Planning, innovation and ‘giving a damn about people’: One marketer’s recipe for promotion to the C-suite

Almost one year into her role as CEO of Wagamama, former Unilever and Pizza Express marketer Emma Woods reflects on her biggest challenges and what marketers need to do to increase their influence.

wagamama Marketers trying to deliver greater impact for their brand and enjoy increased influence in their organisation should be as passionate about internal marketing as they are external, according to one CMO who has made the step up to CEO.

Although having responsibility for P&L and driving growth is important for those marketers looking to step up to executive level roles, creating brand advocates among staff is something often overlooked by marketers, according to Wagamama CEO Emma Woods. It is particularly important when working in a customer-facing business with experience as key differentiator, she adds.

“If you are working in a people business you need to give a damn about the people. The first conversation I had with my new CMO [after taking over as CEO] was ‘I want you to be as excited by the internal marketing to our teams as you are by advertising’, which he is,” Woods tells Marketing Week.

“It is through motivating 6,0000 people to get excited by Wagamama that we will deliver an amazing Wagamama experience. That fusion of internal and external marketing is something that some marketers turn their nose up at. But if I can get 6,000 people to be truly and utterly motivated on a Saturday night that’s like having a TV ad.”

Woods is approaching her first anniversary as CEO after succeeding Jane Holbrook. Starting her career at Unilever in the early 1990s, she spent 17 years at the FMCG giant before leaving for stints as marketing director at Pizza Express and Merlin Entertainment. She joined Wagamama as customer director in 2017 and following a short time as chief growth officer she became CEO in December 2018.

It was immediately apparent to her that expectations were very different.

“The job isn’t to be a specialist, the job is to be a generalist,” she explains. “Somebody said to me that it is like moving from being lead violinist where you’re leading a group of musicians to becoming the conductor of the orchestra. The point is you’re not trained to be the conductor of the orchestra, you have been trained to be the lead violinist.”

If you are working in a people business you need to give a damn about the people.

Emma Woods, Wagamama

Although Woods stresses that after just 11 months in the role “she doesn’t have the answer” to CEO success, she believes her time as a marketer stood her in good stead to become CEO. In particular, her “marketing education” at Unilever that taught her the importance of planning.

“You learn the importance of spending time researching ideas, development and prototypes,” she says. “Any innovation was almost certainly going to require some form of capital investment. To do things properly you might need to change factory, which wasn’t going to happen tomorrow. There would have to be a process where you planned innovation and tested in order to secure the funding maybe next year or the year after, so there was a kind of planning discipline in the business. I didn’t realise I had it until I stepped back.”

“I see marketers that have come through other businesses and haven’t had to justify capex, for example, so it it’s not necessarily a skillset they live and breathe. I certainly do. The difference for me now is I need to think about what the decisions are I need to make today not just for the next few months or for the next year but also decisions that will set us up with a foundation for long-term success.”

Just Eat’s boss on the challenge of transitioning from marketer to CEO

Understanding the importance of innovation in products, service and culture is also something she was able to carry over to the CEO role.

“I am passionate about innovation. I have always been passionate it. And again, I have been passionate about it since working at Unilever,” she explains.

“Innovation is a way of changing customer behaviour, which then delivers growth. In a growth business like Wagamama, we have always had an innovation culture so it’s a business prerogative not just a marketing prerogative. That chimes with me. I believe in innovation. My responsibility now is to drive an innovation culture, not to drive an innovation programme. The skills you require to do both are the same.”

One of the biggest challenges she has faced since landing the top job is dealing with the aftermath of its November 2018 acquisition by Restaurant Group. Her first six months in charge were spent working with her “very brilliant” senior colleagues to protect its culture and staff from the “generally really painful processes” of acquisition when concern over job security can derail them from their core purpose of serving the customer.

That is not a challenge most marketers face, she adds.

“It’s well documented that acquisitions are difficult and it’s well documented that most acquisitions fail,” she states. “I had been through a couple of acquisitions at Unilever and witnessed the cultural carnage that happened after an acquisition. My job has been to focus on the team and creating a really strong vision about what the business is going to do, as well as making staff feel safe, while protecting and developing the culture.

“In a marketing role you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about people. You do in terms of motivating your team, but you don’t eat, sleep, drink how happy are your people and that’s what I have been doing.”

Learning to let go of the marketing function she had overseen for 18 months was also be a major challenge. The need to “stop marking marketing’s homework”, as it was put to her.

A combination of hiring a CMO – Ross Farquar, previously a partner at ad agency 101 and a former Cadbury marketer – who shared her philosophy, and the increased demand on her time, allowed her to step back and embrace the change her successor inevitably brought.

“You haven’t got the time to do all of the things you used to. You have to make sure you have superb talent,” says Woods.

“I have a belief that brands need marketing leadership change. After three or four years it would be beneficial to have a bit of evolution and have new leadership, and that’s true for the young people coming through the marketing department. Marketing is a function that is driven by ideas. I really welcome the fact there is somebody that has some of the same ideas as me but also has a fresh perspective.

“For someone who sets a very high standard for marketing, as I do, they have to have the same respect for the customer, they have to have the same relative ambition, and, in our business, it’s about motivating the teams, they have got to be out and about motivating 6,000 team members. That’s a really important part of the marketing business.”

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