Amanda Mackenzie grew up thinking she was going to be a doctor – via the brief ambition of being a ballet dancer – but ultimately started her career in ad agencies. Despite this beginning, she freely admits that “some of the conversations you have in advertising can be absolutely pointless, because most consumers aren’t going to notice it and it really doesn’t matter a jot”.
It perhaps isn’t a surprise, then, that after just over a decade at WCRS and DMB&B, she jumped ship for the client side and hasn’t gone back. While she acknowledges the best agency people “absolutely know what the big stuff is and argue for that”, she believes it’s possible to make a much bigger impact from within a brand.
“On the basis that I never went back [to agencies], I suppose that tells you something. It’s just profoundly different. What I loved about moving to the marketing side was that you were absolutely part of the commercial operation of the company. You were genuinely making decisions and helping create the future of the company.”
Her first client marketing role was not at a typical business but at Air Miles, whose “unique” culture involved not offering pensions, for example, because its focus was on maximising employees’ potential and preparing them to progress to bigger and better things. Mackenzie sat on a majority-female executive committee, something few brands can boast even today.
People seem to chuck the ‘purpose’ word out like confetti at the moment, which drives me basically nuts.
Her positive experience in this environment would go on to inspire her participation in Lord Davies’ review into women on boards – she sat on the panel from 2011 while working as chief marketing and communications officer at Aviva, where she had arrived in 2008 via BT and British Gas. She takes pride both in the report’s recommendations and the results they achieved.
“It was such a simple bit of maths, that if you look at the average attrition on a board in a year it’s a third. If only one third of those were replaced with a woman, you could double the number of women on boards by 2015, which is exactly what happened. It was a great demonstration of being focused on one thing, breaking it down into how it’s possible, then forensically going after the underlying reasons to make it happen.”
Mackenzie’s time at Aviva has been perhaps the defining period of her career to date, working on its successful rebrand from Norwich Union and being the company’s first female board member in its 200-year history. But after seven years she wanted to take on a public service role. She went on secondment to Project Everyone, where her task was to reach the whole planet’s population and raise awareness of the UN’s development goals.
Rather than return to Aviva, she then opted to take on her first chief executive role at Business in the Community. With a goal of putting successful businesses at the heart of sustainable communities, she is continuing to uphold her long-held belief in the profound difference you can make from inside a business.
Learning how to think
WCRS, trainee (1986-1988)
“I went on a Procter & Gamble marketing vocation course back in 1985 and was introduced to advertising. I wanted to stay in London, so through graduate trainee recruitment I started at WCRS, working on BT, Sony and Laura Ashley. I helped launch video conferencing for BT – you look back now and you can’t quite believe it. In those days you’d also be sent out to check poster sites for printing quality.
“It was a great way to start. I always tell people they should start in a job that’s going to help them learn how to think. As long as you can think in a structured way, you can always solve problems.”
Life on Mars
DMB&B, group account director (1988-1998)
“After 18 months I moved to DMB&B to work on Mars. That was a great learning ground: brilliant people and great clients, many of whom I am still in touch with today. I worked on Mars for the next 10 years. In those days in a big agency like that you were always on a Unilever, Nestlé, Mars or Procter & Gamble, because they were the biggest-spending accounts. The discipline on those brands was phenomenal. You really got involved in the life of the company.
“It was beneficial [being on one account for so long] because you move up [as a result], but ‘one person, one account’ is too much – you have to have a balance because then you are going to learn other things and bring them to it. But then I also think there’s great trust between you [and the client], so when you say something that is very heartfelt that you might be worried about in terms of how they’re working, there’s no question, they really listen to you.”
A brand doing things differently
Air Miles, marketing director (1998-2001)
“Air Miles was quite a leader in its time – its culture was quite unique. It was the first time, I believe, that an HR director had been called a people and culture director. It didn’t believe in pensions, because it believed you should come and give your very best, and when you were no longer doing that, you should go and there should be no reason to stay beyond that – its promise was to make you more marketable for when you left.
“It was a really interesting culture born out of the brilliance of [founders] Keith Mills and Alan Deller. Our management team, although we were tiny in relative terms [to Air Miles owner British Airways], was seven women and three men, which back in 1998 was pretty unusual. I can’t imagine there are many with that ratio [even] today.
“It did very much work, and we all brought a fantastic degree of drive and empathy at the same time. I was lucky enough to have some great people around me. Because the culture was so unique it attracted good people, so I could learn very quickly from them and, as much as anything else, it was a leadership role rather than being a practitioner. By definition I wasn’t a CRM expert.”
