One marketer on why leaving Unilever was the best thing she ever did

Story of my CV: Margaret Jobling’s experience at Unilever gave her the perfect foundation for a career in marketing, but she says leaving was the “best thing I ever did” because it taught her how much she’d learnt.

career development

“Life is about choices, accept it, change it or move on because it’s never going to be any more complicated than that”, says Centrica’s chief marketing officer Margaret Jobling.

Jobling landed her first marketing role via a rather unconventional path, having earned a PhD in Laser Chemistry at Nottingham University, before being offered a scientific research role at consumer goods giant Unilever where she initially spent more than a decade on the technical side of the business.

She isn’t one to sit and wait either. When Jobling decided she wanted to move into the marketing team she simply asked, and Silvia Dias Lagnado, current global CMO at McDonald’s who was serving as Unilever’s marketing director at the time, was “mad” enough to give Jobling a chance. She was offered a brand management role with Dove, which marked the start of a decorated career in marketing.

“I’ve always reflected on whether if I were Silvia I would have brought in me? If it weren’t for her I would not be doing what I do today. She absolutely defined where I’ve ended up,” Jobling says.

She spent another three years in Unilever’s marketing department, moving between various parts of the business including male grooming. But it wasn’t until Jobling left for an opportunity in the household goods and body care division at consumer goods giant Sara Lee that she really understood just how much she had learned in her early days as a marketer.

“When I left Unilever it made me realise just how much I actually knew. When you’re in a big corporate there are lots of other super bright people trying to get on and there’s a bit of a Heathrow holding pattern, you’re all vying for the next job up the pyramid,” she says.

“It’s only when you step out and push yourself into another environment you realise you know a lot.”

“I learned a hell of a lot in private equity because it’s so high on accountability and results. If you shoot for the moon and land on the stars everyone thinks they’ve done a bad job.”

Margaret Jobling, Centrica

Despite the fact it took a little over 15 years, Jobling was quick to admit one of the best things she ever did was leave Unilever.

“When I left I remember people saying to me, ‘If I cut you open to do you bleed blue? Are you just so Unilever in your process or can you adapt to another organisation and culture? Can you take the bits you’ve learned and apply it to another environment? Are you so inflexible that you’ve been programmed to operate in a particular way?’” she explains.

“Moving out made me realise you can operate and add value elsewhere, but you need to take a lot of that learning with you.”

From Sara Lee, Jobling progressed through various leading roles at Cadbury, Birds Eye and eventually British Gas, before becoming CMO at the gas and electricity giant’s owner Centrica.

As her CV suggests, Jobling had no plans to stay in her comfort zone and instead thrived off working in numerous sectors and roles in organisations of varying sizes and scales.

“It’s very easy to sit in the comfort zone and do what you’ve always done, but there’s a point where you have to ask yourself whether you’ve stopped learning. It’s important to retain perspective because it’s amazing how quickly you can become part of the culture rather than the solution,” she adds.

“If it needs fixing, fix it but don’t just accept it. And if you do accept it, don’t moan about it because life is too short.”

Convincing the creatives

Unilever, various roles including global brand director, male grooming (2005-2008)

“It was really hard to move [from research to marketing] because there was a definite misconception that technical people were not creative and marketing people were very creative. They also wanted to keep women in research, because at the time there were very few senior women so they were reluctant to let me leave.

“I remember telling the marketing director at the time [Silvia Dias Lagnado] that the difference between creative and non-creative people is creative people think they’re creative and actually there isn’t really a difference.

unilever

“She gave me a chance. At some level she must have been mad. I had no clue and when I look back I think ‘oh my god, it’s probably the hardest job change I’ve ever done – moving from technical into marketing’. You all speak English, but the language of the function [marketing] is just fascinating.

“Understanding the language of the category is a challenge. I could have gone and worked in the Chinese market in research and it would have been a less difficult move. They both have very different DNAs, so finding common language and shared objectives was one of the big goals.

“If I look back and question why I am where I am it’s because Silvia took a chance on me. I had no marketing skills whatsoever. I was just some little PhD chemist.”

Making lessons actionable and practical

Sara Lee Household & Body Care, marketing director for home and body care (2007-2009)

“Sara Lee hadn’t had an external marketing director for something like 20 years which was ridiculous. Everything had been organically grown. They had a really lovely portfolio and I loved that it was a smaller business, so you were end-to-end accountable.

“You could be in a meeting for Radox, which was the number one personal care brand for men in the UK, and then you’d be talking about how you could shift capacity on the factory line.

