A year is a long time in high-street retail. At the start of last
year, Flic Howard-Allen's new employer Marks & Spencer was facing the
consequences of resting on its laurels. Customers deserted, suppliers
bailed out, and the share-price nose-dived. Oh, and there was that ad
campaign featuring a 'size 16' model streaking across a hillside
shouting 'I'm normal'. The abyss beckoned.
Twelve months later sales were up, analysts marvelled at the turnaround,
and long-suffering shareholders are to be rewarded with a £2bn
cash-back scheme. A fickle state of affairs indeed.
The change in fortune has taken place under chairman and CEO Luc
Vandevelde. Luckily for him and the M&S board, ploughing the sensitive
ground of retail comms has been Flic Howard-Allen's ambition for a long
while. It's her golden opportunity, she says, even if it means turning
her back on 13 years at Hill & Knowlton.
She joined H&K in 1988 as an account director and rose through the
ranks. You name it, she's worked on it at the WPP giant: consumer,
corporate, youth, B2B, internal comms, crisis management ... the list
Howard-Allen, who succeeds Cheri Lofland at M&S, had journalistic
ambitions when studying for her English degree at Leeds University. She
worked for three years on the student paper and her course included
disciplines in broadcasting. 'But I found I enjoyed business - PR was
the way I could combine both interests.'
After university, she joined WHSmith as PR assistant, then moved to the
then Charles Barker Lions as its first graduate trainee. Four years
later, she entered H&K, where she remains until a successor is appointed
at Red Lion Square.
'I wasn't looking to move this time, but this opportunity arose and it's
a culmination of what I have been working towards for ten years. My plan
has been to work in blue-chip consultancies, and then move to a
blue-chip in-house role,' she says. 'I find it very hard to think of a
more exciting brand than M&S.'
Perhaps she means a more challenging brand? Even her H&K boss, chairman
David McLaren, describes her new role as a 'tough order'.
McLaren says Howard-Allen, a mother of three boys, is both formidable
and versatile: 'She is one person who has worked in consumer and
corporate with equal effect. She's tough but fair. M&S is a challenge
that requires somebody with the resolution and technical experience.
Flic will do well.'
With this breadth of agency experience behind her, Howard-Allen feels it
is time to get under the skin of a client company. She rejects the
suggestion she has outgrown H&K, but agrees that a move in-house will
widen her skillsetfurther: 'As far as careers go, you are either
in-house or at a consultancy. I believe I have done all the things in a
consultancy that I can.'
H&K has allowed Howard-Allen to build the combination of skills, McLaren
says, that prompted Vandevelde to lift the phone and woo her across the
'My aims fit with what the new M&S management team has begun. They've
started to come back, and I aim to contribute to that revival,' she
says. Her description of this contribution will please strategic
communicators: 'Running M&S communications will be about meeting
business objectives. I will be working with Vandevelde and the board,
and I will bring fresh ideas, gain better cut-through, and better
understanding of the brand among key stakeholders,' she says.
She concedes she will be one 'very small' component of the 'complete
management challenge' to revive the brand, but with a team of 55, she
certainly has the resources to succeed.
And there's no denying she has the credentials. She has navigated every
corridor on every floor and occupied most of H&K's London offices at
some period during the past decade.
Outside PR's core disciplines, Howard-Allen is credited within H&K for
building a solid record in business strategy, people management,
negotiation skills and team leadership; an impressive list to help any
great institution's management off its knees and back into the retail
After several years in the consumer field, Howard-Allen made the jump
from consumer to corporate and B2B comms: 'Spending so many years with
one organisation may seem unusual, but I've done six or seven jobs in
And she seems to have had the same degree of achievement in the latter
category as in the former. Shortly after the practice group switch, H&K
picked up the 2000 PRWeek B2B campaign award, for its Build on Line
M&S seems to be returning to popular favour, with successful winter
ranges, marketing plans that generate footfall instead of ridicule, and
a share price on the rise. Howard-Allen is joining at a good time to
help M&S in its bid to become the British shopper's outlet-of- choice
1983: PR assistant, WHSmith
1991: Board director - consumer division, Hill & Knowlton
1998: Corporate MD, Hill & Knowlton
2002: Comms director, Marks & Spencer