Annabel Venner began her career on the production floor at pharmaceuticals firm SmithKline Beecham (now part of GlaxoSmithKline). It was here that she got a taste for marketing and transferred to the marketing department to work on brands such as Night Nurse and Beechams powders.
After being made redundant following a business restructure, Venner had a short stint as marketing analyst at British American Tobacco – a job she describes as her “least well thought-through move” – before joining own-label cola specialist Cott Soft Drinks. This, plus a subsequent job at Burton’s Biscuits, helped Venner to hone her consumer marketing and commercial skills before she moved to Coca-Cola in 2000.
Her nine years at the soft drinks giant brought both highs and lows. The former including sponsorship of the 2008 Olympics, the latter the failed, much-publicised launch of Dasani bottled water in the UK, where Venner was project manager. The drink was pulled from shelves after just five weeks, following negative headlines about its sourcing (purified tap water rather than natural spring) and a contamination scare at its factory.
I decided that marketing was very interesting and requested a move to London to work in that department.
Annabel Venner, Hiscox
Venner is philosophical about the episode and regards it as “a massive learning experience”, particularly for dealing with bad PR. Among her other high-profile projects at Coca-Cola was a tie-up promotion with Apple and iTunes that ran across Europe.
In 2008, she moved to insurance firm Hiscox where she is now global brand director and partner. The role is her most international to date, covering global markets and allowing her to bring all her experience to bear in stewarding the brand.
“[When I joined], I thought there’s a lot I could offer Hiscox in terms of my experience, but a lot they could offer me back,” she recalls. “The role enables me to own all the consumer touchpoints.”
In at the deep end
SmithKline Beecham, production manager and brand manager (1991 – 1995)
“I had a year out after university, did lots of careers fairs and saw that SmithKline Beecham was recruiting people into production roles. It appealed to me because I could see some use with my chemistry degree, but it was a bit of a leap in the dark from a location point of view because it was working up in St Helens and I was born and bred in Kent.
“My first job was working on the manufacturing floor where I had to lead a group of 10 foremen, which was quite a challenge personally, but I had a very good two to three years working there.
“The marketing team used to come up from London on a regular basis to talk about changes to the packaging or the formula, so I became almost like the main liaison person for them.
“I decided that marketing was very interesting and requested a move to London to work in that department.”
An ill-judged move
British American Tobacco, marketing analyst (1995 – 1996)
“There were redundancies [within SmithKline Beecham] that unfortunately affected me so I had to make a crucial decision quite early in my career, which was: do I stay within marketing, or do I go back to doing a more production and operational role? I had really enjoyed my time working in marketing and decided that’s where I wanted to stay.
“British American Tobacco was probably my least well thought-through move. Having decided I wanted to stay in marketing but also being under a bit of pressure of living in London and needing to find a new job, I probably didn’t give enough thought about the business I was going to work for and the role I was moving into. I stayed at BAT for under a year. I quickly realised the culture, role and industry didn’t suit me.”
Building commercial skills
Cott Soft Drinks, brand manager (1996 – 1997)
“The move to Cott Soft Drinks was back to doing what I loved. During that time, it was the heyday of own-label colas and Cott was at one stage making Virgin Cola. On the strength of that relationship we worked with Sainsbury’s, Safeway and a lot of other retailers in terms of bringing own-label cola to the marketplace.
“Cott also had a small portfolio of brands that it looked after so I found my footing again in terms of doing a proper marketing role, starting to develop my commercial skill set, and working for a business that I really enjoyed.”
Learning to manage a bigger budget
Burton’s Biscuits, group product manager, (1998 – 1999)
“I moved because I wanted to spend more of my time looking after brands, and the portfolio that Cott had was quite small.
“I went to work in Bracknell for Burton’s and looked after classic brands such as Jammie Dodgers and Wagon Wheels. I did my first TV campaign for Jammie Dodgers during that time, so I developed skills from having more budget to put behind marketing.
“At the same time, we were going into the likes of Asda and Tesco and having conversations with their commercial buyers around margins or product costs. I gained great knowledge in terms of having more profit and loss ownership, really understanding how value chain works and understanding how to do promotions and drive profitable activity.”
A great training ground with highs and lows
Coca-Cola, various brands and marketing roles (2000 – 2008)
“Everybody talks about the training you get from P&G and Unilever, and I just felt I hadn’t had that exposure and training, so when Coke approached me I thought it was the perfect opportunity to do that.
“My first job was looking after some of the smaller brands where we were looking at innovation, including Oasis and the launches of Powerade and Dasani in the UK.
“With Dasani there were lots of lessons learned. Nobody put their hand up to say: ‘Do we really believe consumers are going to pay premium price for bottled tap water?’ Dasani had been a big success in the US, but the bottled water market is different in the UK and is dominated by source mineral water.
“It was a massive learning experience, especially when you have to learn how to deal with a lot of negative PR, which is what we got.
“I worked at Coke in a number of different roles and later had a great opportunity to be part of a European project team when Coke first did a partnership with Apple and iTunes. I also worked on activating our sponsorship of the Beijing Olympics.”
Stewarding a brand and challenging convention
Hiscox, global brand director and partner (2012 – present). Various marketing leadership roles (2008 – 2012)
“I felt that if I was ever to leave Coca-Cola I needed to do something that was very different, and I didn’t want to take a similar job working at a similar company. You probably couldn’t get further removed with the leap I made to Hiscox.
“Coke was and still is a brand that everybody knows. When I started at Hiscox, it was relatively unknown as an insurance brand, and was focused only in the UK.
“What appealed when I was going through the interview process was the strong values at the heart of Hiscox, and the central idea of constantly wanting to challenge convention by doing right for the consumer.
“I also did a three-month secondment to our DirectAsia business in 2014, based in Singapore but heading up our marketing operations in Hong Kong and Thailand as well.
“It was a huge learning experience for me – learning how to work in Asia in a very different culture and on a new brand. My remit now extends across the UK, US, Asia and we have businesses in Spain, France, Germany and Benelux, so it’s the most diverse role that I’ve had.”