From 1,000 to 130,000 staff
BT, brand and marketing director (2001-2004)
“I was going from an organisation of 1,000 people to what was an organisation of 130,000 people. I worked for a brilliant guy called Angus Porter, who was one of those people who had that magnificent skill of giving you a challenge you didn’t quite know how to achieve and he let you get on with it.
“When people talk about being micromanaged, or conversely being too far [removed], he managed that balance brilliantly.
“We launched broadband in 2002 and it was the first time it was a mainstream product. To explain it was something 10 times faster than what customers had before, which they didn’t really understand either, was a great communications challenge. It was nice to be at the forefront of that, managing what was at the time the largest advertising budget in the country. BT also bought its own media. It had 12 media buyers so was its own agency, almost, as well.
“My first year was really tough because I had to learn how to get stuff done in such an enormous organisation. I remember, almost on the anniversary of having been there a year, I suddenly thought: ‘Ah, I know how this works now’. Big companies then were much more bureaucratic. They responded to titles and seniority, not in the way entrepreneurial companies of today do.”
Adding a commercial string to the bow
British Gas, commercial director (2005-2008)
“The role was about being much more commercial, looking at the billing channel and how you sell a utility. [It was about] how you actively manage people who can’t afford your product but absolutely have to have it, whereas for a lot of classic FMCG or luxury brands, if you can’t afford them you don’t buy them. You’re not having to deal with the complexity of customer issues.
“I found that side of the business the most rewarding. I had to go on [BBC TV show] Watchdog when we had put prices up by 22% and that was a sobering moment of my life, trying to defend that and being grilled by [presenter] Nicky Campbell.
“I realised that brands that are really essential to our lives are really interesting to market. What was good about that was that when the British Gas engineer comes to your home to mend your boiler, you think they walk on water. They give you back heat and hot water, so how can you make that part of the main brand, because people often disassociate the two?
“I enjoyed the complexity – an intrinsically unattractive product that people need, that the regulator would rather people didn’t buy from you, whose price is determined by a wholesale market you don’t have any impact on.”
A defining campaign
Aviva, chief marketing and communications officer (2008-2016)
“I wasn’t sure I wanted to join an insurance company – I thought it might be boring. But Norwich Union needed to change its name to Aviva. In over 200 years of the company it had never had a woman on the executive [team]. Then the more I thought about insurance the more I found it fascinating.
“From Boxing Day of 2008 and through 2009, we did the name change work – done brilliantly by Abbott Mead Vickers. Helpfully there was the financial crisis at the time, which meant a lot of people were pulling back from advertising. It meant we were able to spend less, with greater share of voice and bigger cut-through, and we were able to achieve our target sooner. We put Bruce Willis and Ringo Starr in the launch ad, which was all about people who had changed their name and gone on to do great things.
“Luckily, the talent cost wasn’t actually as much as you would think it might be, but nevertheless it was a very big investment and we were very keen it wasn’t just a change of name. We wanted to say, if we’ve got customer journeys that aren’t good enough any more, this is the moment to change.”
Marketing to the whole planet
Project Everyone, chair (2015-present)
“Project Everyone was born out of a brilliant vision of [writer and film director] Richard Curtis to say, let’s make the [UN development] goals famous and, every day, what are we doing to achieve them? And, as a way to kick them off, let’s get to everyone on the planet in the first week of launch – which was ludicrous in some ways, but if you don’t have a big aim you won’t achieve it.
“It was an immense amount of work from absolutely nothing and we got to just under half the planet in that first week of launch. I learned from that you can always do more with less – hope and determination, with some talent, can pretty much achieve anything.”
Helping businesses build society
Business in the Community, CEO (2016-present)
“You can have so much more influence in business [than charities]. But this role is in the intersection between the two worlds.
“Our mantra is: ‘We exist to create healthy communities with successful businesses at their heart’. We have a responsible business map, which shows all the things to think about if you’re a CEO and we help you get there, we measure it for you and help you decide what you want to get better at. After 18 months, I dare to think we’re starting to get some traction.
“People seem to chuck the ‘purpose’ word out like confetti at the moment, which drives me basically nuts. If you’re genuine about your purpose, you have to be forensic in what that means. But when it is done well, there are all manner of cases where investors are waking up to the fact that long-term value creation only comes from companies that genuinely know that doing good is good business.”
Amanda Mackenzie’s CV
Business in the Community
Chief marketing and communications officer
Vice-president of marketing EMEA
Brand and marketing director
Group account director