PROFILE: Zoe Arden, Director of communications and inclusion, BT Retail

Zoe Arden should have arrived for her int­erview wearing star-spangled hot pants and a golden headdress. Because - by all accounts - BT Retail's comms director may actually be Wonder Woman.

Arden: 'Any change is uncomfortable. Some people view it as an opportunity and some don’t'
Arden: 'Any change is uncomfortable. Some people view it as an opportunity and some don’t'

Not only does Arden have a busy and successful career, she is also a mother of two children and has a raft of hobbies inc­luding amateur dramatics, running a book club near her Surrey home and exercising. She spends early mornings running beside the Thames, working out in the gym or boxing with her personal trainer.

On top of this, 43 year-old Arden is alw­ays immaculately turned out, with a distinctive, sleek blond bob and a smattering of tasteful, bohemian jewellery.

Arden’s day job alone would more than occupy most people. As BT Retail’s top comms operator she oversees a team of more than 50, with responsibility for internal, external and e-comms and consumer affairs, as well as special products and services for older and disabled customers (the ‘inclusion’ part of her job title).

The BT Retail division is something of a ‘chameleon’, she says, accounting for 20 million customers, 20,000 staff and 40 per cent of BT Group’s revenue. It markets a vast array of products and services including telephone lines, broadband, fledgling TV service BT Vision and the company’s 60,000 payphones.

So how does she fit it all in? Arden is obviously highly energetic and driven, and her husband, she says: ‘keeps it all together. He is home-based and does a mixture of things, including training and software dev­elopment. He has one of these exciting portfolio careers, whereas I’m the boring commuter.’

Arden too could be described as a chameleon, having worked with a vast range of clients during her 20-year, mostly agency-based career, rather than specialising in one sector. According to those who have worked with her, she is a savvy operator with a talent for working a room, knowing exactly who to talk to and what to talk about to charm men and women alike.

While she couldn’t be more personable, Arden can also tap into a ruthless streak when required to get the job done. She has sliced the headcount within BT’s comms function by 40 per cent, and oversaw the merger of The Weber Group into Golin Harris during the summer of 2003.

Arden admits that merger was difficult, not least because The Weber Group lost its name to sister agency Miller Shandwick Technology. ‘That was kind of tough bec­ause ‘Weber’ was our equity but suddenly Miller Shandwick technology became Weber Shandwick technology and we became Golin Harris. But it was really exciting building a culture and getting people to buy in to being Golin Harris instead.’

‘I’ve always loved the idea of being a maverick. The fact that we were tiny Golin Harris, in the midst of this Weber Shandwick territory – people liked that and it worked really well,’ she adds.

Ever the PR, Arden describes the process of letting staff go as ‘turning around’ or ‘exiting’ them, which she maintains was done without redundancies in both cases. At Golin Harris, she explains, the process was self-selecting; ‘If you’ve got a really good team, they decide if someone’s not pulling their weight.’

Slimming down the BT Retail comms team co-incided with a restructure. Arden placed internal, external and e-comms in the same team, rewriting all the job des­criptions and asking everyone to reapply.

‘When you create change, some people become ready to move on. We interviewed everyone for the roles and some didn’t continue. Any change is uncomfortable. Some view it as an opportunity and some don’t.’

Arden says she is now doing her ‘dream job,’ and she is extremely positive about BT as a company, and its oft-maligned customer service. ‘We’re generally considered to be the best’, although she adds that ‘there’s a lot more we could do.’

BT’s comms team had ‘bit of a fright’ earlier this year, she admits, when it faced a media backlash against the introduction of a charge for customers paying by cash or cheque. That taught Arden and her team a lot about the customer’s perception of the company, she says.

‘It wasn’t that every other company wasn’t doing it. But what we had to appreciate was that people view BT differently. BT has been in people’s lives for generations. That’s one of the reasons that we now have consumer affairs and inclusion in my team,’ she explains.

Arden identifies herself as having ‘an entrepreneurial streak’. She credits this facet of her personality to the influence of her father, who left school at 14 and went on to create his own electronics company; ‘I was the first person in my family to go to university, and my dad thought the pinnacle of a career, for a girl, was to be a PA. So I’ve always been a bit of a self-starter.’

Arden’s creativity and focus are apparent even from her application to BT. In her second interview, she spoofed in-house magazine BT Today with ‘Zoe Today’. The magazine included views on Zoe from ‘the boardroom table’ – an interview with Sally Ward, then Weber Shandwick Europe vice-chairman – and ‘from the kitchen table’, a section her children took part in.

Edelman Europe CEO David Brain knows Arden from her Golin Harris days. He says: ‘She is bloody organised and she is feisty – she tells you what she thinks at every stage. She is also very action oriented – once something is decided she’s off, she does it.’

Charm, creativity, a savvy business sense and incredible drive are a potent combination. It will be interesting to see what Arden does with these skills in the next 20 years.


PRWeek: What was your biggest career break?

ZA: Probably getting my first job from university, because I had a great teacher and was working on such a broad range of clients. Also working in San Francisco at such an exciting time, during the dotcom boom, was a fantastic opportunity.

PRWeek: What advice would you give to someone climbing the career ladder?

ZA: Recognise that it’s a very small world and what goes around comes around. Make the most of every opportunity and be very clear about your intentions. If you make sure everyone knows that you want to be a senior account exec within a year, or that you would love to work on a certain account, you are much more likely to succeed. Don’t expect people to just bring things to you. Take control of your own career, think positively and look for solutions – I’m not very good with wingers.

PRWeek: Who was your most notable mentor?

ZA: I’m not sure that I had a traditional mentor, but I learnt a lot at Access Communications – CEO Susan Butenhoff and senior VP Jennifer Fellner. They were positive, high energy people – very Californian. They cut through the crap and were good at getting people excited.

PRWeek: What characteristics do you prize most in new recruits?

ZA: Enthusiasm, curiosity and a desire to get stuck in.

Director of comms and inclusion, BT Retail

Managing director, Golin Harris

Senior director, rising to managing director, The Weber Group

Vice president Access Communications, San Francisco

Account director Spreckley Pittham

Account executive Burdett Rudd

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