Episode 19: How to build an award-winning team with PwC's Maria Jennings

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In this week’s episode, editor in chief Joel Harrison spoke with Maria Jennings about PwC’s recent win for ‘Marketing team of the year’. They talked about her criminal psychology background, how to communicate effectively with your team during the pandemic, and the reason they bagged the coveted award.

JH: So, let's start with you. Start telling us a bit about yourself. Have you always been a B2B marketer and have you always been a marketer?

MJ: Yeah, good question. I am the example of the marketer that has been in 20 plus years of business development and marketing in professional services only. And, in fact, I have a little fact about myself and I've worked at numerous different professional services firms, including EY, Norton Rose, and now PwC, and most of my career has been spent in ‘More London’ in that little area by Tower Bridge. I’ve spent most of my career there. BD before pure marketing at Norton Rose, account management at EY. I’ve led account teams, so I’ve looked after clients in a key client role.

JH: So you know this sector really well. Did you train as a marketer?

MJ: Well, interestingly, much to my Dad's despair, when I went to university, I studied criminal psychology and he said, “Why would you want to do that? What are you going to do with that when you graduate?” But I was fascinated. I did Law A level and psychology, I was just fascinated by the topic, and I then graduated and started off my career as most people do as a bit of an admin role in a US law firm.

It kind of went from there. I fell into marketing, and I studied and did some of my CIM many moons ago, and I guess you could say I’m self-taught. I’ve learned along the way and been working for some great leaders and over that time who I've learned a lot from.

JH: Okay, your story sounds like it echoes a lot of marketers along the way, who've, maybe not come in on a kind of purist route but have got some great experience, which contributes to them being a great marketer in their roles. I have to ask you about criminal psychology. Can you use any of that in what you’re doing now? Is there any of that topic that aligns in your marketing?

MJ: I mean, thankfully I don't work with any criminals so that's a good thing, and the psychology aspect is always fascinating. I think it definitely has helped how I analyse situations, how I talk to people and manage stakeholders. Some of my friends would say though that perhaps it didn’t do me any favours when I overthink things.

JH: Well, I'm not going to be complaining about people doing that. I'm definitely in that camp as well. So tell us, what is it about marketing now and your career, that it really engages you about it as a profession?

MJ:  I'm really passionate about marketing, and I came from a BD background, which is a mix of business development and marketing. I have spent my time at PwC for nearly eight years now in a pure marketing role, but really, my passion is storytelling.

And I think that at the heart of great marketing is great storytelling. Even if that’s in a lead generation campaign, your story still needs to be there, versus if you are positioning under a big brand advertising campaign for example. But yeah it's something I'm really passionate about. I was head of content and thought leadership at PwC for a number of years when I came to PwC.

And even now, it's the bit that I love to kind of roll my sleeves up with and get my hands dirty. I enjoy looking at our messaging, narrative and how we position ourselves around language in the market. I love to write so I've got a personal little hobby in the background where I write in a blog. And I use that as a bit of an outlet really. I get my free therapy as I like to call it.

But at the heart of great marketing is great storytelling, and ultimately you need to be thinking about that in an innovative and creative way and it needs to be commercial and grounded in the client.

JH: I think so many marketers relate to that but storytelling is definitely one of the more creative ends of the spectrum, so you see yourself as a creative marketer. Do you agree that the kind of that creative aspect of it is still core to it as a profession?

MJ: I think so, yes. It’s interesting that you say that and make that observation about me because I'm also passionate about strategy. I’m a strategy lover, I love a plan and need structure. I like to ensure that people know what the plan is, what our objectives are and that we're asking the ‘why’ question all the time.

I think creativity comes from different places in different people. There are those who are very strategic in the way they operate from a marketing perspective, versus those that are super creative and blow your mind when you walk into a room with them.

And I think it’s about getting the balance right between a mix of people - individuals from diverse backgrounds, different grades that can all bring that to the table. I don't think that everybody needs to have everything anymore. I think those days are gone. Actually I think it's about knowing what your superpower is. What's the thing that you're really great at and then bringing other superpowers together a bit like ‘Avengers assemble’, to the table to be able to do really great things.

JH: So, moving on a little bit, let’s talk  more about your team because we've got a really clear picture about who you are and how you work with a business and your background, all that kind of stuff. And the obvious thing to ask is that you talk about teams, and it is about COVID. How have you found this impacting on your team, your relationship with them and the support you need to offer to operate as a team leader?

MJ: When the pandemic hit, I think as a marketing function, we had to pivot very quickly, and we had to respond to something we'd never seen before. The business was working out where it needed to be, how it helped our clients, and therefore, our role became very different.  All of a sudden we had to pause, what we were doing, and in some cases, stop what we were doing and rethink where our efforts needed to be, where our investment needed to be and what skills we needed to deliver. Very quickly, you’re trying to help, as an organisation, your clients survive, because ultimately, they are in survival mode. So what do we need to be doing from a marketing perspective to help in that scenario?

