Wednesday , November 30 2022

Zenith chief executive Natalie Cummins: getting ahead, flexibly

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Brightly coloured printouts cover the walls in a meeting room at Zenith UK’s London headquarters, left behind from preparation for the previous week’s pitch, which saw the media agency battle it out against two rivals to win the business of a fast-food client.

Now the wait is on, laughs its chief executive, Natalie Cummins: “We now have a week or two of agonising over the follow-up communications and trying to read into anything they say to you, so you can endlessly speculate.”

She is hoping the company will become the 84th client at Zenith, joining what she calls an “eclectic mix” that ranges from young upstarts such as social media app TikTok to more traditional companies such as Reckitt Benckiser, maker of Dettol and Durex.

If you’ve seen an advert on television, in the pages of the newspapers or on a billboard for companies including Lloyds Bank, Carpetright, or Nestlé, Zenith will have played a major role in getting it in front of your eyeballs.

Cummins has led the media agency – part of the French advertising giant Publicis – since 2018, helping it achieve £418m of billings last year alone, according to Nielsen’s annual league table. Those figures are all the more impressive given she has juggled her role with being a lone parent to three children under 13, a factor that influenced her company’s full embrace of flexible working even before the pandemic.

So what exactly does Zenith do? “We plan and buy advertising on behalf of major clients,” says Cummins, sitting in its offices in the fashionable building in White City that was once BBC Television Centre. “I say planning and buying, because you can’t just go out and buy a load of stuff: you have to work out what you are trying to do with this ad. Are you trying to get young people to reappraise the brand, or are you trying to get everyone to know there is a new orange version of such and such?”

While creative agencies make the actual adverts, media companies such as Zenith handle a client’s whole media budget, “which is much, much, much bigger than what it cost to make the ad”. As little as 2% of a company’s budget could go on the creation of an advert, Cummins says. “The rest of it is what we do.”

A clear and direct communicator, Cummins talks enthusiastically about the media buying industry – where she has spent her entire career, nearly all of it at Zenith – which she says is “so much fun”.


Age 47
Family Three children: John, 13, Albert, 11, and Agatha, 7.
Education Comprehensive school in Abbey Wood, London, then a BA in social and political sciences at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge.
Last holiday New York.
Pay Not disclosed as Zenith is not a publicly listed company.
Best advice she has been given “Be good at something that’s not just your job” – wise words from a former boss. Cummins adds that it’s important to “be good at something, and have a skill not everyone has”.
Biggest career mistake “For a year I worked at a creative agency. I could have sat at home watching telly for all I learned. It was a good agency but I should have stayed in my lane.”
Words she overuses “‘Ace’ and ‘what’s the grabber?’ when doing a pitch. It’s the opening slide that allows you to talk about the theme in a more abstract way.”
How she relaxes “Trash novels” by authors such as Jackie Collins and Jilly Cooper. She also goes for a daily run and watches Love Island.

The agency was launched in 1988, as the media arm of advertising heavyweight Saatchi & Saatchi in London. It merged with Optimedia following Publicis’s acquisition of its parent in 2000 and relaunched as Zenith in 2016.

In a world often dominated by suits, the 47-year-old stands out in her bright yellow polo shirt, dark shorts and sandals. And as adverts go, Cummins herself is an inspiring example of career progression.

She joined Zenith fresh from Cambridge University – she was the first person from her south-east London comprehensive to win a place – and within two decades had worked her way up from planning team assistant to the top job.

Cummins had been chief executive for less than a year when the pandemic took hold, throwing the whole economy into a tailspin. Now, rising inflation is fuelling fears about the economic outlook. Despite this, Zenith remains positive, and recently forecast that the ad market would remain strong this year in the UK and beyond: it predicts growth of 8%, despite the economic headwinds and cost of living crisis.

Late last year, under Cummins’s leadership, Zenith made waves when it won the Lloyds Banking Group account from larger competitor MediaCom. This was a significant win for the “small team” behind Zenith’s pitch, and Cummins’s proudest moment at the company: advertising insiders report that Lloyds – the UK’s largest mortgage lender – invests about £80m per year on media, while its annual report shows it spent £161m on advertising and promotion in 2021.

When Covid hit, Cummins and the rest of her 550-strong workforce had to switch, like most of the nation’s office-based employees, to working from home. But this was less of an upheaval for Zenith and other Publicis companies than it might have been, as they had already launched a flexible working model in 2018.

“We used to talk about work-life balance, and we started to talk about work-life blend,” Cummins says. “Actually you should mesh the two things around each other.”

Many suggestions about how to implement these sweeping changes – which included no set days in the office – came from a panel of the business’s rising stars. One of their main suggestions was for all staff to be given a laptop, to enable remote working. These decisions paid dividends during the pandemic.

Cummins adds: “It felt ridiculous even in 2018 to be saying you can do things that help your mental and physical health only at certain times. If going for a run is your thing and it makes most sense for you to do that at 11am, not 12.30pm, just do that.”

Zenith says this flexibility has been well received, resulting in a churn rate – the proportion of workers who decide to leave – that is lower than the industry average.

Since becoming boss, Cummins has been a vocal advocate for the importance of workplace flexibility, as a lone parent to two sons and a daughter. “I know what it’s like to be juggling loads of things: if you’ve got parents’ evening, or an assembly and your daughter really wants you to be there. If I’m not there, no one’s there, so for me it’s really important that I have that balance.”

“It’s not just about kids,” Cummins adds. “Everyone has shit going on, and people generally do their jobs better if they are not feeling under shitloads of stress all the time. That’s just a fact.”

Cummins’s approach is far from second nature to many chief executives, or indeed many employers, but she sees it as a “no-brainer”. “If you help people find ways to make life better, they are probably going to be happier at work and be better.”

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