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‘All hell broke loose’: CMOs from Tesco, Costa and Octopus on the mistakes that shaped them

Behind every marketing leader is a cautionary tale from which they had to learn to get to where they are now.

That was the message that came through during a panel about career mistakes held at Marketing Week’s Festival of Marketing today (5 October) as some of the UK’s top marketers opened up about the mistakes that shaped them.

Tesco’s former chief commercial officer Alessandra Bellini, who left the business at the end of September, kicked things off with a warning about being seen as failing to put investment behind intent. She elaborated on what can happen when you say you put the customer at the heart of everything, but then your actions cause that to come under scrutiny. Bellini was referring to when Tesco revamped its Clubcard offering in 2018 in an attempt to simplify its value to customers.

She explained how “data showed the customer would benefit” from the new offer in the long run – and that it was set to launch immediately after its announcement.

Tesco’s CMO on making Clubcard stand out in a sea of loyalty schemesAlthough Bellini felt “uncomfortable” with the speed of the change, she was still relatively new to the business and was convinced there were plenty of reasons why it would be better for the business, too, to press ahead. Then, as Bellini puts it, “all hell broke loose”. Customers were furious about the lack of notice and accused the supermarket of taking away value from them. “It’s still early in my tenure and I’ve literally broken Tesco,” she joked to the assembled audience.

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Bellini explained how the decision was delayed in order to give Tesco customers enough time to spend their remaining vouchers – as well as communicating the reasons behind the decision better with the media. “I learned a lot of things. Mainly that it’s their money, not ours,” she admits. “When we say that customers are first then understand whose money it is that you’re playing with – even if it is for a net benefit.”

Be selfish

On a more personal level, Rebecca Brook, global commercial, marketing and innovation director at Costa Coffee, told of her experience reaching marketing director at a private equity company when she was 32. She recalled the “different level of intensity” but believed she could juggle the three-hour-long commute, parenting her one-year-old baby, and the demands of the role.

“It almost broke me. I was on the verge of burnout,” she confessed. But she did it because she thought if she didn’t then someone would “tell her to stop” or question her “commitment to the role and the business”.

‘It was a scary place’: How one marketer overcame burnoutIt was realising she had become something of a shadow of her former self that she understood you have to be a bit “selfish” in work if you are to do your best. “You’ve got to make smart decisions about yourself,” she said. She went on to say how she turned things around by having a conversation with her boss to let them know what she needed.

“It can feel initially, as you’re coming up, quite daunting but if you have that conversation then people accept it and you get to fulfil your potential,” she added.

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Not so Dandy

The final marketer on the panel was Octopus Energy’s chief product and marketing officer Rebecca Dibb-Simkin, who after explaining how she once had to come to terms with a boss who didn’t see how she fit within the business, went on to share a story about the importance of raising your hand.

Early on in her career while working agency-side at Ogilvy, Dibb-Simkin was trusted with checking that a costume they had designed and created for a particular brand was acceptable at the costume manufacturer. When she arrived and they took the head out of the box, her first instinct was that it “didn’t really look like the character” the agency had created. In her words, “it looked a bit like Desperate Dan.”

But rather than kick up a fuss, Dibb-Simkin trusted that someone must have signed it off at the agency and she “didn’t want to argue with any of the grown-ups” about the quality of the replication.

When the mascot later arrived at the agency, she vividly recalled how the creative director stood with crossed arms and told her, bluntly, it didn’t look anything like the character they have on the TV ad.

‘Marketers need to be involved in product’: Octopus Energy’s top marketer on what’s driven her careerHer learning from the whole experience is: “When your gut tells you that something is wrong then put your hand up. Never assume that someone has checked.” Dibb-Simkin believes that the best people tend to get ahead by putting their hand up, and when you become more senior it will be you that takes those bad calls on a Friday afternoon.

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Wrapping up a session of shared experiences, Brook perhaps summed it up best when she explained that you need to have a “metal rod” down your spine. “You can mope and you can feel sorry for yourself for 24 hours but then you need to pick yourself up and lead your team,” she said.

Bellini added that the best bit of advice she has received around making mistakes is to “own it – but you are not it”. She concluded: “You are not your mistakes – there is accountability – but you are not the mistake.”

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