The  pivot was very sharp, very quick. We moved people from roles into a central team, a COVID response team, all of whom worked brilliantly together, with the camaraderie, and the team work was excellent. - to look at what the priorities were, and therefore, what did we start, what did we pause, what carried on in the background because we knew we would need it again when we came out of this. The way I saw the team, the function pivot at speed around a whole new set of goals very quickly was to their credit.

JH: I think we've talked about this in the previous roundtable that you're part of. But on an individual level, how did working with those individuals change? I mean it sounds like you’ve got quite a close team, but how did you have to adjust the way you engage them? So tell us about that in terms of what kind of challenges presented themselves and how you responded to that scenario.

MJ: Yeah, I mean as a marketing function at PwC we’re 115 people across many regions in the UK, and we were always used to working virtually, it was kind of in our DNA.

I know that our chairman mentioned within three or four days of the first initial announcement from Boris back in March, we had 20,000 people working from home and that’s pretty phenomenal actually, whereas I know other organisations really struggled with that because it wasn't really part of their makeup, so for us, as a marketing function, working virtually was no  big deal.

I guess the big deal was that for some people, being in the office is a really good thing because that’s where they get to see people. Some people might be in a shared house or might be living alone, and actually getting into the office is their escape and thing they enjoy doing.

So we very quickly as a leadership team got our arms around people I guess metaphorically checking in on people. Different teams did different things - we had a lot of quizzes and happy hours, so we added a bit of fun into what was quite an unnerving and uncertain time for many. We upped the ante around communication. So actually, the function was hearing from leadership of sales and marketing much more frequently and just showing care for other people. It all sounds simple but it had a huge impact.

We were also clear on the boundaries with people. For example, there were many parents and carers who were trying to juggle. I was trying to juggle a three-year old, which was chaos at times. He often joined me on video chat. I was handing him over to my husband every two hours, and at the time, people were worried about how that would be perceived. The message from the firm was always ‘do what you need to do’. We’re all trying to survive. If you need to do childcare duty in the afternoon, and need to work in the evening, that’s perfectly okay.

JH: Okay. A very pragmatic but supportive approach sounds appropriate and, yeah, I mean, easy to say but doing 150 people who are geographically located with different priorities is not so easy. Do you know, there was an initial adaptation. But obviously, the kind of crisis or the situation with COVID is kind of pivoted and changed and evolved, are you still continuing to evolve and do you imagine that we'll continue on to the very end of, when COVID is hopefully a dim and distant memory?

MJ: Absolutely. The plan is never static. The strategy should never stand still. And it should always be something that we're continuing to assess, review, test and iterate - all those things. And so I think actually in the scenario that we're in right now, in that period upfront, where it was all hands on deck and let’s get our arms around this and understand what our clients need, to a different approach which was, Okay we know where our clients are still struggling but actually we were also seeing some clients who were coming out of that survival mode looking ahead, looking at transformation.” I heard one partner say, transformation is non-negotiable.

At the time, we were working on a high-profile transformation market positioning campaign so we knew that was the thing that we needed to get behind very quickly and get that into the market at the right time. We knew our clients were looking at risk for example. We knew they were still thinking about restructuring as a part of their business, so again, mobilising a team around market activation in that space. Being very front of mind and relevant at the right time is important. I think that’s in our makeup, and we’ve certainly evolved in that way.

JH: And I was going to ask you about, if there's a single thing which stands out as being the most challenging thing  you encountered as a team leader during this period, and how you overcame it. You can include your three-year old because by the way, I have a little one as well and that is a bloody nightmare so I can completely relate to the how difficult that is. So, was it anything that stands out?

MJ: I think for me it was being really clear on boundaries. The working day got longer. People were putting meetings into the diary for 8 o’clock without checking to see if that was okay with people because they assumed you’d be up at your laptop by then. Meetings went very late into the day again for the same reason. The day just got longer in the absence of a commute, where you might still be checking your emails and getting up to speed on things, you’ve got a little bit of a break in between getting to the office and leaving the office. I have had to personally challenge myself around that because I would find myself at 6 o’clock still in the office at home bashing away at the keyboard, and my little boy comes to me and says “Mommy, can I have a story?” So it really is about making sure you have those boundaries and I think everybody in our marketing team, has struggled with that a lot. So we’ve been really as a leadership team, but for me personally as well, I’ve been saying “Hey, it’s okay to say no to a meeting. It’s okay to say, I don’t want to do that on video. I’m going to go walk the dog and we can have a chat on the phone. When was the last time you called somebody? We tend to do everything by video. I’ve introduced, a few times a week, a walk and talk, in some of my meetings rather than on video, so I think the day got longer, we had fewer boundaries, and a lot of people struggled with that.

