Sue Garrard: From pensions to Pot Noodles

The senior V-P of global comms at Unilever has successfully made the transition from public sector to consumer comms, finds Matt Cartmell.

In the limelight: 'There was never a day when we were not in the first three pages of a national newspaper'
In the limelight: 'There was never a day when we were not in the first three pages of a national newspaper'

Very jammy - that is how Sue Garrard defines a career in which she seems to have effortlessly flip-flopped from one top comms role to the next, modestly laughing off suggestions that it might have anything to do with talent.

Others attributed it to her knack of finding the 'penny-drop moment' - ideas that make so much sense that it is surprising no-one has thought of them before - while her strategic capabilities, developed in her early years in advertising, have been described by former colleagues as 'superhuman'.

Garrard, 51, greets PRWeek on the 14th floor of Unilever's ultra-modern glass haven on the Victoria Embankment and confides: 'I may be here for the rest of my days, but if there is another great job in government in five years ...'

She left the Department for Work and Pensions in January last year to join the world's third-largest consumer goods firm, having become disillusioned by the public sector cuts. Indeed, it has been suggested that Garrard's style of comms is more suited to big-money campaigns than the more frugal style of current Whitehall.

'It's the case that most people are very reluctant to leave DWP,' she says fondly. 'It's very fulfilling and satisfying.

'There was never a day when we were not on the first three pages of a national newspaper, and it was rarely a celebration of what we were doing. There's a very dynamic element to the job.'

Peter Fitch, now head of comms at Lloyd's of London, worked with Garrard at DWP, as well as Fishburn Hedges. 'Working in that department in 2008 and 2009 in the teeth of the recession was constant high pressure. What Sue brought was a sense of direction and purpose,' he says, pointing to her knack of getting the media onside during that tough period.

Her main feat during the past year has been to transform Unilever's global comms from a myriad of separate functions to a single entity reporting to her - a trick she learned at the DWP.

Garrard worked on the 1980s 'Tell Sid' ad campaign for the flotation of British Gas. Fishburn Hedges CEO Fiona Thorne recalls how Garrard developed the ad world's understanding of planning to fit the requirements of PR. 'She reinforced the need to ensure the strategic "red thread" was always crystal clear in every piece of work,' says Thorne.

Garrard is one of a number of comms directors, including Sian Jarvis, Clare Harbord and Yasmin Diamond, to leave government comms during the past year.

Is there not a sense that the old guard of Labour protectors are being cleared out by the Tories? 'I don't get a sense of that,' she counters. 'The change of government had nothing to do with my move.'

She worked under five different secretaries of state, including the ill-fated Peter Hain, who was forced to resign over an unreported £100,000 in donations to the Labour Party - one of a long line of frequent ministerial resignations, more recently joined by Chris Huhne and Liam Fox.

Garrard suggests that the level of public scrutiny could mean politics is missing out on the best people. But surely this is great preparation for global comms at one of the biggest companies in the world?

She downplays the similarities: 'It's in a different league. If I was in the private sector making dangerous chemicals, you would see the spotlight of public scrutiny on me. We make soup and soap.'

Garrard adds that there are issues - food labelling, transparency on tax and environmental issues around palm oil production - but says 'they are very rarely issues that consumers have in their top ten of what they are chatting about'.

However, she admits that digital has changed everything for corporates, and that consumer activism presents the single biggest challenge to firms such as Unilever. Despite the many early-warning systems available, she admits that the ability to see in the crystal ball if a storm is coming is 'pretty limited'.

Consumers expect a lot more from businesses than just to make money, which is why she joined Unilever, claiming that the firm has consumer values in its DNA. 'And that's not a piece of marketing spin,' she adds pointedly.

Although Garrard concedes that one of the reasons she got the Unilever job was because of her top contacts within government, she adds: 'This is a global role and no-one expects me to have all the details of lobbying in Indonesia.'

Garrard recently visited Unilever's China office, where all the main media channels are owned by the state: 'As I started to talk about media handling, I thought "I don't think most of my learning here is relevant.".'

Living near Henley, Garrard has a lengthy commute, but she would not have it any other way, being a rural girl at heart.

She speaks enthusiastically about her love of horse riding: 'I remember when the Lehman Brothers story broke and everyone was saying "we have three hours to save the world".

That morning, I decided to go out for a ride at dawn.

'I was riding down a track on a beautiful summer morning and a little robin hopped along a fence post.

'I thought: "These animals have no idea - to them it is just another morning".

I found myself thinking that if you lose touch with these things then you lose engagement with life.'

Garrard then bounds off to speak with her team, still resolutely engaged in the business of comms - and life.

CV

2011: Senior vice-president global comms, Unilever

2009: Non-executive director, Serious Organised Crime Agency

2006: Director-general, marketing comms and customer strategy, Department for Work and Pensions

2001: Board account director, Fishburn Hedges

1991: Board account director, Abbott Mead Vickers

1986: Account director, Young & Rubicam

1980: Executive officer, Department of Energy

Tips from the top

What was your biggest career break?

How can I pick one? Every one of my career breaks has been a lucky break. Getting to work on the 'Tell Sid' ad campaign for the British Gas flotation was amazing, while the move from overseeing just 20 staff to 500 at the DWP was a huge jump.

Have you had a notable mentor?

They didn't actively mentor me, but David Abbott of Abbott Mead Vickers, and Neil Hedges at Fishburn Hedges, both brought their values and purpose to the business.

What advice would you give to people climbing the career ladder?

Do not try to be something you are not - just be the best version of yourself every day.

What qualities do you look for in new recruits?

I do not care about academic track records. I look for people who I believe have got a deep well of courage and vision.

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