Leadership in Marketing Q & A
Anna Lewis - Co-founder and Director of Marsden/Mee
Anna Lewis is the co-founder of branding and marketing agency Marsden/Mee and thrives on adding insight, clarity and direction to her clients’ brands.
In this second Q&A of marketing leaders, Anna talks us through 15 years of brand building and describes 4 of her top marketing Ps: pace, passion, purpose and partnership.
Tell us a bit about how you got into your current role
I graduated back in 2000 with a degree in English Literature and Cultural Criticism. Whilst I loved my degree, it didn’t really provide me a clear vocational path. Temping allowed me the flexibility and opportunity to dip my toes into different things, and also explore other interests I had at the time. I ended up in a temping job on a marketing team at the Welsh Development Agency (WDA) and I realised quickly that this was something I was really interested in. Soon after I joined, a marketing exec job came up, so I put myself forward and for whatever reason my boss decided to give me a shot. I continued to push myself and quickly progressed to a managerial post on the same team managing big-budget, pan-Wales marketing campaigns to encourage entrepreneurship and encourage people in Wales to start their own business. I loved it, and I was lucky that it very quickly gave me a great deal of experience across a range of different marketing disciplines, and I also had the opportunity to do some CIM courses to build my theoretical knowledge too.
After the WDA merged with the Welsh Assembly things changed and I decided it was time to move on. I got a job at a branding agency, where I was responsible for new business and meant that I was at the front-end of the business, meeting new clients, working on branding and marketing strategies and over the years that became my real area of expertise.
I worked at that agency for nearly 9 years, became Head of Strategy, and absolutely loved it. But in 2016, it felt like the time was right to start up my own agency, along with my current business partner, and that’s when Marsden/Mee was born.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
A lot of people who work in an agency environment would probably say the same, but it’s definitely the variety; the diversity of the clients we work with. One minute you’re talking about organic skin care or horse racing in California, the next it’s vegan food trends. We meet incredibly interesting and passionate people, and it’s an enjoyable experience learning about their business and getting an insight into their industry.
This time last year we were working with a company who was developing a new show for CBeebies. As I sat there ‘researching’ the cartoons with my 4-year-old, I remember thinking ‘I have the best job in the world!’.
The one thing I particularly love is where you come across a business and they’re doing everything right internally – they have an amazing product, there’s a gap in the market for them, they operate in an ethical way, they look after their people - but they’re not yet communicating all of that externally. I get excited when I see an opportunity like that to properly tell the story of that brand.
What has been the key to your success?
Early on, I was incredibly lucky to have a very supportive and inspiring boss who was willing to give me a shot and who took the time to teach me. To begin with it was a very steep learning curve, but I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to learn on the job and I really threw myself into that and pushed myself very early on because I could see almost straight away that’s what I wanted for my career. And these days I still push myself out of my comfort zone – I try to say yes to opportunities when they arise. Sometimes you just have to be brave and put yourself out there.
In more recent times, I would put a lot of our business success down to the relationship between myself and my business partner Becky. When you’re in business together, it’s so important to both be on the same page, and we’re lucky enough to have found that - we share the same passion and the same values, but at the same time we’re quite different and we bring different things to the table. But perhaps most importantly, we love working together, and I’m a strong believer that if you love doing something, you’re 100 times more likely to be successful doing it.
Which achievement are you most proud of and why?
To be honest, I’m probably most proud of the fact that I’m running my own successful business. When I was at the WDA, I used to run campaigns to inspire others to start businesses and it was always at the back of my mind that I would do it myself one day, but it’s a big and scary step to take. It took me a while to make the decision, but I’m very proud I did.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career?
In order to progress and succeed, you need to be committed to constantly updating your knowledge and skillset so that you can respond to the demands of the marketplace, and the needs of the client. With the fast-paced nature of marketing, constant learning has been so important, we always need to know about the next big thing and provide advice that’s relevant and up-to-date.
And it’s also about committing to learning about the client too – to have in-depth knowledge about their business, their product, their industry and their customers. Unless you really care about doing that properly, it’s impossible to do a good job.
Which 3 qualities do you think are most important for aspiring marketing leaders?
Passion: You’ve got to love what you do if you want to inspire people and do a good job.
Respect: For other people’s skills, opinions, and knowledge – that applies to both your own team and the client too.
Emotional intelligence: Sometimes a solution ticks all the boxes on paper, but it just doesn’t feel right. I feel this can be hugely underestimated in the marketing industry, where a lot of the focus can be on theory, rather than creativity.