As this becomes a longer term scenario for many, find your boundaries, find your red line and be clear on that. Do a brilliant job within the boundaries that you work, but don’t feel bad for the days that you can’t work past 5.30 or 6 o’clock for example.

JH: Yeah, very wise words. And I guess one of the things about that is what is what we revert back to assuming that we revert back to something resembling normal when we are able to go to the office, unhindered,  and how we feel about this situation because some of the expectations probably will remain I'm not asking you to tell me what the answer is because I don't think anybody knows at this point but it's a kind of fluid scenario isn't it?

MJ: Yeah, I think so. I mean, my personal view is that I think fundamentally, the way in which we work has changed forever. I think that those organisations that had very firm views on employees working from home will have changed their stance now. And I think what's really great about when you trust employees to work from home when appropriate, is that they can still deliver.

They can do really great things, and that’s not just us in marketing. We had examples at PwC where we were doing amazing client work virtually that we never would have done without being on a client site for example. I'm not saying that we won't need to go back to some of the ways that we worked before but I do think there will be more flexibility for more people in terms of how they work. We were very lucky at PwC. We always had that flexibility. We have everyday flexibility at PwC that means that you work how your day allows you to work. And I think that that just means that for more organisations and therefore more people, that flexibility can become the new norm.

JH: So I wanted to ask you a bit about your awards wins. Sarah Casswell and I presented at the awards, which was a departure for us because we did it live partly. We were also watching your team's engagement on social and various entries on you and it was wonderful. It was a thing to behold and you know you beat a lot of the agencies who kind of pride themselves on culture in terms of their enthusiasm. So, you know, how important is team culture in winning in a marketing team beyond just in generally having a great team?

MJ: That overall win changed what had been such a tough year for so many because that ‘Marketing team of the year’ award was for everyone, it wasn’t for one particular project team all of whom are deserving winners. That was for each and every person in marketing for every bit of contribution.

We do rally around a bit of social. We prepped for that, we had content good to go, we used the images from you guys , because it was a big deal for us, and actually, doing it virtually was really great because we had over 100 people. I think it was 105 people joined us in some way, shape or form on the night. If we had gone to an actual in person event, we'd have bought a couple of tables and had probably 20 people there, so this way everybody got to get involved and everybody made an effort. We had multiple tables, it was quite a big deal, multiple virtual tables and hosts, and it was really great and I'm really passionate about this concept of ‘we’. You’ll rarely see me talking about “I” because I believe every successful person has somebody else who's equally successful standing next to them. Alongside them, with them.

I could think back to project days, and in teams, where an individual might be saying “I would like to go down this route”, and I say, “Well, what about we? Is this a ‘we’ conversation?”

JH: What you often hear about award wins is that it’s wonderful for the team and individual, and I love the fact that you reflect back on both and make those multi-dimensional, but also it’s great outside of marketing in the concept of the organisation. Has there been any recognition of that or I suspect, knowing you, you didn't wait, you made sure there was.

MJ: I think we had our Chairman congratulate us. Our new Head of Clients and Markets tweeted, so we had a number of influential people in the business recognise us. Our head of marketing was congratulating people. As a leadership team of directors in sales and marketing, I was really quick to let them know that we won that and they all got their arms around their individual teams to congratulate them. It's a big deal, and it's really important to me that I personally acknowledge that and recognise that for the team because it's important that they understand that they have been part of that win! That's not a “me” thing or “leadership thing”. That's because of all of them. And so, it’s been good recognition internally. And because we're quite noisy about it, and we make a big deal about it, you can’t really miss it.

JH: I think it's great just celebrating success on different levels. So, hats off to you guys. It was a masterclass in how you generate a sense of the culture and the importance of that. And so I wanted to understand because obviously if this entry would have related back to what happened in the year up to April, so only partly racing back to the COVID year, so you didn't do as it doesn't relate to a specific kind of a specific challenges that you faced in that 12 months or was it part of a complex a longer journey than building up for a longer period of time, or combination of the two?

MJ: I guess a combination of the two. We've been on a bit of a journey over the last couple of years, so obviously I've been in this role, and I'm new in this particular role. We had Lucy Birch before, and really over the last couple of years, I and other heads of marketing at the time worked very closely with Lucy on our marketing transformation and it was a conscious decision that we made, over the last couple of years.

We wanted to change how we did things, why we did things and be able to show value in that. We developed a number of great processes and systems internally around best practice delivery. I’m really passionate as I move forward in this role, and the team have heard me talk about this a lot, but I talk a lot about consistency, client centricity and commerciality. If we don't have those three things in our marketing, then we're doing something wrong. We need to be always thinking about how we can be consistent in the market. How we don’t create noise. With a firm like PwC, with lots of parts of the business and 900+ plus partners, you could just be in the market with multiple messages all of the time creating noise. I think one of the things that is a part of our marketing transformation is we looked at our ‘operating’ model, we looked  at priorities around our planning and strategy and that continues to evolve.

