Why not being a ‘sector expert’ helped Tesco’s brand boss drive change

The supermarket’s group brand director Michelle McEttrick was hired for her marketing know-how rather than her retail knowledge as Tesco looked to turnaround its fortunes.

TescoMichelle McEttrick is a specialist when it comes to driving change at some of the UK’s biggest, but often most maligned, brands. And it is her skills as a marketer, rather than her industry expertise, that brands are after.

Following four years at Barclays at a time when trust in banks was at an all-time low, McEttrick was hired by Tesco as group brand director – not for her retail knowledge but for her marketing know-how, as the supermarket looked to turnaround its fortunes following a series of PR disasters. These included overestimating its profits by more than £250m, short-changing suppliers and being one of many grocers that inadvertently sold mislabelled horse meat.

When being brought in to trigger change, she says it’s hugely important to strike the right balance. “[That comes from] both respecting the expertise that is in the business and [understanding] that you’re being brought into to provide a different perspective,” she says. “You can get bogged down in trying to turn yourself into a sector expert as opposed to bringing your functional expertise.”

READ MORE: The benefits of being an outsider – why brands are hiring marketers with no sector experience

McEttrick began her career agency side, working at McCann Erickson in the US, BBDO in Portugal and BBH in the UK, as well as holding senior marketing roles at brands as diverse as Barclays and cooking website Allrecipes.com.

She says her experience working at agencies has helped when it comes to diving into new sectors as she is used to working across multiple accounts in different industries.

Tesco has a powerful combination of internal experts and people like me that have come with an outside perspective and different functional experience.

Michelle McEttrick, Tesco

“I am very comfortable moving between sectors without having sector experience, as long as I have deep experience of the functional need. Then I think the question is whether you can apply that functional experience effectively within the organisation,” she says.

“For instance, retail operates in a different way to financial services, which operates in a different way to mobile telecoms, which operates in a different way to a tech startup, and you need to quite quickly understand how the organisation gets things done and be comfortable that you will be able to [deliver the change] they are trying to bring in with your hire.”

Given McEttrick tends to be brought in for her general marketing expertise rather than her knowledge of a sector, she says there are times when she needs to lean on the existing team.

“Thinking about Tesco, we have a powerful combination of internal experts and people like me that have come with an outside perspective and different functional experience. That works very well,” she says.

“It is very important to have respect for two things: one is the deep expertise of the people who are sector experts and have been in the business for a long time. Two is that you’ve been brought in to build complementary skills and it’s your responsibility to ensure your skills have an impact on the business.”

When hiring marketers herself, McEttrick says sector diversity is just one thing she looks for. “I wouldn’t prioritise sector diversity over other forms of diversity, though. I prioritise diversity of background, whether that originates in different sectors or where they come from or personal experiences they’ve had, so they bring that diversity of thought in putting together the marketing strategy and executing it.”