Horse’s mouth: Dr Jane Cherrington

Dr Jane Cherrington, ex-head of the Mental Health Foundation, founding partner at now 16-strong agency String Theory, research director at The Briefing and self-confirmed ‘catalyst’, wants Kiwi businesses and marketing departments to thrive, adapt and do good. Here’s how. 

​On being curious: “Culture is in a constant state of creation. We produce it. We are in it. We do it. And business is no different. It’s just we forget sometimes that it’s an organic, moving thing, and we tend to think in categories and anchoring points and stability … One of my favourite interviews for The Briefing was Bill Gallagher. He’s actually an old family friend, he’s in his 70s, and he’s an inspiration because he still goes to all the trade shows, he’s still totally in touch, and he’s really digital, which is brilliant. He’s always checking stuff out and looking for what’s coming, but he doesn’t want to be the guy who’s gone out the front and got an arrow in his back, because that’s not a great place to be. He wants to be right behind him, going, ‘where was he heading and what did he see?’ … By doing that, he’s managed to lead. In business, you need that constant state of awareness about what’s going on in your context. And I think that’s a rarity.”  

On simple truths: “The most profound truths in business or in life are really straightforward. But as human beings we have to learn them again and again. What counts in business is leadership and having a clear sense of where you’re heading, but being alert to the need to change course. I could be describing a sea captain  … One of the things about business is that everything looks good on paper, but it’s messy, chaotic and hard to bloody get hold of. It’s like a bunch of unruly kids. You suddenly realise that much as you’d like everybody to do what they’re told, it’s never going to work that way.” 

On String Theory: “We’re a very different organisation than we were. We originally set-up because Jeremy [Taine, her partner] had sold Meares Taine to Ogilvy. He’s one of the best creative directors in the industry. He’s actually one of the nicest too. I’ve met one person who’s got a bit of an issue with him, and that’s it, in his whole career. That’s extraordinary. He’s very good at what he does because he loves the practice of it. And when he went to Ogilvy it was a very different culture so he left there, and I said, ‘If you still want to do this, then do it, by all means, but I’ll come with you because you’ve never had a decent manager, or leader, and you could do with it’. Roy and Jeremy were a great creative team, but they desperately needed a business head, and they never quite found the right person. At the same time the chief executive of Macquarie, a Kiwi and visionary leader who knew talent, said ‘start up your agency and I’ll come with you’, so they became the founding client.” 

On sacrifice: “I was put in as head of brand and advertising at Macquarie but once I came out the decision was to give them up as a client. It was a big move. You don’t give up 75 percent of your business, but we did because it wasn’t us. I call it jumping off a cliff without a parachute, but having a really clear sense of where you’re jumping, and trusting that you’ve got a team behind you. It wasn’t quite as haphazard as it sounds. I didn’t want to live in Sydney anymore, I recognised that everything was shifting gear, we didn’t want to do that sort of work and there were tools and ways of making sense that weren’t being drawn on … When we said ‘we’re leaving’, their integrity officer, who is very funny, said to me, ‘Sorry. What do you mean? You’re telling us you’re leaving’ and I explained and he said, “Hell, that really is integrity.” 

On research: “Research used to be the dusty, bespectacled cardigan-wearing domain. It’s been really unsexy, but what’s happening is contemporary technologies are making it accessible and sexy because great data visualisation makes people go, ‘Ooh, that’s cool. I see what you’re talking about.’”

On profit vs. purpose: “One of the reasons I left advertising [and joined as chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation]was because I thought I was being paid too much. It felt really out of touch. But they forget. They have conversations like, ‘We’re doing it really tough at the moment. We’re having to eat out less.’ We are deeply privileged in our sector. And I think it’s important to recognise that you’ve always got the ability to make up your own rules and you need to take responsibility for those around you. Hence, when we set up String Theory, I said, ‘I’ll only do this if you guys agree that 20 percent of our time and energy goes into supporting Good Books [which uses profit from book sales to fund projects in partnership with Oxfam and won a heap opf awards for its Metamorphosis campaign]or at least what Good Books is about’. We’re also working with Pure Foods, a business that’s setting up and creating texturally modified food for people who can’t eat normal food because of age, or illness, or disability.” 

On Good Books: “We need to do more work to promote it in other countries, but Canada Oxfam has just signed up with it. It’s taken us five years to convince them that we’re potentially useful to them. It’s surprisingly difficult, sometimes, to get charities to innovate. And that’s something I found at the Mental Health Foundation.” 

On culpability: “Clients often spend a great deal of money on campaigns and rebrands that are epic fails because they haven’t been structured in the right way. And their agencies are culpable for that … There’s nothing new under the sun. So I think the culpability comes in when somebody just didn’t bother to do their research; to find out that somebody else has been trying this and what happened, and to give some clues, even if it’s in the same market. If that didn’t work for them, then how could we reshape it? It’s complete hubris to think that you don’t need to learn from others. That standing on the shoulders of giants thing, it’s true. So look at your field and see what’s been achieved and leverage that, but don’t be afraid to be courageous, and do things a bit differently either.” 

