn’t stop her from being full of beans and making wisecracks about how she achieved her rare position as a female executive committee member for Aviva. She laughs: “I always joke I’m totally rubbish at my work but I’m a woman, so I got the job.”
Mackenzie might be self-deprecating but her track record suggests she is very serious about her career. Since joining the company in 2008, she has made her mark by overseeing its £10 million UK name change from Norwich Union to Aviva. She now aims to develop marketing standards for the business that can rival those of the international FMCG brands.
She sets out the marketing challenge she faced when joining the company two years ago. Chief executive Andrew Moss believed that the business needed to be more globally focused to operate successfully. He wanted a marketer with similar vision to bring the UK’s branding in line with the rest of the world.
“The foundations were there,” admits Mackenzie. “But I could have turned up and done it very badly. I could have pissed everybody off.”
Of course, she didn’t: she got on with the name change, convincing staff that switching from Norwich Union to Aviva was a good move. Despite the potential criticism of spending money on marketing against a backdrop of economic turmoil, Mackenzie and Moss decided that they should go for it “loud and proud”.
“I thought it was incredibly smart the way Mars used ‘Marathon, soon to be known as Snickers’ and then just switched over. Why shouldn’t we do the same?” she says.
Mackenzie is no stranger to selling a tricky proposition in difficult times. She has worked for a number of brands that might be considered among the toughest to get the public to love. She joined Aviva from three years at British Gas, where one of her marketing tasks was to deal with an unpopular price hike of 22%.
She says that the reaction to the price rise – which included her own appearance on BBC consumer affairs TV show Watchdog to explain the need for such a hike – was a valuable lesson in how brands need to manage their communications with customers.
“I remember thinking, ‘nothing in my life has prepared me for this moment’. That was interesting, but as they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It [the price rise] was genuinely a market thing, but it made you really think about the fundamentals of marketing and about how to retain customers,” she remembers.
Learning the trade
Working on ‘sexier’ FMCG brands during Mackenzie’s time in advertising was also career-defining. She started off as a graduate trainee at WCRS and then moved to DMB&B (now part of Publicis), working on Mars. She was instrumental in the positioning of Maltesers as “the lighter way to eat chocolate”.
“We inherited European copy,” she recalls. “‘The theatre is full, but I am not,’ – it was an appalling ad. I remember going home one night and thinking ‘God, we should be doing better than that’. So the next day, I went to the creatives and said that we were going to do something different.”
[Companies] are not really fussed about adverts, they are bothered about marketing, direct marketing and appealing to your base.
Aside from learning to follow her own instincts, Mackenzie also learned a great deal about the most effective way to behave in a business environment. She cites an occasion when a senior manager sent her to Ascot, Glyndebourne and the Royal Opera House to perfect these skills. “He must have thought I was a bit of a rough diamond or something. Frankly, I had a nice upbringing in Yorkshire, but I hadn’t done all of that. I obviously messed up Ascot because I had to go and do it again,” she laughs.
The Pygmalion-esque plan appeared to work. Mackenzie rose up the agency ranks and met her husband John Poorta – with whom she has two children – at DMB&B, where she stayed for 10 years (he’s now strategic planner and vice-president at Leo Burnett).
Mackenzie then moved clientside to Air Miles “because I wanted to get into the heart of a business” and found that life wasn’t just about ads. She says: “I had grown up in advertising up until that point; it taught me that [companies] are not really fussed about adverts, they are bothered about marketing, direct marketing and appealing to your base. It was 1998 and people were getting to grips with their first website, which seems hilarious now. Even having a web team back then was interesting.”
All these adventures in advertising and marketing have prompted Mackenzie to work on a book. She rummages through her desk drawers to find the draft. The working title is Adventures and Chemistry. She explains: “I think life is about adventures and that is what you should aim to have.” And chemistry? “Because of people. Particularly as you get older and the more senior you are, fundamentally it is about the people.”
The book is based on the idea of a working life being a childhood, adolescence and adulthood, which she says is likely to appeal to women and those starting their careers. It includes a chapter called “To cleavage or not to cleavage”. She grins: “When you are 23, nobody goes, ‘Look, Honey, don’t.’ What I think is more important as you get older is grace, wisdom, generosity of spirit and that journey.”
Although she’s getting ready to impart her years of wisdom to others, Mackenzie does not appear entirely ready to throw off self-deprecation and adopt an American self-help style confidence yet. She grins: “The publisher might think that it is total tosh.”
If she could change anything about her career, Mackenzie says that she would have liked more inner confidence back at the start. She notes: “If you are not careful, you get slightly obsessed by the wrong thing but actually, you should focus on the output and on being yourself. That is what my younger self could have learnt quicker.”
