Close-Up: The Advocates - Advertising gives KFC a new-found confidence

KFC's marketing chief, Jennelle Tilling, can link the company's unprecedented success last year directly to the size of her £40m budget. Is this why she won't allow procurement to become involved with agency fee negotiations?

Recessions favour risk-takers, Jennelle Tilling, KFC's marketing chief in the UK, argues. And the fast-food chain's success at defying the downturn suggests she knows what she's talking about.

Since her arrival in the job four years ago, the mercurial Australian has taken the brand through a radical reinvention. Old strategies have been abandoned, advertising has been changed (though not the agencies) and the "finger lickin' good" strapline has been revived.

In a climate in which operations such as KFC have had to contend not only with an enfeebled economy but also the running allegation that they are fuelling obesity, Tilling has engineered an astonishing turnaround.

Last year was KFC's best ever in Britain, with sales growth running at a healthy 10 per cent year on year. Such is its confidence that it plans to augment its current 780 outlets with a further 45 to 50 over the next six years, creating up to 9,000 new jobs.

With success directly linked to the amount of money that Tilling's team gets to spend each year, it's significant that KFC's annual marketing spend - currently £40 million - is also up year on year.

She believes this reflects a highly developed marketing culture within Yum! Brands, the KFC parent. David Novak, the Yum! boss, and Martin Shuker, KFC's UK chief executive, both built their reputations as marketers - as did the heads of all KFC's US divisions.

Experience gained within such an environment clearly helped her deal with the situation confronting her when she arrived from Canada to become vice-president, marketing for the UK and Ireland. KFC's British operation was in poor shape with sales in dramatic decline as its core family market abandoned it.

Tilling adopted a back-to-basics strategy. "There was nothing wrong with the brand in the UK," she recalls. "We'd just lost our way with it. We needed to get back to what we were really about. That's to say, promoting KFC as a great place to take the kids."

The immediate upshot was to dump Bartle Bogle Hegarty's "soul food" campaign, which had begun in 2002 and targeted a young urban audience. "I liked the 'soul food' work and admired it for its creativity," Tilling says. "But it fell down in its ability to communicate the message we wanted it to."

Instead, the well-remembered "finger lickin' good" was dusted off and reinstated after a three-year absence. "We revived it because it's a line nobody else can use," Tilling explains. "At KFC, you eat with your hands. It's always been a very tactile experience. The line sums up what we're about and reflects the confidence we have in our brands."

Today, KFC is one of the busiest advertisers around, producing around 30 new TV commercials a year along with associated print and poster work. It is also dabbling in social media, having recently launched its first Facebook page. Given KFC probably isn't flavour of the month among healthy lifestyle activists, this might be considered a risky thing to do. But Tilling reports: "On balance, the results have been positive."

She reckons to spend at least one day a week at BBH. "It can't have been easy for BBH having to contend with the arrival of a new marketing director intent on changing everything," she acknowledges. "But our performance during the recession is testament to how well BBH has adapted to the new model."

Tilling's revival plan has been built around gaining consumer trust. "If you run away and hide - which is what we were doing - it becomes much more difficult," she points out. "Confidence breeds transparency."

She believes such confidence has sprung from KFC's skill at anticipating problems and confronting them. The company was ahead of the game in reducing the fat and salt content of its products and among the first to stop marketing to children before the issue became heavily contentious, she says. "It's much better that you're seen to be doing these things yourself than being told to do it."

Much effort has gone into getting people to reappraise the brand and removing the perception that its products clog arteries and expand waistlines. The chicken isn't frozen but fresh and prepared at the restaurants where it's delivered daily, she says.

What's more, its quality is as good if not better than the chicken to be found in Waitrose or Sainsbury's. Not a lot of people may know that but, as Tilling explains: "Part of our strategy has been to keep telling people something they didn't know about KFC."

With the size of her ad budget tied to her marketing performance, it's not surprising that this is mirrored in the relationship with BBH and with Walker Media, which handles KFC's media.

Both agencies have performance-related bonuses linked to KFC sales built into their contracts. But more unusually at a time when procurement's role grows ever more prominent within client companies, Tilling handles agency fee negotiations personally. Procurement is kept very much at arm's length.

"It's something I've always done," she explains. "I'm responsible for the advertising and I have a very open and transparent relationship with our agencies. Procurement negotiates with all our suppliers, such as Pepsi. But marketing services is my territory and procurement hasn't been intrusive."

One marketing offer Tilling won't buy is that of the "one-stop shop". She prefers to go where the expertise is, she says, whether it be in point-of-sale or design or in PR - KFC added the PR specialist Ketchum to its roster a year ago with a brief to evolve and enhance its corporate reputation in the UK.

And she will not countenance her main agencies vying with each other for her business. "We work so fast that there's no place for politics," she insists. "We just don't have the time for it."

Nor, it seems, is there much time to worry about what the opposition is up to. Tilling and Jill McDonald, the McDonald's chief marketing officer, may often meet socially at Wacl functions, but Tilling says: "We talk about what the opposition is doing and I've a lot of respect for McDonald's, but we just know what's right for us."

The Tilling lowdown

Early days in Oz

Born in Melbourne, Tilling left university thinking she might like to be a sports psychologist but realised that her fascination about what motivates people was pushing her towards a marketing career. She joined the graduate programme at the Australian operation of the UK company Cussens, working on Morning Fresh washing-up liquid before moving to Nestle.

Following the heart

Three years later, she decamped to the UK "because I fell in love with an English guy". They're still friends, although she remains single. Cathryn Sleight, another Advocate subject, now the Coca-Cola UK marketing director, hired her for United Biscuits, where she became the marketing manager for Penguin and the Go Ahead health biscuit brand.

A Yum! job

The offer of a senior marketing role at Pizza Hut UK brought her into the Yum! stable of companies in 1999. Four years later, she was posted to Dallas as the director of product marketing at Pizza Hut US. "It had 7,000 stores. The experience taught me a lot about scale and franchising."

From Texas to Toronto

Swapping the Texan heat for the more bracing climate of Toronto not only held out the prospect of some great skiing (her passion) but, as the chief marketing officer for Yum! in Canada, the chance to map out strategies for KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. She returned to the UK in 2006.