Vanessa Canzini: Unstoppable force

After five years at eBay, the head of European corporate comms still has much to achieve and is determined to succeed. Sara Luker reports.

Vanessa Canzini: From the Tory party to eBay
Vanessa Canzini: From the Tory party to eBay

The UK high street may have had a dismal summer beset with closures and falling sales, but the outlook for eBay is rather sunnier.

The online retailer has continued to steal a march on its bricks-and-mortar rivals, announcing this week that the number of UK sellers making more than £1m a year leapt by 25 per cent in 2011.

Underpinning the story behind eBay's European growth is head of corporate comms, Europe, Vanessa Canzini.

The 34-year-old displays a maturity and demeanour far beyond her years, having crammed so much into her career already. She has been in the thick of a Conservative Party election campaign and headed media for Iain Duncan Smith's successful Tory leadership bid, as well as handling comms around an extra terminal and runway at Heathrow, and the London congestion charge launch.

Some might suggest her role at eBay represents a move to a more sedate pace of life - not Canzini.

'My biggest challenge is to change the perception of eBay,' she says. 'When I joined in 2007, eBay had become defined by issues.

'Issues over selling brands such as Louis Vuitton, the uproar over people selling on concert tickets for more than their face value and sales of knives during a police amnesty gave me many reputational challenges. It's a marketplace and unless it's illegal, we can't ban users. Twitter and Facebook are having these kind of issues now.'

The strong-willed Canzini led a recent perception-changing campaign in Germany, eBay's largest European market, which she says resulted in a 60 per cent reduction in negative opinion: 'It's a real challenge getting people to think differently about eBay being a second-hand goods site. In reality, 60 per cent of our goods are bought new and at a fixed price.'

She has always let her instincts fuel her career decisions. It was this gut feeling that drove her to take the role of head of media for Duncan Smith's leadership campaign in June 2001. 'Iain was the least experienced and least fancied of the candidates, but I believed in him,' she says. 'My Conservative Central Office colleagues would laugh as they walked past me.'

But her instincts paid off and 'The Quiet Man' emerged victorious. Now Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Duncan Smith says of Canzini: 'Vanessa's ability to focus on what was required, coupled with her no-nonsense style, achieved excellent results. She's a natural communicator, with good judgement and a great sense of humour.'

Canzini's grounding in PR was with the Conservative Party as a press and broadcast officer. It was a tough learning curve - up to 16-hour days being paid, as she describes it, 'peanuts'.

She decided to move on after Duncan Smith's victory. Having spent her comms career changing perceptions, Canzini was determined to change people's perceptions of her. 'I wanted to move from politics to corporate comms,' she says.

There was still a strong political vein running through her next role as chief press officer at Transport for London.

During her time there, Canzini worked on the launch of the congestion charge and Oyster card, although her main challenge was being 'accepted' at a Ken Livingstone-run TfL. 'They thought I was there on some political agenda and pigeonholed me as a Tory girl,' she recalls. 'I felt very much an outsider.'

But she moved from outsider to insider when she took a role at the heart of airport operator BAA's comms operation that came with on-the-job crisis comms training.

'Crisis management gets bandied around in comms all the time - mostly incorrectly. Crisis comms is when you have the BBC filming an episode of Airport on a runway at Heathrow while a plane with its engine on fire comes into land - yes, I've been there. Or when you have planned a huge homecoming for the London 2012 bid team, only for the 7/7 bombings to happen.'

Canzini spends much of her spare time raising money for charity Acton Homeless Concern. This year she plans to raise £20,000 by organising various fundraising events.

Fleishman-Hillard London MD Richard Kanareck, formerly EU comms director at eBay, says: 'Vanessa is intensely loyal, incredibly warm and works tirelessly on behalf of friends, colleagues and causes close to her heart. Plus, she has a wicked sense of humour and a contagious laugh.'

Canzini's loyalty is on show at eBay. 'I've been here five years because I still have a job to do, and I won't move on until accomplishing what I want to achieve,' she says.

Few would bet against it - she is a force to be reckoned with.

2007 Head of corporate comms, Europe, eBay
2006 Duty editor, BBC corporate press office
2006 Freelance consultant, Blue Rubicon
2003 Senior media relations manager, BAA, Heathrow
2001 Chief press officer, Transport for London
2001 Head of media, Iain Duncan Smith's leadership campaign
1999 Press and broadcast officer, Conservative Party


What was your biggest career break?

Leaving my job at the Conservative Central Office to head the media operation for Iain Duncan Smith's leadership campaign was the defining moment of my career so far. It was a leap of faith at a young age and one that gave me the opportunity to influence strategy and tactics in what was a very high-profile campaign.

Have you had a notable mentor?

My dad taught me to have an opinion and be fearless in expressing it no matter how unpopular it may be.

And my former boss at eBay, Richard Kanareck, taught me to focus on the big picture, not to sweat the small stuff and to keep it human.

What advice would you give someone climbing the career ladder?

People buy from people they know, like and trust, so spend time defining your brand. When someone asks 'who's that?', what would you like them to say about you?

What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

Someone who will challenge me. Intelligence, initiative, judgement and political nous are all important attributes.

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