Feature

Heineken UK marketing director Sarah Warby on agencies 'saying they can do everything' and the role of pubs in society

Sarah Warby, marketing director at Heineken UK, is responsible for some of the drinks industry's biggest brands. Interview by Gemma Charles.

Sarah Warby has arrived early at The Mitre, an upmarket pub in London's Holland Park, and is happily nursing a pint of Kronenbourg 1664 when Marketing shows up.

As she has previously shied away from interviews, it is surprising to find that Heineken UK's marketing director is actually warm, open and funny. She talks quickly and uses expansive hand gestures, at one point feigning surprise that she 'hasn't knocked anything over yet'.

Warby's portfolio of brands is too big to list in full, but includes Foster's, Strongbow and, of course, Kronenbourg. Asked to pick a recent campaign of which she is most proud, Warby opts for Foster's, which is strengthening its connection with comedy through humorous ads, sponsorship of the Edinburgh Comedy Awards and its online resurrection of Steve Coogan's Alan Partridge character.

Another favourite is Strongbow's recent ad championing the working man. 'Workers are heroes. I like the fact that we've got a brand that lionises the bloke in the street who does a hard day's work,' says Warby.

It is Heineken, however, that has Warby's immediate attention. The 'big H', as she calls it, is about to gain major exposure through its sponsorship of rugby union's Heineken Cup Final in Cardiff on 21 May and football's Champions League Final at Wembley a week later. For the latter, the brand has bought up some of the most-eye-catching outdoor spots in the capital, in an attempt to 'turn London green'. Heineken is also sponsoring London 2012. 'We have the mother of all programmes coming up,' says Warby.

Warby was marketing director at Scottish & Newcastle when the brewer was bought jointly by Heineken and Carlsberg in 2008 and, of course, is full of post-acquisition praise. 'Heineken has brought long-termism. You hear (Heineken's owners) the Carvalho family talking about the future in terms of their grandchildren. For a brand person, being at a family-owned business is the best thing in the world,' she says.

Warby adds that before the acquisition, Scottish & Newcastle lacked the financial clout to invest in long-term brand-building. Now, she says, the attitude is more 'if it's right for the brand, we'll find a way to afford it'.

Despite exuding a passion for marketing, Warby did not always have a burning desire to enter the industry. She read engineering at university because she was good at maths and physics, but realised on graduating that a career in the field was not for her. Deciding that the commercial world was more suitable, Warby attended 'summer schools' at various FMGC companies, which sparked an enthusiasm for consumer brands and led to her first job, at Van Den Bergh Foods (now Unilever).

She then swapped the client-side for adland, and switched hemispheres, to become a planner at Leo Burnett's Sydney office. 'I wanted to be a good client and I had a feeling that I would be better if I understood how agencies work,' says Warby, who packed it in after two years to go travelling with her partner across Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific archipelago Vanuatu. 'We drove and camped everywhere, did fiveto six-day walks with our tents. Occasionally we went to a city and had a wash ...

I'm starting to make my present self feel jealous of my former self,' she quips.

Travels over, it was time to settle down. Edinburgh, where Heineken UK is based, qualified as city of choice because of its big commercial centre, good job prospects and, stresses Warby, proximity to decent hills. The couple eventually chose to live in West Lothian, which offered the best of both worlds to the pair; backing onto a farm, their house is only a 20-minute drive from the Scottish capital.

Warby, who recently celebrated her 40th birthday, says hobbies have been largely sidelined by commitments to her young son, but she retains an obvious hankering for the outdoors life - for her overnight trip to London, she has eschewed a smart suitcase for a massive backpack.

Now, as chief marketer at one of the UK's biggest brewers, Warby oversees about 100 staff. She is passionate about their development as marketers, and reveals that she recently received a gentle reprimand from Stefan Orlowski, Heineken UK's managing director, who likened her to a lioness guarding her cubs.

Warby's department is composed of six teams: three brand teams, an insight team and two customer marketing teams for both the onand off-trade. Despite the decline of the on-trade business in recent years - some reports state that as many as five pubs are closing down in the UK every day - Warby says the customer marketing teams remain equal in size.

'I don't want to sound like I've got ideas above my station, but I think that pubs have an important part to play in our society. We need to support the channel,' she adds.

As well as the downturn in the pub sector, fuelled in part by the recession and in part by the allure for many of cheap supermarket booze, Warby is also having to deal with what she describes as the 'crazy world' of evolving agency structures.

'There's just this land-grab going on with everyone saying they can do everything. If we got 10 marketing directors in a room and asked them what they were grappling with, they would say the agency model,' she explains.

Warby is clear on the importance of long-term relationships with agencies, and last year's parting of the ways with M&C Saatchi, which held the Foster's account for 14 years, was a 'huge deal'. Her face falls for the first time in the interview when she looks back on this. 'The decision to go to pitch was hard, and we didn't take it lightly. I have nothing but respect for the way M&C handled themselves,' she states.

Adam & Eve scooped the £7m advertising account after a final shootout against Fallon and the incumbent agency, which was responsible for the longstanding strapline 'Drink Australian, think Australian', although its latter work, which ran with the endline 'Get some Australian in you', is thought to have been less successful.

'The pitch was a big deal for us and I want this new relationship with Adam & Eve to go on for at least another 15 years,' insists Warby.

Despite her seniority in the business, Warby says she has not yet decided whether to remain in marketing or make the move into general management. 'I don't have a masterplan; I actually find masterplans rather frightening,' she reveals.

Not having a plan may be anathema to some, but given the way Warby's career has panned out, she seems to be doing just fine without one.

INSIDE WORK

1994-2000: Marketing graduate trainee rising to brand manager, Van Den Bergh Foods/Unilever

2000-2002: Planner, Leo Burnett, Sydney

2004-2008: Marketing manger, Foster's, rising to marketing director, Scottish & Newcastle

2008-present: Marketing director, Heineken UK

OUTSIDE WORK

Family: Married with one child

Lives: West Lothian

Hobbies: Cinema, hill-walking, scuba-diving and playing giant skittles with son

Last holiday: Center Parcs, Longleat

And another thing ... Warby is Welsh, but has lost her accent