• Transform magazine
  • January 24, 2021


Five minutes with Vicky Bullen

Vicky Bullen

Vicky Bullen, CEO of brand design agency Coley Porter Bell, speaks to Transform Magazine about what it means to be a woman CEO, the gender barriers that exist in the creative space and what can be done about it, and how Covid-19 has changed the industry forever.

How does it feel to be a woman CEO in an industry which has been mostly male dominated? Have you encountered barriers as you were trying to grow?

I love being a woman and I love being a CEO – so it feels pretty good. To be honest I don’t think about it a great deal these days, I think there are many powerful and influential women in our industry who do amazing work.

Where I still feel we have a gender problem is in creative teams, but I am heartened by the fact that this is discussed so openly and by the fact that many businesses are taking proactive action to address this and all the other issues of diversity and inclusion.

I don’t feel I have faced huge barriers. I have experienced my fair share of sexism, but much of that to do with the fact that I was a working mother – my kids are grown up now. My attitude has always been that as a working mother I was teaching my kids the right kind of work ethic. Many of the barriers I faced were in my head I suppose – I struggled, still sometimes struggle, with impostor syndrome. I have at times been too risk averse and have not pushed myself out of comfort zone quickly enough. The gremlins still occasionally pop up to say hello even if experience has helped me to bat them away more effectively.

What can be done to help women in business succeed in reaching high places?

I think female leaders have a responsibility to be great role models to other women and to give them a helping hand up. I’m proud to be part of WACL whose purpose is to accelerate gender equality in communications and marketing through campaigning and providing inspiration and support to each other and to women coming up through the industry.

I have benefitted greatly in my career from being given the opportunity to work a 4-day week when my children were younger. Offering flexible working is key for me – giving women (and men too by the way,) the space to be able to do a great job at work and a great job at home.

Women need to be encouraged to go for the next promotion, to put their hands up for the jobs and to ask for what they need to progress. Mentorship schemes and sponsorship schemes are really important. I have loved mentoring women at different stages in their careers. Seeing people move forward because you have been able to influence the way they think about themselves and their careers is massively rewarding.

What is essential to consider when leading an agency of international stature like Coley Porter Bell?

To keep on evolving in order to stay relevant. Our clients are in a constantly changing world – it is our role to help them turn those challenges and changes into opportunity. But the same can be said for us. The world of branding has changed, and we need to grow and adapt accordingly.

This is primarily down to the fourth revolution and the huge influence that technology has had on a brand’s ecosystem. We started in the world of identity – a big idea brought to life visually, then we moved to the experience economy where the experience of a brand was its identity and now we believe we are in the age of immersive branding, where identity goes way beyond the conventional set of visual assets, tone of voice and experience principles. We live in a world where beyond that brand needs to live through voice, behaviour, haptics and other fully immersive assets. Our task as a branding agency is to create brand equity throughout the new brand ecosystem. That requires new skill sets and new ways of thinking.

One of your areas of expertise is neuroscience and its learnings can create more powerful brand solutions. Could you talk a bit more about that? Where do the two, which at first glance seem opposites, meet?

We believe that, in order to create powerful brands, first of all you have to understand how consumers decode the world. So, we have worked with neuroscientists and behavioural change experts to better understand that. For example, we now know that people primarily make their decisions in the system 1 part of the brain – the rapid response intuitive part of the brain, they then might justify their decisions in the system two ‘heavy lifting’ rational brain. Over 90% of the information that system 1 processes is visual – that’s the ‘science’ behind the power of design as an influencer of choice.

We have various methodologies that help us to make sure we are building brands that people can decode easily, and in the way we want them to. Whether they be system 1 friendly research methodologies to understand a brand’s distinctive assets or the implicit associations created by specific images or icons, or our approach to developing strategy that combines good old strategic rigour with design thinking, visual storytelling and some practical application of neuroscience to get to richer more emotive brand platforms. Our use of neuroscience is about making sure our work succeeds in the real world.

As a person who spent 20 years in brand strategy and design, you’ve certainly witnessed many changes. Do you think Covid-19 has changed the industry for ever?

I think Covid has probably changed many of our client’s businesses for ever, and as we are always in service to them so it will in turn change ours. We know for example that many brands need to develop new D2C offers.

Going forward, it’s interesting to think about what brands will have to do to make people feel safe, whether by social distancing, contactless interactions or increased sanitisation. Consumer attitudes have changed, and brands will need to too. But again, where there is change there is opportunity. In China, which is further ahead than us on the exit from Covid, we have seen property developers using a live broadcast virtual tour (to avoid in person viewings) to sell high end apartments, and 17 were sold within an hour of broadcast. That’s a hugely cost-efficient way of selling. And many gyms in China are seeing new revenue opportunities through online membership and classes that reach a new consumer group – those who were too busy, had barriers to or were simply not bothered enough to leave home to exercise pre-Covid.

Covid has also no doubt changed the way we work for ever. We will use office space in a different way. Offices will still be critical – especially in the creative industry – as places to collaborate and have ideas. But working practices will be more fluid and people will mix working from home with the office. And to the earlier point about how we can help women, this flexibility can only help as women look to stride forward in their careers and have a successful life at home.

In light of the climate change crisis, a global pandemic and Black Lives Matter, how should brands act when relating to their audiences? How can they make sure they are viewed as socially engaged and authentic?

Consumers today expect brands to do good in the world and make a positive contribution. So, brands need to work out what their role is in the world, what their purpose is. And then they need to express that purpose through a sticky idea. One that is relevant to the people they want to talk to, but also one that the business can get behind, rally around and make live through its people, its communications, its products and services. To be authentic, that purpose should be based on truth – it should come from the history and heritage of the brand if it has one. But beyond that authenticity will come from the brands actions and behaviours, how it delivers on that purpose. It’s not enough to say, brands have to do.