What 20 years at global brands taught this marketer about leadership and real networking

Sue Zerk’s impressive career has spanned some of the biggest corporate names, including British Airways, Fairfax, Tourism Australia and now 20th Century Fox. By Michelle Keomany.

This article originally appeared in The Serve Issue, our February/March print edition of Marketing magazine.

 

Since 2009, Sue Zerk has been the marketing director at 20th Century Fox Theatrical. This role is responsible for building a brand from zero and turning it into dinner party conversation within six months, 20 times a year.

Speaking to Zerk, it’s easy to see how her straightforward, anti-BS mentality has seen her through an impressive career. Everything she says is paced, calm and well-thought out – a rare quality in today’s high-pressure marketing environment.

MK1017 200Zerk’s career really began in London, at a time when there weren’t mobile phones and the city wasn’t flooded with Antipodeans. After a couple of years of junior experience working for Ansett, she took the opportunity to move over- seas to work for an agency.

“I had a pretty good network who knew some people in London. I guess that was my first big lesson – it’s really important to have a genuine network.” She goes on to explain what she means by this, “I’m not someone who’s a fan of going to those networking – in inverted commas – events because I don’t think they really help you build a network. If you have a genuine network who know what you’re capable of, that’s really important, even when you’re on the other side of the world.”

So what’s her advice for developing a network? “My suggestion is to be curious and genuinely interested in learning with others. Put your hand up to work on a project, or to mentor people, or to simply work together on understanding something that’s new in your category. Nothing builds a relationship like a shared experience.”

It worked in Zerk’s favour that Australians weren’t commonplace in the UK at that time – it meant that she was judged purely on her professional merit. She describes what it was like working in the early 90s in London when everything was still done in hard copy. What does she think is one of the biggest changes since this heyday of marketing?

“The pace has definitely changed – I prefer today’s pace, the fast pace we work at and I really like being connected. With the use of technology now you never get a surprise because you already know what’s going on.” As for never switching off? Zerk doesn’t mind it at all.

Airlines

zerk careerAfter working on an airline brand at her agency, Zerk moved onto British Airways where she spent the next seven years of her career and was general manager of regional marketing based in London and then Australia.

Sue sums up her interest in the industry very insightfully: “It’s always been a fascinating market because you have to both build a brand, so people like you, and be responsible, so people trust you. But also, you have to be able to tactically activate, you need to sell seats every day – as soon as that door shuts those seats are gone and that value is lost, so you need to be able to activate things very quickly and you need to be commercially focused.”

All the work Zerk refers to started with very sound insights and rigorous research. During her time at British Airways, she saw the introduction of flatbeds and frequent flyer programs and it was the early days of CRM. “I worked very closely with the team that came up with flat beds in business class, which came from an insight through research (which sounds very obvious now).

“People said they don’t really want caviar, trolleys and polished silverware – what [they] really want is to be able to sleep…”

Zerk speaks about working for an organisation that involves hard product and the responsibility involved.

For example, putting TV screens onto the back of aeroplane seats costs hundreds of millions of dollars and factors such as the weight of the aircraft have to be taken into consideration.

“A lot of that also comes back to leadership, culture and vision, which I consider to be really important.” At that time, Zerk says, British Airways management really wanted to revolutionise air travel and be the most innovative and forward-thinking airline in the world.

“You need to have both the intellectual rigour and financial modelling, but you also need to have the emotional intelligence and intent and vision to make it happen,” she says.

“And when you have these things it really creates fantastic momentum because your customers become massive fans of you and the customer focus shines through. Your employees also share in that vision and that shines through in the soft product and the service, too. It was a really incredible time to be part of something so big.”

20th Century Fox

Now, as marketing director at 20th Century Fox Theatrical, Zerk reflects on the similarities with the airline industry and how they both need to continually sell seats and provide an experience to customers.

“I can stay home and have great food delivered and drink great wine, but I still go out to restaurants – this is a very similar analogy for going to the cinema. The experience has to be worth it. It has to be value for money,” Zerk explains.

bsAustralia is actually one of the biggest and most developed movie-going markets in the world, with a very high frequency of cinema attendance. And business has been growing for the last five years. Zerk says the two main drivers are the product itself, the films, and the high quality of the exhibition companies, and the cinemas, such as Hoyts, Event, Village and great independents.