She adds that if she could do it all again she would probably have gone for a global role earlier on. These days, she is far more assured. “Yes, you need to listen to other people, but don’t forget – in a pleasant way – to make sure that they [people] know where you are coming from, and why you want to do what you want to do, in a discussion,” she says.
Her goals at Aviva now include creating an environment in which her marketing team can develop their own careers effectively. She says: “What is important to me is making a difference in the world in its broadest sense. What really does matter is encouraging the environment that when people come to work they can be themselves. It sounds corny, but genuinely good stuff comes out of that environment. And I want to encourage more senior women, as I genuinely believe diversity in every sense is a good thing.”
To ensure that more marketers are able to follow her path to the boardroom, she has set up a course in marketing fundamentals at Aviva with consultancy Brand Learning. Her aim is for the brand to be seen as empathetic with its customers and as having quantifiable expertise in the financial services market.
With the next generation in mind, Mackenzie is also part of The Marketing Academy, supported by Marketing Week, where she will mentor one of 28 graduates keen to follow her own stellar path. “My fear is, where are our very best graduates coming from?” she says.
She credits her graduate scheme at ad agency WCRS for teaching her how to think. “Working on an account like Mars or Procter & Gamble, where you had to be quite rigorous and you went to your creative review with your files: it was real ‘directory down the trousers’ time,” she recalls.
“But it’s an incredibly good discipline at the start of a career to really learn how to think methodically about things.”
She is also being methodical about her aim to apply the brand’s marketing promise, “No one recognises you like Aviva”, to other parts of its business. At its AGM last month, Aviva asked shareholders to vote on its corporate social responsibility policy. As Aviva Investors (its asset management arm) owns about 1.5% of the FTSE 100, it will encourage other firms to follow suit.
“I think it is a genius piece of thinking. If you have a brand promise that is ‘No one recognises you like Aviva’, then how does that translate into corporate social responsibility and helping the community? The natural thing is recognising people and communities that others don’t,” Mackenzie says. The firm has a target of getting 500,000 children globally into education that otherwise wouldn’t be, over the next five years.
Despite this enthusiasm for doing good, Mackenzie realises that only providing positive customer experiences will secure Aviva’s future. She says: “I saw a quote from Chris Jansen [group commercial director] at British Gas talking about wanting people to ‘love’ British Gas and I totally agree with him. People do need to metaphorically love brands, but that is why what a brand actually does is so important.”
She says that any marketing style must be backed by business substance. “There is no point in saying stuff that makes people laugh, if when they actually experience it, they become wound up and annoyed. You have to say enough that interests people so they go from awareness to consideration.
“There is that brilliant ad planner who describes brand-building as like a bird building a nest, with all the different pieces of straw. At any one time, you can build it a variety of ways to bring different things out – but you are still building one overall nest.”
As she sets off to make sure her own global marketing strategy fulfils this parable, it appears that Amanda Mackenzie is well on the way to creating her own nest high in the sky from her office on the 22nd floor of Aviva’s building.
MW: You are chief marketing officer for Aviva. Can you explain your remit?
I report to our chief executive, Andrew Moss. My remit is global across 28 markets. It has marketing, PR, public affairs, internal communications and brand within it.
What I don’t have is product marketing authority across the globe. I am the leader for the marketing function and I drive our programmes from a central point of view. We are in five regions, and while they don’t operate autonomously, each of those have to operate to deliver marketing in their region in the best way they possibly can.
In general, you don’t usually get marketing roles that include the brand and communications functions too. That’s what makes this job so incredibly exciting, because you can knit everything together and it’s harder to do if you don’t have that.
MW: You are on the executive committee of Aviva. What difference does that make to your role?
Marketing roles tend not to be on the executive committee – obviously, that was one of the attractions for me to come and do the job at Aviva in the first place. I also really believe that it has made my role much much easier. For example, when I arrived, Andrew Moss was very clear in his mind that he wanted to create a global brand, so getting everyone internally to buy into that positioning was that much easier.
MW: Why aren’t there more women in senior marketing roles?
I’m not sure it is any more difficult for women to get there than men. I think what happens is that there aren’t so many women that stick the course – all the other things that life throws at you come along and make it harder.
A personal bugbear is the fact that childcare costs are paid out of your net salary and I believe there won’t be more senior women for a good while until those kinds of things are tackled.
A bigger issue is creating an environment where people can be themselves. Of course I work with male colleagues here, but it’s not a macho place. I couldn’t do a very good job if it was.
MW: It’s nearly a year since the name change to Aviva in the UK. You have boosted the marketing team and consolidated your media buying. What’s next?
Tomorrow – the world! The focus of the first year was planning, getting the governance in place and creating the structure, which you’ve got to do. The plan for the brand change was huge so we had to get the brand positioning right.
