For the sixth instalment of Behind B2B, our series exploring the brightest minds in the industry, we meet Annette King – CEO of Publicis Groupe UK.
Ask a hundred CEOs where their careers began, and we’re betting ‘a pub in Swindon’ doesn’t crop up as the answer too often. But for Annette King, a meeting in a bar sparked a career spanning agencies, clients and continents – as we discovered in our latest Behind B2B interview.
When Octopus was acquired by Publicis Groupe in early 2021, we got confirmation of something we’ve long felt to be true: B2B marketing is supercharged right now. And there’s plenty of exciting work coming down the track – driven in no small part by the energy and vision of leaders like Annette King, the CEO of Publicis Groupe UK.
So, we sat down with Annette to hear about her journey from Beefeater waitress in Swindon to boardroom – covering New York chutzpah, the ecosystems of B2B, and IBM’s brand glow along the way.
Annette, tell us. How did you get here? And what did you really want to be when you grew up?
Honestly? I didn’t know. I only knew that I wanted to be successful. I come from a working class background, so to be blunt, I wanted the freedom of having some money and being able to afford a good life.
To that end, I kept my education broad. I did A Levels in Maths, English Lit, Economics – and then went to the Oxford poly to study Business Studies. I specialised in marketing and advertising, and started to get a sense that I could succeed in that world.
Unfortunately, I graduated into a bad economic climate. There really weren’t many jobs out there. I’d been writing so many letters, sending so many CVs, sifting through the Guardian and the Evening Standard constantly but just finding nothing. So I headed back to Swindon.
I was a waitress in a Beefeater restaurant and temped in all sorts of jobs. A friend employed me as a typist, and her boss asked her to take these two Swedish chaps she was looking to hire out for a drink.
So I went with her – to the bar in Swindon where everyone knew our names – to meet these Swedish guys. And when one asked me, what do you do? I said: well, I’m temping and waitressing, but I’d like to work in marketing or advertising.
And it turned out this chap had a friend at an agency, who he said he’d put me in touch with – bear in mind none of us had email at this point. I literally gave him my home address! And incredibly enough, he wrote me a letter, saying he’d spoken to his contact in London, Philip Beeching, and that I should give him a call.
I called Philip immediately, of course. It was a small agency, only 12 people or so. Next thing I know, I’m bundled up in my car driving to Hammersmith to crash on a mate’s sofa for the interview. We got on brilliantly, he offered me a job more or less on the spot, and that was that: I started on the following Monday.
How did you get on there? We know you didn’t stay in the land of small agencies for long, so what happened next?
Working at a small agency is a wonderful experience because you do a bit of everything it takes to make an agency work: Coming up with ideas yourself, meeting senior clients, writing the briefs, as well as doing the invoicing and pouring the coffee. It was a great way to start in this business.
But I soon realised that I craved a large agency environment and the opportunities that would bring. So after a few interviews, I got a role at Wunderman working on BT and BA. A few years later I moved with them to New York, where I learnt a great deal: how to be more confident, how to get further up the client hierarchy, how to give and take feedback. Everything in New York is also five times bigger and bolder, so you really have to embrace the New York ‘chutzpah’ to succeed.
But I always wanted to come back to London; the city means a great deal to me. So I came back to a big job at Ogilvy – to the UK to run the American Express account across EMEA, which was quite a big step up for me at the time. But I survived, thoroughly enjoyed it and managed to do a decent job. I worked my way up, and ended up responsible for the whole group in the UK.
And then Arthur Sadoun [now Chairman and CEO of Publicis] came knocking. In truth, I wasn’t looking to move. I was really happy where I was. I met with Arthur out of curiosity…
And the rest is history?
Indeed. When Arthur succeeded Maurice Lévy as Chairman, he invited me for breakfast to tell me about the opportunity on offer. And it was exactly that – a huge opportunity. I couldn’t refuse.
It’s been a fantastic evolution from running what was essentially a very large ‘creative shop’ to something with broad capabilities across media, creative, technology, commerce, PR, data, production and more. It’s been three years, and I’ve continued to learn a huge amount.
It sounds like you’ve never been afraid to take big leaps – and you’ve seen big payoffs as a result. Is that a character trait of yours, the willingness to ‘jump in’?
I think so. I’m a big believer that you create your own luck. You have to be brave enough to put yourself in the right places; you can’t just hope for things to come to you.
I’m also quite instinctive. When opportunities have come along, I’ve always had a good sense of what will work for me. I’ve said yes – but also no, when needed. And that balance has paid off; I’ve had a career I’m proud of.
You’ve worked on many major clients over the years, across B2C and B2B. What have you been most proud of in terms of actual advertising or marketing work? And in a broader operational sense?
Probably British Airways: ‘The Magic of Flying’. We created digital billboards that displayed different creative executions, depending on which BA plane was flying overhead – you know, ‘Look, it’s flight BA475 from Barcelona.’ It was really engaging, magical work.
As for the second point, I’m hugely proud of the people I’ve helped to develop. The teams I’ve created and led. Our ComEx team – which includes 14 of us across the different Publicis Groupe practices – is a high performing, high trust, laughter filled team. I’ve achieved that a few times in a few places, so I’ll always be most proud of the team dynamic and performance I can nurture.
Speaking of high performance: the team at Octopus are looking forward to working with you and others across Publicis to drive B2B forward. As we’ve discussed before, B2B feels ‘supercharged’ at the moment, so the opportunity is huge. Why do you think B2B has gained such prominence over the last 18 months? How are you planning to continue driving B2B growth?
I’ve always loved B2B; it was a huge part of my focus at Ogilvy. And it’s true – the B2B sector does feel supercharged right now, which is very exciting. The growth Octopus Group has seen attests to that.
But it’s not surprising, when you consider the disruption and change of the last year. The way businesses buy has changed. There’s been huge technological transformation across B2B industries – like financial services, energy, telecoms and aviation – and a rise in B2B ecommerce. And with events out of the question, B2B marketers and sales teams have been able to reach prospects a lot more directly. All of which has proven fertile ground for growth and new opportunities.
As for the future, there really are no limits. The avalanche of opportunities that have already come our way in 2021 proves that. Really creatively ambitious. And really grounded in wide-ranging technical expertise, from martech knowledge to tech capabilities and comms knowledge.
But of course, for that to be successful, you need the right people and talent – which is why I was so delighted when we made the Octopus Group acquisition. While we certainly have pockets of B2B expertise across Publicis Groupe, Octopus is a body of B2B experts with significant B2B heritage, plus industry leading data, media and technology resources. With Octopus on board, we’ve got a huge chance to scale B2B communications in a really strategic way.
Final question – let’s end on a B2B celebratory note. What’s the best B2B marketing campaign or brand of all time, in your eyes?
It’s got to be IBM, for me. The full breadth of it. From Bob Dylan to sponsoring Wimbledon and the ‘IBM Seer’ augmented reality app, where you could hold the phone up and see the game through walls – there’s always such a blend of bold creative, clever uses of data, an appetite to try new things and the important, really nitty gritty lead gen work.
And that’s a key thing for B2B marketers to remember; to combine those two strengths. Of course, you have to be realistic; for every IBM, there’s 100 accounts that need very serious, targeted work. But the best results come when you can combine the two; the serious and technical, with the emotional and impactful.
Again, just look at IBM. The Bob Dylan IBM Watson stuff is cool, but there was a huge amount of other work done that drove lead generation, drove sales, got the funnel going – helped by the uplift of the ‘glow’ from that public creative. And now, it’s a brand every consumer knows – despite never having been a B2C brand.
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