And now I think we're in a phase where we've delivered some fantastic marketing over the last few years. And we've really evolved how we do things with investment in skills and capabilities. And now for me, it's about how we start to become more consistent and deliver a narrative that becomes a bit of a golden thread I guess for everything that we do.

JH: And I presume that winning this award is lovely because everyone is recognised and great for everybody, but I guess the development of the teams doesn’t stop here. I suspect that probably there are things you want to do in the future. Anything you can tell us a little bit about now in terms of challenges or aspirations you have the future for the team?

MJ: Yeah. So I talked there about those three C's that I’m talking to the team about and I am a big believer in simplifying what is complicated - I'm often the person in many meetings absorbing and listening for quite some time - and then I'll jump in and say ‘guys, are we not just overcomplicating this?’ But when you unpick it, it’s actually quite a simple premise that we're trying to deliver. So I'm really keen that we start to simplify our messages, so we have greater clarity in the market with our clients with our prospects, internally as well. And that we are really clear on what you mean by commerciality.

What I mean by that is it doesn't just have to be a revenue number that you attach to what you do. It needs to have a commercial goal, but that commercial goal can be for example, if you look at some of the brand positioning campaigns that we’ve delivered in the market, they’ve become the platform from which our stakeholders can have more informed, in- depth conversations with clients that support the things that they sell. So ultimately that is your commercial goal.

Sometimes, I think we get a bit fixated with how much revenue is that going to generate, and it's okay to say, ‘Well, you'll might never know.’ But actually what it will do is connect really directly to that sales play over there that you're saying is the priority and then we can make that happen. So understanding the commercial goal and getting the guys comfortable with the fact that doesn't need to always be a direct number but it does need to connect to the things that we sell.

And then on the client centricity point, it’s getting the team to put themselves in the client's shoes. This doesn’t necessarily have to be PwC says, PwC thinks. Let’s co-create with clients. Let's put the clients at the heart of what we're trying to deliver to the market. And I think it's an evolution of that journey that we’ve started. It’s also about making processes more efficient, being clear on the skills required in particular roles, I’m passionate about that. And as I've said to my team before ,this is not a project that I would finish and then say “Guys here you go, this is just what we're going to do”; it's going to be ingrained in us. It'll be everyday life.

JH: It sounds like it's about their mindsets and about what you're trying to get them thinking in the right way, and if you get the thinking in the right way, then the results will be the right results.

MJ: Yeah, I think so. What I'd add to that is, we’re going quite a lot around how we use data more effectively. So what I mean by that is data led, data informed strategy, so why is that the marketing strategy for ‘X’ part of the business, what is it telling us that we should be doing that, versus what comes out of the other end, so how are we using that data to make more informed decisions, and also, not waiting until the end. Test, refine, test, refine, not being afraid to just give something a go and then you can always pull it, so don’t be afraid to try something new. I think insight is really important in terms of how we develop our plan s and our strategy in the upcoming months.

JH: So very wise words can become more important in B2B marketing. This has been a great conversation. I have one final question to ask you. If there's somebody listening now who really wants to run an award-winning team in future perhaps they're running a team or they want to run a team but they want to be recognised the way PwC  has been, what's the one bit of advice you'd give to them?

MJ: Yeah, I think my view is that leadership is not about titles, or positions or flowcharts, or organisational charts. It is about one individual influencing another individual, and the knock on effect that that has.

I would say to people, think about your relationships. Think about your network. Think about the dialogue you have with your team and with your stakeholders because that's ultimately how you become credible and how you show leadership because people follow that.

I will commit to certain attributes as a leader that I hope they will see in me regularly and that is that I will listen to understand, not listen to respond. I think we often want to jump in and we've got an answer on how to do that, but I'll listen to understand as to why actually, that might be a different way that you would do it compared to how I would do it.

I also talk about the concept of the importance of ‘why’ and asking why every time because the more insight you can get as to what someone's looking to achieve, the better you can be at providing a solution.

The third thing is I've mentioned it before, but I feel really strongly about it. Simplify anything that feels complicated because the simpler it is, the easier it is to digest and therefore you land your message in a really kind of clear way and provide clarity.

And then I guess the fourth thing is authenticity. Just be yourself. I've had feedback in the past that I'm firm but fair that I'm inclusive but compassionate, so I don't think there's any harm in being direct, providing clarity and not beating around the bush. But equally being able to show that you can wrap your arms around people and provide the proverbial hug. So authenticity is really key.

JH: I can believe that of you as well. You are a very authentic person, Maria. Thank you so much for that. Congratulations again, and thank you so much for taking the time to speak to me today really interesting answers!