Londoner Michel has enjoyed a career spanning the Foreign Office, Nato, advertising, research and academia. She currently heads up the body charged with communicating the economic benefits of engaging with Cheshire’s varied delights. This East End girl has done good.
Katrina Michel was born in Stratford in the East End of London 57 years ago. She has remained loyal to her early roots as she still follows West Ham but she has lost her original pronounced Cockney accent…more later.
Michel was born into a poor family. For the first 11 years of her upbringing, the house had an outside lavvy. To the surprise and huge delight of her mum and dad, she passed her 11 plus. She recalls: “I had great teachers and I was also an only child which in hindsight was one of my biggest breaks in life.”
At the age of 12, the family moved to Watford and the young Michel was accepted into Watford Grammar School. The first interview was mixed as academically she was fine but her pronounced East End accent wasn’t to the school’s liking and she was advised that entry would be conditional on taking elocution lessons. No regrets though as Michel says that Watford Grammar “was great.”
Post A levels, she went to Bristol University where she read French and German.
International lawyer? No. Civil servant.
At this stage, her mother and father, enthused by her natural aptitude for academic learning, really wanted her to be an international lawyer but instead, on graduation, she opted for a career in the Civil Service, passed her management entry exams and joined the Foreign and Colonial Office, initially on a three month secondment in London working on the Americas desk. Projects at the time included seal clubbing and sorting out US politicians’ trips to the UK.
She then readily accepted a request to move to Paris for a year with the FCO before finally taking up a new challenge with NATO in Brussels for various secondments which lasted two and a half years. Five years in total with the Foreign & Colonial Office.
One day in 1983 she says she woke up and thought “I don’t want to be doing this anymore.”
Why INSEAD? She knew someone who had been there and it was also just a one-year course (a number of MBAs at the time were for two year courses).
Her peers at the time typically went on into jobs with multinationals or in banking but she had a yearning for comms and advertising, thinking it seemed that bit cooler and “where the fun is.”
So after INSEAD, she wrote hundreds of letters to ad agencies with the basic message that “I’ll do anything and I have an MBA from INSEAD”.
Account planning was a young discipline at the time and finally an ad agency called Davidson Pearce offered her a job as a junior planner, “essentially just a planning skivvy” she says. The agency’s main claim to fame was the PG Tips chimps’ ads and they were also the first agency to go public.
“I learnt a lot from working for two bosses – Virginia Creer and Mary Stewart-Hunter. They had two entirely distinct management styles and approaches to work. It really taught me that there are different ways and techniques to every problem. Left brain, right brain and that there are always more ways to solve a problem.”
Nicole and papa
She moved on to other agencies before settling on Publicis (the French owned agency) where she helped launch the Renault Clio in the UK leading on the legendary Nicole/Papa adverts which from a business point of view completely transformed Renault in the UK. On the back of Publicis’ transformative work for Renault, Michel was headhunted by Ogilvy and Mather to work on Ford Fiesta.
Ogilvy and Ford were quite different types of companies to Publicis and Renault. Ogilvy was much more of a multinational than Publicis while Ford’s US multinational approach was culturally a long way from Renault’s continental thinking she recalls clearly.
Ogilvy became her longest stint at an agency as her roles changed from planning to new business and then back again to head of planning UK with 25 staff in her team in London.
Life was good. In 1994 she got married and by 1997 had had two kids.
In 1998 however, her husband was offered a job in Liverpool with Royal Insurance and Michael says “I felt it was his turn and I needed to support him. He’d been very patient with me and it was a big opportunity for him so we moved.”
But having made the decision boldly, in the cold light of day, she reflected anxiously on what she might actually do ‘up north’ where ‘big agencies’ were very thin on the ground. But one day ahead of the family move, she was in her office in London preparing for departure when David Bell of Manchester ad agency CheethamBell rang up out of the blue. By an extraordinary coincidence said Michel, at the very time when the call came through, she was reading the ad agency trade bible Campaign and had a page open on a story which headlined ‘CheethamBell Wins MEN Account’. By the end of the conversation with Bell, they had struck a deal.
The change in location, pace and scale was a huge contrast for Michel. From dedicated planning departments to working in an agency where all the disciplines more or less merged. She joined initially on three days a week and gradually went to five.
