Interview: Zenith's Natalie Cummins

03 Jan 2019  |  Michaela Jefferson 
Interview: Zenith's Natalie Cummins

The Zenith UK CEO opens up about making it to the top as a single parent, the future of agencies and changing client needs. By Michaela Jefferson.

If Natalie Cummins could change one thing about the media and advertising industry, she would want to see "less over-intellectualisation."

"Sometimes you can be in a meeting, particularly with other agencies in slightly different disciplines, where everyone is trying really hard to bring something extra to the table," she says. "If we all spoke using the vocabulary we had when we were 10, we would all communicate so much more compellingly."

It's statements like these that make the new UK CEO of Zenith come across as well-grounded and humble - if a little reserved to begin with. Describing herself as "plain-speaking but slightly annoying", Cummins is proud to drive the worst car on her street - the same "crappy Ford Focus" in which she learnt to drive a few years ago.

But the story of Cummins' rise to chief executive still now stands out as a little unusual. Cummins is a single mother of three children under 10 - not just a single mother, she is quick to interject, but a lone parent, her husband having passed away three years ago.

The experience of juggling three children alone as well as a media agency has taught her to be a master of efficiency, she says. "It's helped me realise what's important and what's not."

Whilst Cummins isn't the only single mother to have made it into the ranks of agency bosses, her appointment speaks volumes about how far adland has come in its respect for women who choose to have both careers and children.

Even now, statistics released last year from the Equality and Human Rights Commission show the extent in which workplace discrimination against mothers persists: almost half of employers surveyed agreed that it is reasonable to ask women if they have children during the recruitment process.

However, Cummins says she feels positive about changing perceptions towards parents in business and the future of gender balance across all industries, while making it clear she does not criticise mothers who choose not to work.

"I feel quite excited about it," she says. "Because I work, my two sons naturally have it in their heads that mums work. My son is always boasting to his friends about my job - he's really inflated it to be honest. [Both of my sons] are very proud."

Cummins started her career at Zenith as a media planner in 1998 and returned as business director in 2006. She's remained with the agency ever since, serving as managing director prior to her promotion to CEO in July last year.

Her promotion comes at a time of upheaval for the agency, which is packing up its Fitzrovia offices ready to move into the old BBC television centre in White City next year, alongside all five of Publicis Media's other media agencies.

Some industry commentators have criticised the move, drawing comparisons to Ogilvy's ill-fated move to Canary Wharf in 1992. However, Cummins says the move feels "exciting".

"Change - positive change - always injects new life. It's enough of a break to feel really fresh," she says.

The future of agencies

New life might be just what Publicis Media needs. Network agencies are increasingly being criticised as old-fashioned and slow in comparison to smaller or more independent operations; in WPP's strategy refresh, CEO Mark Read said that the advertising network had become "too unwieldy", "not always as focused or as fleet of foot as it needs to be."

Cummins is somewhat dismissive of those criticisms, however. “Big agency groups can move faster than you think. They have the weight and tools behind them.

"20 years ago, bigger companies were slow moving – but these days everyone has to have much greater agility and the speed at which we get things up and running is impressive.

"I think other holding groups are the same," she says. "The clout of big holding groups is helpful, rather than a hindrance."

The last few years have also seen the advertising landscape evolve enormously, particularly as consultancies move into the agency space. Again, Cummins seems genuinely confident when she says that these new challenges are "exciting" rather than worrying.

"I don't think there's an industry left now that has the same group of competitors as it did 20 years ago," she says. "Actually, I think that's what makes agency life still so interesting - different groups of competitors means finding new ways to solve problems."

Implying that the threat of consultancies to agencies has been overstated, Cummins is quick to gloss over the concerns, arguing that consultancies operate very differently to agencies.

"The two different ways of coming at things are quite complementary in some ways, and it's natural that clients would be investigating working with consultancies," she adds.

