Victoria McKenzie-Gould, Corporate Affairs Director at Marks and Spencer, talked to PressChoice about what her childhood teddy says about her interest in world affairs, how to communicate the story of a massive brand and M&S’s response to the cost of living crisis
Before coming to M&S Victoria was a special advisor at Number 10, was Group Government Affairs Director at Tesco, Corporate Affairs Director at Britvic and has worked with charities such as Tomorrow’s People and Winston’s Wish.
The View From The Press Office
Marks and Spencer
M&S is more than a company, it’s part of the UK’s cultural heritage. It started life in Leeds in 1884, with a stall in Kirkgate Market. The company now boasts over 1400 stores globally and over 6500 employees.
Often known for its up-market food, amidst the cost-of-living crisis, the company has re-engaged with its value proposition which characterised its founder Michael Marks philosophy, who built his success with the shop’s original slogan which was ‘Don’t ask the price, it's a penny’.
It now aims to seamlessly combine trusted value and quality goods, beloved by Boomers and Gen Z alike.
In the first set of results delivered by chief executive Stuart Machin, a year into the job, M&S beat analyst forecasts, growing their clothing & home department by £3.7billion and food by £7.2billion.
In the middle of it all Victoria McKenzie-Gould, Corporate Affairs Director took time out to talk to PressChoice about the lessons she learnt from the pandemic, what her previous job at Number 10 taught her about effective communications and the value of talking straight.
PressChoice: You’ve done several interesting jobs in different areas, working in government, charities and in the corporate world. Are there any lessons from those other areas that can be brought usefully into the corporate world?
Victoria: The commonality throughout my career is that my work has always been about being very close to the customer. When you work in politics the customer is the voter, and everything you do, if you’re doing it right, should be for them. It’s about telling a story about what you’re doing and why, which comes with a level of pressure that makes it akin to retail.
M&S is the most trusted and one of the most talked about brands in the UK at the minute, which is an amazing privilege.
PressChoice: At PressChoice we run a trust tracker amongst journalists and, since the pandemic, we’ve found that business journalists have grown quite sceptical of what they are told by companies. From a communications perspective, how difficult is a message like ESG, say, to engage with? How do you manage that?
Victoria: It’s all about whether what you do and what you say that you do is the same thing, it’s that simple.
I think if the media think they’re being given the run-around they’re not going to believe a word you say. We’re really privileged, this is a business that’s run by people who really care about its heritage and want to secure its future. People don’t just look at profit, so that gives you an amazing base to work from – one of our values is “talk straight”, which I love.
PressChoice: How do you deal with the understandable consideration that, given that you’re already a respected company, one may think it better not to make press statements at times – that the downside of engaging maybe bigger than the upside potential?
Victoria: My boss uses the phrase “we’re positively dissatisfied”, which I think is a great phrase. It means we know we’re trading well at the minute, but we want to do better and we’re not going to rest on our laurels. I attach that to everything we do and always make sure that I am guided by my colleagues and customers otherwise that’s when you can become unstuck.
PressChoice: Since M&S is often considered a more expensive food retailer. Do you feel that the cost-of-living crisis is relevant to you? Has it changed the way you have to communicate?
Victoria: We really do feel that topic is relevant to our story. As MD of Food and now as CEO, Stuart has reset the value equation with a focus on great everyday prices with no tricksy promotions – the best possible product at the best possible price. For example, our recent price lock is something that we wouldn’t have done four or five years ago. From a communications perspective, ‘trusted value’ has been a key pillar for us in demonstrating to our customers that M&S really does give value you can trust in every sense – a great price on a product with the M&S point of difference.
PressChoice: In terms of your own career, what was it that attracted you to corporate affairs?
Victoria: I don’t think I had a grand plan. I’ve always loved communications and journalism. My parents would always tease me because when I was about eight, I named my teddy Gorby after Gorbachev. I’m probably a bit nosey, I’m fascinated by people and stories and that’s what politics and corporate affairs is all about. As for the sector, for me being in retail is amazing because you can really make a difference to people’s lives.
PressChoice: Are there any key learning experiences you’ve had that particularly stand out?
Victoria: Every day is a school day and that’s the wonderful thing about working at M&S. I think working through the pandemic was a big learning experience. We had to think about how to communicate and maintain a feeling of teamwork amongst 65,000 people who were in different working situations – furloughed, working in stores and from home. It was a giant lesson in both speed and agility but the thing I really took away was the importance of leadership visibility - it makes a really positive difference to morale.
PressChoice: How do you feel the skill set that you and your colleagues need is different now from when you entered the profession, because of the changing media landscape?
Victoria: There’s a massive difference. Obviously social media, people consume information at a different pace now and in a different way – it’s more informal, visual and short-form. It can really bring the business to life which is fantastic. The question is then how you marry that with corporate communication, which sometimes needs to be quite formal and regulated. The basis of the job is the same though - how can you build trust and relevance in your business and brand with all the stakeholders that influence it? It’s just some of the execution that has changed a bit.
PressChoice: What interests you outside of work?
Victoria: I’m very family oriented and I love being outside so that’s where I’m happy - with my family on the top of a hill or a mountain.
PressChoice: What advice would you give your younger self given the experience you’ve had so far?
Victoria: I grew up in Southeast London before we moved to the shires so I could go to a grammar school. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but it made me relaxed about being with anyone from any background and walk of life – that’s a real positive, so I would probably say “back yourself more”.
Written by Isabel Donaldson for PressChoice