Behind B2B #09: Annabel Venner
For the ninth instalment of Behind B2B, our series exploring the brightest minds in the industry, we meet global marketing expert Annabel Venner.
Growing up, Annabel Venner had her sights set on a career in the skies – so how did she go from aspiring pilot to marketing Jammie Dodgers, revamping Schweppes’ brand image and making business insurance personal at Hiscox? We sat down with Annabel to find out.
Annabel, tell us – what did you really want to be when you grew up? Because as we know, very few kids dream of becoming B2B marketers…
The whole way through school and university, I actually wanted to be a pilot in the Royal Air Force. I racked up something like 100 hours of flying at Bristol University, where I studied chemistry.
But I eventually realised that you had to commit 10 years to join the RAF. And the flying I really loved doing was the fun stuff, the low level flying, the aerobatics. At that time, women weren’t allowed to fly fast jets – I’d be stuck flying the slow transport planes instead.
So I decided to take a year out and go travelling. I came back and joined SmithKline Beecham’s grad scheme, working at one of their factories in St Helens, Lancashire on the manufacturing and packaging floors. I ended up working with the marketing team quite often, and I found their work so interesting.
So I asked for a secondment to their head office in London – and 25 years later, I’m still doing marketing! It was very much an accidental career for me, as it seems to be for a lot of people.
Why do you think that is?
I think so many people just don’t consider it as an option. Fortunately, there are a lot of initiatives going on to help school age children, or those at University, learn about marketing as a career and provide them with some of the tools they need.
I actually went and studied with the Chartered Institute of Marketing after I decided this world was for me. I thought: if this is going to be my career choice, I better get a more academic understanding of it. That grounding has been very helpful over the years.
Where did your career take you next – and how did you eventually move from B2C to B2B?
Once I got into marketing, I always tried to be quite deliberate in my choices – taking opportunities I knew I could learn from. Early on, I spent a few years at Burton’s Biscuits, where I got a lot of exposure to some beloved brands. I did my first TV ad for Jammie Dodgers! But I also worked on their own-label biscuit business, which gave me a strong commercial grounding because I was having all these conversations with big supermarkets about margins, cost of goods, and P&L accounts.
Then I got approached about a job at Coca-Cola. With those commercial skills in my pocket, I thought it’d be a great next step. I spent nine years there; I helped introduce Powerade into the UK, I was part of the team that modernised Schweppes’ brand image – and eventually, I got to work on Coke itself, which was a great chance to learn about pan-European campaigns and all the cultural differences that come into play.
But I got to a point where I wasn’t going to learn much more. I very much felt if I was going to move, it needed to be something really different – not a Cadbury or a Pepsi.
And so I ended up with Hiscox – in the insurance business, which basically couldn’t be more different. But I was drawn to the opportunity because Hiscox is a very strong values-driven business, very customer focused. They have a great entrepreneurial spirit and the bravery to take big bets. It was initially a B2C role, but we soon flipped our focus onto B2B. I ended up overseeing the launch of the Direct B2B business in Europe, in the US, and then spent time in Asia, too.
I think I grew more as a marketer during my time at Hiscox than at any other point. We were selling direct, as well as through broker intermediaries, so we often had that full ownership of the customer journey. And that meant you had to be very aware of nurturing them through the sales pipeline, understanding that whole journey, figuring out how they might go from your ad to your website to then building a relationship and taking out a policy to eventually renewing. It was an intense process, but a rewarding one.
What’s the B2B work you’re proudest of from your time at Hiscox?
Hiscox was a wonderful place to drive forward some truly exciting work because we had a huge amount of trust from the senior management team, along with this core company value of being courageous. We took the philosophy that just because we were in insurance, we didn’t need to do advertising like every other insurer.
One campaign, developed by VCCP, was called ‘Small and Brave’ – we wanted to communicate to our target customers in a very emotional and often humorous way, effectively saying that we’re there for you and we support you, acknowledging what a big step it is to set up and run your own business. It was such a successful campaign in terms of driving brand equity and sales, and our customers just went: crikey, Hiscox really understand us.
The other stand out for me – which was great fun to do – was at the annual British Insurance Brokers’ Associates (BIBA) event. We wanted to try and get brokers talking a different way – so we stripped out a grand piano, painted it scarlet, and hung it above our booth, against a backdrop that said: IF ONLY ALL RISKS WERE THIS OBVIOUS.
Nobody had ever done anything like that before. It attracted attention, because nobody could believe we had done it. And that’s that sort of brave and courageous work that every marketer at Hiscox was encouraged to do.
You’ve been a judge at numerous B2B marketing awards – can you give us an example of great work from across the broader industry?
Tough one – being a judge has always made me very aware that there’s so much great work out there, but in the B2B world, you just don’t get to see it unless you’re the target audience.
A fantastic example – in fact, it won the Grand Prix at The Drum’s B2B Awards – was from a company called The Trade Desk. They’re an independent online media platform that helps companies buy digital media outside the walled gardens of Facebook, and they wanted to drive awareness of who they are, both to their marketers and to advertisers.
They acknowledged that programmatic advertising is a complicated subject – so they did this brilliant campaign called ‘As Explained By’ which was a series of short films featuring unexpected guests that explained what they did, and the benefits of data-driven advertising.
They were witty, unexpected, charming, and they drove strong results – but it’s just not something most people would ever have seen.
Final question. Having worked across such big B2C and B2B brands, what’s something both disciplines can learn from the other?
If the work coming out in the last few years is anything to go by, B2B marketers are already well aware of this – but B2B should always strive to tap into the emotional side, acknowledging that B2B purchases aren’t just about working at the rational level. B2C does that so well, so that’s definitely a lesson to take.
As for the other way round – B2C can learn from B2B in terms of ownership of the customer journey, tailoring messages to different stages, working at that very sophisticated level. I honestly find B2B so fascinating for that reason: there’s so much complexity, so much involvement in data and analytics along with creative bravery. I hope we’ll see more and more B2C marketers moving into the B2B world – there’s never been a more exciting time to work in this field.