Pushing things forward 

October 6, 2017

As marketing director at national motor retailer Lookers, Heike O’ Leary knows a thing or two about making a difference in what is traditionally a man’s world, as well as revolutionising a brand from the inside out. North East Times catches up with her following her nomination for a coveted Forward Ladies award

While it’s fair to say that society has made great strides in the area of gender equality, recent high profile stories in the media have highlighted the fact that there is still much work to be done. It’s also fair to say that some industries have more ground to make up than others, with the motor sector, in particular, having to work harder to turn around its reputation of being a male-dominated industry.

One person that bucks this prevailing trend is Heike O’Leary, marketing director for national motor retailer Lookers, whose opinion of the ‘average Lookers customer’ is that there isn’t one.

It’s been two years since North East-based Benfield was acquired by Lookers.

In that time, Heike has worked tirelessly to address gender misconceptions as well as create a compelling brand proposition for Lookers. Based at the group’s North East head office in Newcastle, her work has been recognised by business support network Forward Ladies, with a number of Lookers’ business partners and suppliers nominating her for the Yorkshire, North East and Scotland round of the organisation’s annual awards.

The awards, which are sponsored by HSBC, itself a strong advocate of diversity in the workplace, represent the biggest search for successful women across the UK.

We caught up with Heike during a busy period for Lookers, one that currently includes a number of high profile national campaigns, as well as an all-important registration change.

Congratulations on your Forward Ladies awards nomination. What does the nomination mean to you? 

To be shortlisted for this award means a lot because I received several nominations for it from various business partners and suppliers. It demonstrates that success is based on team efforts within the wider business networks and it also reflects my preferred leadership style, which is based on collaboration. It’s not the most senior person, but the best idea that should prevail.

What’s your biggest achievement as Lookers marketing director? 

Building a compelling brand proposition for a successful £4 billion turnover business from scratch was a massive challenge but also an incredible privilege. There are not many precedents in brand marketing history and I was immensely relieved and delighted when the universal feedback from colleagues was a sense of pride to work for Lookers, particularly when they saw our very first TV advert.

Tell us about your internal marketing team at Lookers… 

There were many compelling business reasons to build a multi-skilled team and to bring more marketing activities in-house: reduction of duplication of activities and resources across the business, pooling resources and skills to create better economies of scale, improving consistency and impact and fostering collaboration. The outcome is we have a highly-skilled, diverse and forward-driving team with a fantastic team culture. Employee benefits include having Spotify on all day, Foodie Fridays, a Tyneside ‘Riviera’ location, a massive range of cool brands to promote, cake of your choice on your birthday, our own WhatsApp group and an ‘every day is different’ culture.

What unique challenges does the motor industry face when it comes to marketing and what measures have you introduced to address these? 

The marketing landscape in motor retail is incredibly fast paced and the low margins leave little room for errors. As a result, the marketing mind set is often too tactical with a short term focus on sales rather than a medium term approach to building a retail brand.

I believe every retail business needs commercial drive and a more strategic ‘why buy from us?’ proposition. I’ve hired a team of talented, multi-skilled and multi-branded marketers to better balance our marketing activities. I also think that marketing in motor retail is often too technical. Consumers love to connect with a brand rationally and emotionally – so content is king!

In the spirit of your Forward Ladies nomination, what changes have Lookers made to foster gender equality? 

We can all make a difference in our own families and jobs. On a personal level, I do not try to raise my daughters like sons! They are both amazing little ladies. One is a single figure handicap golfer and the other loves netball and horses.

At work, Lookers actively fosters a diverse team culture with a focus on having a good work/life balance. We have an apprenticeship scheme aimed at girls and offer above industry-standard holidays. We also offer a full year of maternity pay – something that was previously unheard of in the motor industry! A Ernst & Young report recently state it would take 170 years to reach gender parity organically. At Lookers, we are committed to accelerate this process considerably and have pledged to fill 30 per cent of managerial roles with women by 2030.

How does it feel being a woman at the head of such a key department at Lookers? 

I always say, I am not the woman marketing director at Lookers – I’m the marketing director.

What other companies do you most admire for their marketing and why? 

I love brands that create engaging, fun and thought-provoking content to promote their commercial offer with a compelling emotional hook. My favourites are Apple, Lego, adidas, Airbnb, Anthropologie, Innocent, Coca-Cola, Four Seasons, Disney, Shutterstock and Tory Burch.

I have worked with many great brands in my career to date and I have learned that ideas, content and campaigns can’t be copied from one brand to another. Each brand or company, just like every person, has their own identity, persona, traits, needs and USPs and so the exciting task for us marketers is to be creative and to find a creative new solution that fits.


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