Natalie Cummins, CEO of Zenith: Moving Forward, Flexible | Advertising

BProperly colored prints cover the walls of a boardroom at Zenith UK’s London headquarters, left behind by preparation for the previous week’s pitch, which saw the news agency go head-to-head against two rivals to win the market of a fast food customer.

Now the wait is long, laughs its managing director, Natalie Cummins: “We now have a week or two to agonize over follow-up communications and trying to read everything they tell you, so you can speculate without end. »

She hopes the company will become Zenith’s 84th customer, joining what she calls an “eclectic mix” that ranges from startups such as social media app TikTok to more traditional companies such as Reckitt Benckiser, maker of Dettol and Durex.

If you’ve seen an advertisement on television, in the pages of newspapers or on a billboard for companies such as Lloyds Bank, Carpetright or Nestlé, Zenith will have played a major role in getting it before your eyes.

Cummins has run the media agency – part of French advertising giant Publicis – since 2018, helping it achieve £418million in billings last year alone, according to Nielsen’s annual ranking. Those numbers are all the more impressive as she juggled her role as a single mother of three children under the age of 13, a factor that influenced her company’s full adoption of flexible working even before the pandemic.

So what exactly does Zenith do? “We plan and buy advertising for major clients,” says Cummins, sitting in his offices in the fashionable White City building that was once the BBC’s television centre. ” I say Planning and buy, because you can’t just go out and buy a bunch of stuff: you have to figure out what you’re trying to do with that ad. Are you trying to get young people to revalue the brand or are you trying to let everyone know that there’s a new orange version of such and such? »

While creative agencies do the actual commercials, media companies like Zenith manage a client’s entire media budget, “which is much, much, much larger than what it costs to make the advertising “. As little as 2% of a company’s budget could be spent creating an advertisement, Cummins says. “The rest is what we do. »

A clear and direct communicator, Cummins speaks enthusiastically about the media buying industry – where she has spent her entire career, almost entirely at Zenith – which she describes as “so much fun”.


Age 47
Family Three children: John, 13, Albert, 11 and Agatha, 7.
Education Comprehensive school at Abbey Wood, London, then BA in social and political sciences at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge.
Last holidays New York.
Pay Not disclosed as Zenith is not a publicly traded company.
The best advice she ever received “Be good at something that’s not just your job” – wise words from a former boss. Cummins adds that it’s important “to be good at something and have a skill that not everyone else has.”
Biggest Career Mistake “For a year, I worked in a creative agency. I could have sat at home watching TV for all I learned. It was a good agency but I should have stayed in my lane.
Words she abuses “‘Ace’ and ‘what’s the seeker?’ during a pitch. This is the opening slide that lets you talk about the theme in a more abstract way.
how she relaxes “Trash novels” by authors such as Jackie Collins and Jilly Cooper. She also does a daily run and watches Love Island.

Jhe agency was launched in 1988 as the media arm of advertising heavyweight Saatchi & Saatchi in London. It merged with Optimedia following its parent company’s acquisition by Publicis in 2000 and relaunched as Zenith in 2016.

In a world often dominated by suits, the 47-year-old stands out in her bright yellow polo shirt, dark shorts and sandals. And as the ads go, Cummins herself is an inspiring example of career progression.

She joined Zenith fresh out of Cambridge University – she was the first person from her south-east London to earn a place – and in two decades rose through the ranks of planning team assistant to the highest position.

Cummins had been chief executive for less than a year when the pandemic took hold, sending the entire economy into a tailspin. Today, rising inflation is fueling fears about the economic outlook. Despite this, Zenith remains positive and recently predicted that the advertising market will remain strong this year in the UK and beyond: it forecasts growth of 8%, despite economic headwinds and the cost of living crisis.

Late last year, under Cummins’ leadership, Zenith made waves when it won the Lloyds Banking Group account from bigger competitor MediaCom. It was a significant win for the “small team” behind Zenith’s pitch, and Cummins’ proudest moment in the business: Publicity insiders report that Lloyds – the largest mortgage lender in the UK – invests around £80m a year in media, as its annual report shows. spent £161m on advertising and promotion in 2021.

When Covid hit, Cummins and the rest of its 550 employees had to switch, like most office workers nationwide, to working from home. But it was less of a shake-up for Zenith and other Publicis businesses than it could have been, as they had already launched a flexible working model in 2018.

“We used to talk about work-life balance, and we started talking about work-life balance,” says Cummins. “Actually, you should link the two things together. »

Many suggestions on how to implement these sweeping changes – which did not include fixed days in the office – came from a panel of rising stars in the company. One of their main suggestions was for all staff to be provided with laptops, to enable remote working. These decisions paid off during the pandemic.

Cummins adds: “It was ridiculous, even in 2018, to say that you can only do things that help your mental and physical health at certain times. If going for a run is your thing and it makes more sense for you to do it at 11 a.m., not 12:30 p.m., do it.

Zenith says this flexibility has been well received, leading to churn – the proportion of workers who decide to leave – below the industry average.

Since becoming boss, Cummins has been a strong advocate for the importance of workplace flexibility, as a single parent of two sons and a daughter. “I know what it’s like to juggle a lot of things: if you have a parents’ night, or an assembly and your daughter really wants you there. If I’m not there, there’s no one, so for me it’s really important to have that balance.

“It’s not just about kids,” adds Cummins. “Everyone has bullshit, and people generally do their jobs better if they don’t constantly feel under a shit of stress. It’s just a fact.

Cummins’ approach isn’t second nature to many CEOs, or even employers, but it takes it for granted. “If you help people find ways to improve their lives, they are likely to be happier at work and better off. »

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