Overall, movie marketing involves a combination of science and instinct within a high-pressure calendar. Each year, Zerk and her team work on 20 to 25 titles, each with a six-month lead time. She says it’s very challenging. There’s a lot of juggling, she rarely knows what month it actually is and quite often won’t see the movie until close to the release date – after the media briefs have been written.

Has she ever been surprised when she actually gets to see the whole film? “Oh yes… sometimes you’re given materials that look like one thing, but then when you see the film it turns out to be something else.” She explains how important word of mouth is and how it was an unexpected key factor in the success of two recent films, Deadpool and Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

For the award-winning film Hidden Figures, released in Australia in early 2017, Zerk says that, along with a nuanced target audience, their approach also involved basic personal judgement.

“We suspected that this film would have great word of mouth, because we used our own judgement. We invested a significant amount of money in the marketing campaign – it was a multifaceted campaign to get older women and families.” Zerk goes on to say that managing the tone of the film was also very important and they invested a significant amount in a screening program, so people could spread word of mouth before it was released. Hidden Figures earned $15 million in Australia, making it the film’s most successful non-US market in the world.

While it has its challenges, one of the great things about the industry, Zerk says, is that if your film is working, you’ll get the numbers on the first day. Which can be a blessing and a curse. You can see where it’s working and what time people went, allowing you to be predictive and reactive at the same time.

On the flipside, however, this also means being able to see when something isn’t delivering, but not being able to reverse it. By the time a film is released over 80% of the media budget has already been spent. “One of the things that’s really great for us is that the digital media canvas allows us to see who is responding to what we’re putting out, to make some changes to the creative, change our targeting and to really get under the skin of the consumer,” Zerk says.

“I’m very fortunate because it’s one of the very few jobs as a marketing person where you can have the real responsibility for the profit and loss.”

Hiring the right people

Zerk speaks with clear purpose and a focus toward everything she does and is driven by the need to constantly perform. She’s also acutely aware how important it is to have the right people: “I’m a big fan of recruiting people who genuinely want to accept the challenge – that’s the biggest thing, to find the right people and give them challenges. In the work we do, you can see the results of your labour very clearly and my team find that to be incredibly rewarding. They also love the category; they love working on films.”

With such an impressive career working at a senior level across a number of industries, Zerk is aware of the need to constantly evolve and navigate a changing marketing landscape. She cites visibility and agency transparency in the digital space as the biggest challenge that CMOs are currently facing.

“You’ve got an infinite canvas of media that you could be placing when you’re talking about the broader digital environment,” Zerk says. “Sometimes you have to call bullshit – when I hear about engagement, what does that really mean?

“Things are so difficult now for marketers and there are so many decisions to make and people are taking their insights straight from the mouths of someone who’s trying to sell them something, which really concerns me.”

What does she suggest to overcome these issues? “I think you have to demand visibility. The other reason I really like doing what I do is that when we phase out our activity and our media, we’re always independently tracking it. I think that’s absolutely essential.” She strongly recommends doing your own work and setting your own success criteria.

Zerk also believes that one of the issues in marketing today is not being able to truly understand who your audience is. “I find even in media discussions most people think about the media they consume as opposed to the media the audience is consuming,” she says.

Zerk adds that one of the things she encourages her team to do is to get out of their bubble by getting on a train to somewhere they haven’t been before and simply having a look at what people are doing.

It’s clear that Zerk’s approach comes from an innate intelligence and drive to do what she does.

She says that it’s about finding an element of your role that you can be really passionate about. “Everyone’s different, but I really prefer to have a passion for what I do. I’ve always chosen to work for brands that represent what I’m interested in and that I genuinely want to contribute to.”

The challenge for movies, she says, will continue to be telling great stories that people are excited to see – and fostering urgency for audiences to go out and enjoy them as soon as possible. It’s continually rising to the challenge of selling seats before the door closes that keeps her on her toes and evolving to meet everything she has faced throughout her career. Zerk sums up her role perfectly: “It’s great to be a commercial person in a creative industry,” and the industry is very fortunate to have her.

Michelle Keomany is a social/content strategist at DigitasLBi France.

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