The second year was about making that happen and now we are at the stage where I want to get the global marketing function working as well as it can. When I’ve been recruiting, I’ve been describing it as almost a “greenfield site”; we’re building something that in a global sense hasn’t existed before. But there has obviously been some really good marketing that has gone on across the world in pockets, particularly in the UK.
MW: How will you make the marketing function more global?
It’s about saying: “You’ve got 28 markets. How can you bring the best of the world to the rest of the world?” You have to work out how you can get everyone engaged in some global objectives that will make the business customer-centric.
I always admire organisations that are inherent marketing organisations. They will always go: “I’ve got an idea which says this will work in this market.” Then the first question people ask is what exists elsewhere, what can we learn and we can start halfway through the journey.
I’m not sure we at Aviva do that inherently yet, and I don’t think that’s a criticism – I think it’s because the global function is two years old and we are trying to pull together 28 markets.
MW: How is your new brand positioning, “No one recognises you like Aviva”, working?
We’ve got to deliver on our customer promise – you can’t just put our lovely gorgeous yellow brand colour everywhere and not make it stand for something, so we’ve got to bring that to life.
I actually think the hard moments are still to come. I’m relieved that the name change has gone well, but even so, we’ve got to get into customers’ hearts and minds. We must be true to that lovely expression that I first heard from a guy at Vodafone, which is: “A brand is as a brand does.”
MW: What would you be doing if you weren’t doing marketing?
I’d be sitting next to Andrew Lloyd Webber on TV judging young girls in musicals, having had a successful career in musicals myself. Oh, yes, I’d have loved to have done that. I quite often wonder what it might have been like to be a lawyer, but God knows, isn’t it just luck if you end up doing the right thing?
Marketer to marketer
Kevin Peake, marketing director at npower, asks: What is the hardest ‘low interest product’ to market: telecoms, insurance or energy, and why?
AM: Great question. Insurance, because a customer only really understands the nature of the company it is dealing with at the point when a claim is made. And in truth, you’d rather never make a claim.
Energy is very hard to market but you can always remind people that life without it is pretty grim. Ditto life without broadband or mobile. But you’re reminded of those things every day; getting across that message about insurance is quite a hard thing. Thinking about pensions and annuities: how do you persuade a 28-year-old to have a pension? It’s really hard. I’m not sure we’ve cracked that yet – come back to me in a year.
Tim Williamson, customer director at TUI UK and Ireland, asks: How does Aviva use its customer-journey mapping tool – developed for the healthcare insurance business – to plan and execute communications?
AM: Every day, we are using that tool more and more to look at the best moments in any kind of interaction – not just in our communications. The interesting thing
from my point of view is taking those learnings and trying to expedite that work across the world.
David Radford, group marketing director at LV=, asks: With the benefit of hindsight, what would you do differently with the rebrand of Norwich Union to Aviva?
AM: I don’t wish this to sound complacent, but there aren’t too many things we would do differently. Actually, there was a second phase of advertising that, if I’m honest, I’m not sure we needed. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but I think we probably could have done it without that. I think we could have concertinaed the ‘what it meant for customers’ [part of the campaign]. Not because the message wasn’t important but I think we could have done less of it.
Simon Carter, marketing director at Fujitsu, asks: Do you believe the insurance industry has given away a level of control to aggregator or price comparison websites?
AM: I think I would say: we are where we are. Strong brands will help people understand that when you have to make a claim, you are looked after well. Ultimately, that should win the day. Aviva general insurance is not on the aggregator sites yet but our general insurance business is the smaller part; the life and pensions business is the largest in Europe.
Amanda Mackenzie CV
1986-1998 Graduate trainee at WCRS and then group account director at DMB&B working on Mars confectionery.
1998-2001 Marketing director, Air Miles.
2001-2004 Group marketing director, BT. Oversaw broadband launch.
2004-2005 European vice-president of marketing, Hewlett-Packard (a short stint due to amount of travel required).
2005-2008 Commercial and marketing director, British Gas. Included communication of 22% price rise.
March 2008 Chief marketing officer, Aviva. Oversaw rebrand of Norwich Union to Aviva.
My last 24 hours
Apart from arriving home in a jetlagged state, I was doing a lot of preparation for our AGM. I met with our chairman [Lord Sharman of Redlynch] to go through the agenda and do a bit of media rehearsing.
I also appeared at the Marketing Society’s marketing leaders’ course, where I did an hour and a half talking about leading great brands. Since I was so jetlagged, I said: “You are going to get the presentation you deserve, so the better the questions, the better the presentation.” Thankfully, they asked lots of questions.
With that and the AGM, just getting to the end of the week felt good enough for me.