What advice would you give to those with ambitions to reach a management or leadership level in marketing?
Take the initiative, get involved, speak up, have opinions, make yourself a valuable person to have around. Certainly in an agency environment, contribution is key. You can’t just expect to get that promotion because you’re the one that’s been there the longest. You’ve got to earn it. You’ve got to work bloody hard.
And it’s also about doing a really great job. Being the person that people trust and not letting them down.
What do you think is the biggest challenge for marketers at present?
I think the biggest challenge is the pace at which everything is moving. Keeping up-to-speed with digital technologies is becoming increasingly difficult as consumer behaviours change and as new technologies emerge.
It also means that there are more and more marketing specialisms, so it’s harder for people in more senior positions to have detailed knowledge necessary to manage all of the disciplines within their remit and develop effective strategies to integrate them all.
And the knock-on effect of all these new digital opportunities is an awful lot of noise for the consumer. And that’s a big challenge too. Getting attention, breaking through that noise, actually making a meaningful connection with the consumer.
What advice would you give someone starting out in their marketing career?
Push yourself, be brave, but be mindful that the job you start in might not be the one you ultimately want to be in. You may need to start at the bottom, but what’s important is getting the most from the experience and using it to your advantage.
Also, businesses are increasingly becoming more purpose-driven, and they are looking for employees that share the same values. So, it’s important to think about your personal brand – what do you stand for, what do you care about? And how can you contribute to the mission of the company you want to work for?
Do you think every organisation should have a marketer on the board?
Absolutely. In my view, marketing and branding should be a really powerful strategic driving force for any organisation – often people think about brand strategy and business strategy separately but they go hand in hand. I’d go so far as to say brand strategy should drive business strategy.
I don’t understand how any board can have a discussion about things like customer insight, employee engagement, product development or strategic partnerships without having a brand perspective. As marketers, our role is to provide the brand infrastructure to guide all of these things, so for me it’s fundamental.
Do you think the digital transformation will continue and what impact will it have on business as a whole?
Yes, it will continue, there’s no question about that. And I don’t think anyone really appreciates fully the impact it will ultimately have on business as a whole. But what I do know is that businesses will need to be agile, they’ll need to respond. They cannot sit on their laurels and take their position for granted. Businesses will need to review the skillset of their staff more regularly and ensure they invest in training to make sure their teams have the skills and resources they need to stay in the game.
In 10 years’ time, we’ll be engaging with consumers through social channels that may not even exist yet. Our children will be doing jobs that don’t exist yet. We probably won’t be using a lot of the channels we currently use to reach people. That learning curve is a huge challenge for businesses.
Will AI and machine learning make marketers’ roles less significant in the future?
We’re already seeing the impact of new technologies in the automation of simple, repetitive tasks. And those technologies will continue to get better and better, ultimately freeing up human time which would previously have been spent doing those things manually. But I see that as a good thing, because it will mean that we will become more and more efficient and marketers across all disciplines will have more time to focus on the areas where human input and focus is needed most. I think that as consumers’ lives become more and more digitised and automated, the human, emotional part of a brand’s relationship with a customer will become even more important.
Technologies enhance, not replace human understanding. AI empowers marketing teams to be more efficient and demonstrate value. New jobs will certainly emerge, and responsibilities will change, but although AI will change the way we work, it won’t make us less significant.
Do you think it’s important that marketing and HR work together?
It’s crucial for marketing and HR to work closely together when it comes to recruitment and retention of the best people. But very often they don’t.
When it comes to the development of a strong employer brand, HR and marketing need to collaborate to create a proposition that works both internally and externally.
Sometimes, HR will take responsibility for the development of the employee value proposition, without enough involvement of the marketing team, which often means that there’s a disconnect that can actually be quite damaging. So it’s really important that the EVP ties seamlessly back to the core brand purpose and values.
What can be done to inspire young people to choose careers in marketing to address the ‘looming talent crisis’?
It’s about raising awareness and inspiring the next generation about the variety of different jobs available. And it’s about providing inspiring role models too – both at a senior level and at a peer level.
Like recruitment, marketing sometimes has a bad reputation. What can marketers do to combat that?
I think it comes down to people not really understanding exactly what we do, perhaps thinking it’s all smoke and mirrors and ‘fluffy’ design stuff. But a lot of what we do is business consultancy; it’s market analysis; it’s deep strategic thinking that actually has a huge impact on the businesses we work with. We need to demonstrate that impact and justify the value of what we do.