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Forging ahead with Mark Evans, Marketing Director at Direct Line Group - #GettingToKnow

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Clearly the last year has been an unprecedented one for many sectors of the industry. We can only imagine what Covid-19 did to Marketing spend, but to leaders such as Mark Evans, Marketing Director at Direct Line Groupeven a global pandemic is merely a test of one's resilience.

In the interview below, Mark told us about his first experiences in the industry. He detailed his first successes as well as his first failures, painting the picture of a caring and certainly beloved leader who truly believes in the power of brands to bring about positive change. We say it way too often around here: the industry has the power to change the world. And few people know the real meaning of forging ahead like Mark Evans, below.

Today we are Getting to Know the inspirational life story and personality of Mark Evans, who, no matter where his career gets him, will always, inevitably remain the same curious young marketer who crossed the threshold of Mars straight out of Uni.

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Tell us a bit about your role! What is one typical day like?

There is a large dose of Groundhog Day at the momentm since I have only been in the office twice since March 12th 2020 and am really missing the magic of interacting with “real” people.

However my role is quite broad so it is never dull and for that I am incredibly grateful. I sit on the group ExCo and it has been a fascinating journey for us as an Exec team to navigate the business through choppy Covid waters. In addition, prior to the first lockdown we had started to transition to a full fat agile operating model across our head office, a la Spotify.

We completed that process at the back end of the year which has been a massive undertaking and learning journey for everyone, including myself. More generally I am very fortunate to work with some great brands and great people who care passionately and want to win, but in the right way.

What was the biggest challenge in getting to your current position?

My role has moved through different guises in the last 9 years culminating in joining ExCo as Managing Director almost 2 years ago. Moving onto ExCo itself was relatively seamless since a number of succession moves happened simultaneously as a result of a change in CEO.

I didn’t have to go through a specific recruitment process but I had had to demonstrate in the previous years that I was a credible candidate. In that sense I felt like I had truly earned the opportunity through all that had been achieved leading up to that point. What was in my favour was that Penny James was our existing CFO and hence I wasn’t starting from scratch. I have to say that it was a lovely feeling when everything was confirmed in that it felt like everything I had done up to that point had been practice for what I needed to do next.

What is your personal background and what role did it play in your career?

My background is fairly ordinary in many regards. I went to a normal state school, was healthy and happy, and aside from my parents getting divorced when I was 18, I really had nothing to complain about. However, I found myself in team sports and this has probably been the biggest influence upon my career.

Very specifically rugby was the sport that I focused upon and I was fortunate to play to a fairly high level and captain several teams. I believe that this taught me everything that I know about ambition, camaraderie, winning and losing together, and what a privilege it is to lead people. I believe that rugby captaincy is quite humble in comparison to many sports and is very much aligned to the notion of “servant leadership”. This approach has helped me to navigate myself and teams that I have led through some very difficult situations. 

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A shot from Direct Line Group's campaign from last year, created by Saatchi & Saatchi.

What is your biggest career-related win? What is your biggest loss?

My biggest win was getting onto the graduate training programme at Mars after university since it set me on the journey that I have subsequently taken. I can remember at the time that it felt very sweet, particularly since I had already been made redundant from a graduate job that I hadn’t even got to start. More to the point it gave me a great introduction to the world of work and of Marketing which has served me well ever since. 

In that context my biggest loss was being made redundant by Mars (closely followed by the 3 other redundancies that I have experienced) after nearly a decade of service. In each case the redundancy was a result of a re-structuring, but inevitably it felt very personal at the time. Fortunately I have always landed “jam side up” in terms of going on to find another great job - but each was certainly a test of resilience and fortitude.

What is one top marketing tip you learned on the job?

The best Marketing boss I had was Bruce McColl, Global CMO at Mars, who said that curiosity was the most critical skill for all marketers. Specifically he said that around every corner is an insight waiting to be found that can transform a brand, a business or even a sector - you just need to be curious enough to find it. I have seen this borne out time and again and whilst it always seems so obvious with hindsight, it is often the case that the answers are hiding in plain sight. 

Which individuals and/or brands do you gain inspiration from?

I have already mentioned Bruce McColl but I would also call out Paul Bartlett from Mars who was my first ever line manager. They say that you need to “see it to be it” and Paul is a brilliant and inspiring marketer that showed me what good looks like. Of course at Mars Marketing was very much a leadership function and Paul perfectly exemplified the strategic value of Marketing which has stayed with me ever since. 

How has COVID-19 affected you?

Whilst Covid has clearly been massively disruptive I have been less affected than many since our organisation has adjusted really well to virtual working, and also our kids are a bit more grown up, meaning homeschooling hasn’t been such a big deal.

Nonetheless, it has been a huge leadership challenge in terms of finding different ways to motivate and inspire. I miss the magic of human interaction and have found it really hard at times to know where and how to “be” in order to be most helpful.

This is exacerbated by the fact that we have moved to an agile operating model across head office where everything is more federated. I have definitely been through a change curve but now feel more at ease with a more extreme version of needing to be an empowering leader.

What is your biggest hope for your brand in 2021?

These are topsy turvy times for everyone with consumer habits significantly disrupted. We insure drivers, homeowners, pet owners, travellers, and small businesses - all of whom have had their worlds turned upside down. Hence my hope is that we maintain our growth momentum and are strengthened rather than weakened as a result of the pandemic.

Many sectors have had a much greater impact and had to abort many of their plans. Fortunately we have managed to hold our nerve in terms of our marketing spend and activity, and more generally, but there are still many challenges ahead before we can feel like the world is anything like normal again.  

What is your one piece of advice to aspiring marketers?

Stay open-minded and agnostic. Specifically don’t hang your hat on being a “digital marketer”, or indeed upon any specific technology or channel. The best marketers see the possibility in everything and apply a critical eye from the broadest set of opportunities. Marketing as a discipline can tend to be quite faddish and binary - but the best marketers are more circumspect than that.

How do you recharge away from the office?

Lockdown has been a good thing in terms of having more opportunity to exercise regularly which I find to be a great way to relax. However I also believe that a change is as good as a rest and I am a fan of side-hustles. I have a few other roles outside of my day job and am the proud founder of the Sprintathon (a charity event that raises money for Stand Up To Cancer) and these give me a change of scenery and perspective that I believe makes me better in my day job.

What’s your one big dream for the future of brands?

The silver lining of Covid and the tragic murder of George Floyd has been that crucial conversations around climate change and D&I have had more oxygen. It shouldn’t take such major shocks to bring about the change that is required in the world but perhaps it was ever thus. In any case I see brands playing an ever bigger role over time in terms of driving progress on these major societal issues. You could go even further than that to say that if Marketing leaders are not at the heart of these conversations within their organisations, figuring out what role their brands can play, then they are increasingly likely to be marginalised from the leadership table.

Do you have any websites, books or resources you would recommend?

My favourite book is Oh The Places You’ll Go by Dr Seuss. Also a great recent read on what it takes to achieve long term high performance is Captain Class by Sam Walker.

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