However, Zenith has been growing its own consultancy offering since it rebranded in 2017 amidst a string of agency acquisitions by consultancy Accenture. Cummins says media agencies are, and should be, the "number one advisor" for their clients as they offer unique expertise - even when clients are looking at that other offer on the table: in-housing.

"We have very open conversations about that," she says. "If a client says they want to in-house a discipline, agencies need to play the long game and recognise that as their trusted advisor, we should help them, not stand in their way."

It certainly sounds counter-intuitive to assist clients in cutting out the middle-man, however Cummins says that Zenith "will still work with [those clients] in other ways."

"It is what it is. If that is a trend or movement within the industry, you have to be gracious and let it happen - because if the client doesn't succeed, that's no help to anyone."

According to industry experts, it is programmatic capabilities that brands are most keen to in-house as they no longer feel they can trust third parties to control their data. In August, the IAB reported that nearly a fifth of marketers had taken programmatic buying in-house.

But despite her commitment to help clients in-house if they choose, Cummins argues that clients "need to trust us to navigate them through [programmatic], because it's quite complex."

"Part of the problem in programmatic is that a lot of stuff happens on the supply side - the bit the agency can't see. Even if you in-house, you can't see that information," she says.

"There needs to be better transparency on the supply side. That's probably the next thing for the industry to address."

Cummins adds that Zenith has no ownership in the programmatic supply chain, unlike some of its competitors; GroupM launched its own programmatic wing, Xaxis, in 2011.

"We use the partners that are right for our clients, rather than ones we want to use because we have a vested interest in them."

The ROI agency

Most agencies have a 'thing' to differentiate themselves in the market. Zenith positions itself as the ROI agency.

"It's about using creativity and consumer insights and all the stuff that's important, but with a focus on an outcome that is important to that client," Cummins says when asked what exactly an ROI agency does.

The answer feels somewhat unsatisfactory (what agency isn't focused on outcomes that are important to a client?), but I'm interested to know what an agency specialising in ROI thinks about the inescapable long-term/short-term debate in media buying.

"Everyone knows what they should be doing: 60/40," Cummins said. However, in practice she says it's difficult to persuade clients.

"You can't expect a client who might not be in the job three years from now to take a load of money from the present - which is making the CEO and the city happy - to invest in the longer term, when frankly they probably won't be working there anyway," she says. "Frankly, I think that is a big ask of CMOs."

According to Forbes, the average tenure of a CMO was 44 months as of March 2018, or a little over three and a half years.

"If agencies are going to make the case for the right balance of brand and activation, they need to show that the brand activity is generating results today, not just tomorrow."

Zenith achieves that with measurement technology called brand contribution, which fuses econometric methods with brand tracking, she says - but it's important not to undervalue short term ROI.

"That's what determines how well the company is doing in the here and now. If you can't help your client do well in the short term... Well, they're not going to do well, and you might get fired as an agency."

Can women have it all?

It's sad but true that the gender gap in senior leadership positions across all industries remains vast, and the advertising industry is no different. According to WACL's 2018 research, there is a 13% leadership gap within advertising and marketing, and the number of female creative directors is well below one in five.

Happily, Cummins says that throughout her twenty year career she has never felt discriminated against as a woman. In fact, she says she's faced more discrimination for her voice - a (now quite mild) south-east London accent.

"Everyone always said I sounded like I was in EastEnders," she jokes.

Cummins predicts that the gender pay gap will close faster than is projected, and "when boys like my son finish university 10 years from now, they won't have that mansplaining, superiority complex some men might have had when I was starting out 20 years ago. That's a great thing."

Most of all, she says it's time that we leave behind that "outdated" debate over whether woman can 'have it all': the successful career and children.

“Every person, whether they have kids or not, has to accept that they can’t be great at everything all the time. As long as it all nets out – if you don’t get fired, your kids don’t hate you, everyone has food and clothing, and you feel quite happy – then that’s a success.”


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