Marketing director, Barclays Personal and Corporate Banking (outgoing)
Bennison is a driven, ambitious marketer who knows how to squeeze productivity out of every moment. Surely, this is a skill honed by occupying one of the most senior roles in marketing, while playing an active role in representing the industry in various groups from WACL to ISBA.
However, when asked what she’s most proud of in her career to date, it’s not any of her personal achievements, but rather her "wonderful, ambitious, resilient, resourceful and lovely team at Barclays".
This is a collaborative leader with her sights set on the top, who knows that soft skills aren’t soft at all – they are essential for hard commercial success.
2016 sees Bennison beginning a new professional adventure as chief marketing officer of Nationwide.
The Sara I Know, by Lindsey Clay, chief executive at Thinkbox
Someone once told me that three is the minimum number of words you need to describe someone so that they are recognisable. In this spirit, the three words that describe Sara Bennison are strategic, resilient and committed. A fourth would be serene. I could go on with superlatives, but Marketing told me not to gush.
I also had a stab at the most unlikely three words for Sara and came up with fiery, superficial and egotistical. We all know people like that, but she is not one. In an industry full of ‘show-offy’personalities, Sara is the real deal: someone without artifice, whose actions and achievements speak for themselves.
Just as everyone thinks they have great taste, every marketer thinks they have strong strategic skills. Clearly, not all do. But strategic recurs as a word people use when describing Sara. She is known for putting insight at the heart of every plan and for her knack of getting to the heart of the business issue, replaying it in simple, compelling terms. Whatever the conversation, she will have a point of view, always be informed and always be clear about what she expects from others.
Sara has a rare perspective: from very senior levels in creative agencies she moved seamlessly into senior marketing roles at service companies (BT and Barclays). This breadth of experience gives her a highly developed creative eye, especially when it comes to communications development.
She can balance the creation of long-term value with delivering short-term results. This is a challenge in any category, but particularly in financial services, so her obvious skill in doing so helps explain why she has had the respect of successive generations of leadership at Barclays. She has made marketing central to Barclays’ business and been at the forefront of its recent brand recovery.
Famously dissatisfied with the status quo, Sara was quick to see the new demands and opportunities in the area of content for financial-services brands, and clear about her recommendation to move from a product-led to a purpose-led brand strategy, resulting in the ‘Digital Eagles’ campaign.
Resilient is as over-used a word as strategic when describing leaders, but Sara’s resilience is at the core of who she is, and recent turmoil in the banking sector has certainly been the stage for flexing that particular muscle.
In the depths of the financial crisis, she emerged with the right brand and marketing strategy for Barclays – less conventional for a bank, but right for the time.
She demonstrated through actions, not words, that Barclays cared for the communities it served. She was brave enough to advocate diverting investment away from core products and services, at the exact time when there was concern about financial stability. Instead, Sara focused the business on programmes such as ‘LifeSkills’ and ‘Digital Eagles’, recognising that in doing so, it would also give employees a reason to believe in working for a bank. There were plenty of conflicting views on the right thing to do at the time, but Sara ensured the strategy held strong, even when the results didn’t roll in straight away.
Sara remains unfazed, whatever the challenge. Her agency partners say that once she is convinced of the right route and talent, she is a committed and true partner. In business relationships, she is loyal; she will always want to find a way to continue working with people she rates and trusts, no matter what the obstacles.
Her commitment is also writ large in how much she contributes to the wider industry beyond her day job. Vice-president of the ISBA Council; on the general media panel of the ASA; a board treasurer of the Advertising Association’s Front Foot initiative; on the client council of the IPA; a fellow of The Marketing Society; an active member of WACL and the Speakers for Schools programme… the roll (role)-call is exhausting. For all these organisations, she contributes with thoughtfulness, passion and dedication – and usually for the long term.
A mentor for many in the industry, Sara has also presented on numerous occasions to her school back in Plymouth and is a huge advocate for women – in particular working mums and women returning to work after having had children. However, she is no career-obsessed workaholic: her personal life is as full as her professional, with family, music, theatre and writing. But she never makes a big deal about the extraordinary juggling that this entails. All is calm and no fuss.
So: strategic, resilient and committed. Someone that I consulted in preparing for this piece put it another way: "She’s a very good person to have down in the trenches with you."