“When I joined they’d missed their targets for 14 months so I was focused on taking lessons from Unilever, but making them practical and actionable for a leaner, meaner, fighting machine.

“One day I was at the coffee machine and I saw one of the guys from Unilever who said they were buying us. Unilever bought the personal care business and Procter & Gamble bought the home care business, so they put me on a retention bonus.

“I’ve always said you need to move forward not back. I could never imagine going back to Unilever. The best thing I ever did was getting out because you learn.”

The corporate black widow

Cadbury, director of marketing for Cadbury Dairy Milk (2009-2011)

“In the middle of [the acquisition] I got a call from Cadbury where I ended up getting the role of marketing director for Cadbury Dairy Milk, but the day I joined was the day it announced a corporate takeover by Kraft. I am the corporate black widow.

“This was probably the most fun job I’ve had, it’s a wonderful brand. It had just come off the back of a salmonella scare and the marketing director at the time said ‘a little bit of salmonella isn’t a bad thing’, which didn’t go down well. There was a huge product recall, Phil Rumbol [the newly-appointed marketing director] had been called in and basically got it to launch ‘Gorilla’ [its award-winning ad] , which put the business on an up.

“When I left I remember people saying to me, ‘If I cut you open to do you bleed blue? Are you just so Unilever in your process or can you adapt to another organisation and culture?'”

Margaret Jobling, Centrica

“Cadbury gained its confidence and the team started to do some great work. It was a great time to go in because there was a real confidence around the organisation, they were very pioneering at the time in marketing.

“A lot of what I did was worked around a defence plan and mitigating a hostile takeover. The sale ultimately went through and because the way Kraft operates most decision making is driven out of Switzerland. For a long-term future at Cadbury I’d have to move to Switzerland and I’d already said I wouldn’t move the kids.”

Shooting for the moon

Birds Eye UK, marketing director (2011-2014)

“I was chatting to Phil [Rumbol] about what next and he suggested private equity. I said ‘no, no I’m a brand builder’. He said what’s interesting is a lot of people in private equity have gotten fed up with corporate life and want to do something different.

“At the time Birds Eye was recruiting for a marketing director for the UK. If I hadn’t have worked for Sarah Lee and Cadbury I’d have struggled in the private equity world. There’s a tough commercial, high accountability, results and outcome-focused mentality that was not that apparent in some of the other roles I’d had.

“If you shoot for the moon and land on the stars everyone thinks they’ve done a bad job, but they haven’t. They’re constantly challenging you around delivery and driving outcome.

“At the time it was a nice role because it was big. Everyone grows up with fish fingers and peas and chicken nuggets, so how do you grow that business? Frozen is a tough category because it’s at the back of the store and by the time you reach it you’ve lost the will to live and you want to get out.”

Transforming an established brand

British Gas, director of brand marketing (2014-2018) 

“I was very quickly seduced into the national institution of the British Gas brand, the real challenges around the regulator and wanting to transform the business to be more customer-centric. I wanted to do something different and had never worked in a regulated business before.

“I was interested in how you take a big established brand and transform it to be a modern, relevant service provider. The week I started they also brought in a new CEO and we faced a strategic review and I was asked about what we were going to do with marketing. I was asked to look at how we would organise marketing for the whole of Centrica and what that should be because we operate as a series of businesses.

“If I went back to the original conversations I had with British Gas [the appeal was that] they were a big legacy business. I’d have 100 people in my team and they were spending multi-millions. They really wanted to do something different with the brand. It was the scale of the role and the drive to transform. Businesses only transform when they have a burning ambition and there was a leadership team that saw marketing as a critical component for how you’d change perceptions of the brands.”

Getting it right for the people

Centrica, chief marketing officer (2018 – present)

“Now I’m working on how we can transform Centrica’s marketing capabilities across all the markets. What a journey. The most important thing for me is that I feel I’m constantly learning and challenged.

“Ultimately, it comes down to keeping the customer happy and treating them fairly, with respect, and doing the right thing which keeps the regulator happy. If you get it right for your people then everyone’s showing up and operating in the right way around what your brand stands for and where you need to go.

“If I were asked about what the biggest shift in our industry is, it’s what’s going on with data and analytics for the greater good of serving customers.”

Margaret Jobling

Margaret Jobling’s CV

Unilever, various roles including global brand director for male grooming (2005-2008)

Sara Lee Household & Body Care, marketing director for home and body care (2007-2009)

Cadbury, director of marketing for Cadbury Dairy Milk (2009-2011)

Birds Eye UK, marketing director (2011-2014)

British Gas, director of brand marketing (2014-2018) 

Centrica, chief marketing officer (2018 – present)

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