On brand: “Brand is like personality. And everything you say or do, whatever experience people have of you, contributes to what they understand as your personality. The personality of the organisation and the products that get produced are part of that. These days, you can lift the bonnet pretty easily, so you’ll discover what’s genuine and what’s not pretty quickly … Understanding what you stand for and what you want to be seen to stand for in the world comes down to the way you conduct yourself. That’s got to be real.” 

“In business, everything looks good on paper, but it’s messy, chaotic and hard to bloody get hold of. It’s like a bunch of unruly kids.”​

On The Briefing: “I knew when we came back from Sydney, we needed to create a voice for [String Theory] here, but I wanted to create one that was based on performance rather than, ‘hi.’ For me, performance is about demonstrating that we were a pragmatic, smart, research-driven, strategic organisation. How can we do that by going to the C Suite to see what’s bothering them, and what can we bring to the table to actually add value in their life? So we started thinking that we should do a series of research pieces and briefings. Originally, I was on the advisory board for The Briefing, and then very quickly I started doing research. And that’s been brilliant. I love it. It’s very demanding, and I have no life whatsoever. I work seven days a week in order to make space to do that research, but you don’t do a PhD if you don’t like research. And I find it’s being able to pull all this stuff together, and go, ‘What can I see here? What are the themes and patterns that are emerging out of this?’ It’s Sudoku. Except I can’t do Sudoku … There’s not a great amount of space for exploring ideas safely in a way that you can then take back pragmatically to business. Other markets are bigger, more involved, and have more resources. We have to be smart with less.” 

On marketing: “Marketing has, in a lot of instances, shifted in terms of position and power to the end of the pipeline, where they’re just getting trapped by different parts of the organisation and told to produce some collateral and send it out. Marketing is not producing comms. Proper marketing should be at the executive table. And the real head of marketing is the head of the organisation. One of my sayings is there’s no point in issuing invitations to parties that aren’t ready. You can send out all the pretty, digital invites you like, and people come back and find a shitty website, or the sales team doesn’t follow up well, or the call centre is, you know… you’ve got to look at the whole pipeline. Customer centricity is driving a different remit for marketing, but you still have marketing directors who report into the operations managers. They’re removed from that top layer of executive. They need to have a voice and heft in the same way as operations does.” 

On making friends: “Often, the digital capabilities of an organisation are actually the responsibility of IT managers, rather than marketing. That’s now becoming a source of tension that people are working through because they’re recognising that you can’t do it separately. Your data analytics teams, your marketing teams, and your tech teams have to come together and become teams that drive customer sales. There’s a lot going on in the marketing space so heads of marketing need to become very savvy about what good data analytics tools are, and what type of people they need to hire. They don’t necessarily have to be those people, but they’ve got to become the bridge builders and understand how to pull together different people to work with them. A lot of marketers don’t know tech, don’t know data, didn’t come from a stats place … I think you’ll see a new breed of hybridity of skill set emerge to lead well in that space. They come from quite diverse backgrounds, and they’re great storytellers.” 

On the good ones: “I really like what Air New Zealand is doing. When you’re able to speak comfortably about what you’re learning at the same time as what you’re trying to achieve, that’s a sign of confidence too … You can have a go at them. People had a lovely time having pot shots at the latest bikini ad. But I actually think what they’ve displayed is consistent courage. I’ve had people say, ‘Well, yeah, but is it how they want their brand to be seen?’ I think if the brand wants to be seen as courageous, willing to have conversations, wanting to connect out, and display its Kiwiness, then yes. And if there’s a bit of a wiggle occasionally, they say ‘okay’ and just get on with it … If you build a genuine relationship, where there’s been real value for the customer in it, then I think you can ride out some tough stuff.”

On positive business: “In the days of the shopkeeper who knew that a family was having tough time, he’d say, ‘You know what? Don’t worry about the bill this week.’ I was reading a piece on brand pricing to circumstances last week, where somebody was trying to describe a contemporary version of that and it suggested saying ‘all of our house lines or base lines we’ll sell at cost because we’re in a recession and we know we’re going to lose on that, but for those of you that need it, this is where we’re going to help.’ Talk about a brand building exercise. But you’ve got to mean it. Doing that requires deeply embedded values in an organisation, so that they’re not dependent on a person. They’re part of the fabric and that’s why it’s important to build stuff into policy at the board level because then you can’t get somebody to come and kick it out.” 

On stories: “We are compulsive storytellers. And we engage with stories. Homo narrativus, as one of my professors used to say. That’s why we watch soap operas, it’s why we read gossip magazines, it’s why we care more about what’s going on in the president’s bedroom than what’s going on in the oval office. And data’s absolutely full of rich stories. But a lot of people working in that business find it hard to tell stories, and so marketing’s other thing is to learn how to market itself and tell its own story and to form relationships back inside the business. Don’t just bitch about the tech team, make them your friends, and get to know them, or really understand what they’re doing because then you get excited and see opportunities between each other … Data is content. People don’t get that. And ultimately, the trick to being a good data analyst is to be able to find the stories in it.” 

  • This story originally appeared in the July/August edition of NZ Marketing

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