Put your London crap away
“I quickly learnt” she says, “that there’s agency life outside London. CheethamBell was an exemplary lesson in putting your London crap away. It was refreshing.”
In 2001, although business at CB was good, there were recurring issues they had continually to deal with: primarily clients seeking agencies with greater resources than CheethamBell had. This caused Michel and some of her colleagues some consternation and one day, when it became apparent that JWT’s Manchester operation – a great brand being torn apart by management strife – was imploding, Michel and a colleague locked Dave Bell up in his office and wouldn’t let him out until he’d rung Stephen Carter, JWT’s UK CEO in London, suggesting that CheethamBell could provide him with a tidy solution to resolve his JWT Manchester issues. The pitch worked and WPP bought what became CheethamBellJWT.
“Don’t be afraid to be cheeky. Sometimes you just have to have a bit of chutzpah” says Michel.
“We were all doers. We had a number of big wins and big clients including Magnets, Phones4U and lots of government work.”
In 2007, she was made chairman of JWT Manchester which naturally delighted her but it also came at a time when she started feeling that perhaps “I had been there long enough and my interests were changing and the world was going digital. A friend of mine, Liz Bielinska had just left TBWA in Manchester, as part of the Robert Harwood-Matthews’ clear out as he tried to move the agency on from its glory BDH Manchester days.”
“Liz said to me that she was looking to launch a new consultancy predicated on ‘brains without the overheads’ – It took my fancy, and I decided to leave.”
Over the next three years, Michel says she made more money than she had ever done previously and “we also had a great time.”
It was a virtual operation and although entirely co-incidental, the timing says Michel was fortuitous. The recession had begun and companies were cutting back and looking at outsourcing more and drilling down on costs. Ditching expensive staff in favour of leaner, results-driven contractors made sound commercial sense.
“In 2010, we reached a significant milestone and I decided to take some time out.
“The Tories had won the election and I guessed that there’d be lots of changes, particularly in education, and I saw a potentially more satisfying future for myself in my twilight years in education.”
So she began a PGCE (Post Graduate Certificate in Education) at Chester University.
She didn’t however finish it.
Her personal circumstances changed just five months after beginning the course. Her husband lost his job and at roughly the same time, she took an unexpected call from Ros King at Ogilvy in London offering her a staff job managing global planning on a number of accounts.
“I realised with a start that as I pondered the offer just how much stronger my advertising gene was than my educational gene and abandoned my educational aspirations.”
All was great and the job only took two days a week of her time in London and she loved being back in the thick of the ad business.
Then once again, entirely out of the blue, in October 2012, a head hunter called with a job as chief executive of Marketing Cheshire based in Chester.
“I knew nothing about it and I knew nothing about inward investment. But I thought, actually, this does sound interesting. In theory, I should be teaching in French and in an interesting, probably international school somewhere, but I’m not.”
Marketing Cheshire has over 20 staff and £2 million revenue with, as Michel is very keen to stress, only 25% of that revenue derived from the public sector.
Turnover however was £3.5 million a couple of years ago, mostly accounted for by public funding. The organisation has had to change shape and pace.
The first three months were a baptism of fire but she got to grasp with it quite quickly she believes and is now thoroughly enjoying it. In addition to working with hundreds of leisure companies in Cheshire, Marketing Cheshire also retains several creative companies. “Never shut a door too hard. You never know when you might need to work with someone and call a favour or two. This also applies to watching the mistakes that others make and learning from them.”
She goes on to paraphrase David Ogilvy’s oft-repeated quote about the need to surround yourself with people higher than yourself, who know more than you. “As a manager it’s my job to ensure that our staff are rounded and always learning new skills from each other and creativity can and should always be supported.”
She recalls another example of radical creative thinking when she worked on the Gaviscon (indigestion liquid) account at JWT. “Gaviscon was a new operation and previously the creative approaches had been very weak. But the planning and creative teams went out of their way to look at new ideas and they came up with the fireman ad which at the time was considered a bold step. It was a brave move for JWT but it went very well and subsequently went global for Gaviscon andJWT.”
On a more prosaic level, she is also mindful of life’s ability to bite you in the arse. “Be careful. Never, never commit to paper or email your private thoughts.”
She once expressed her private views on one client in a memo and it somehow got to the client and “it was awful, it was just terrible.
“Never again. Just be careful. But don’t give up trying or being brave.”