Interviews

‘Always be a voice for people who haven’t got one’

Beth Gordon, Trade Marketing Director at The Independent, underlines the power of purpose in marketing.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director

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It’s perhaps the greatest irony that cynicism is so entrenched in marketing culture, when it is the enemy of creativity. There are few clearer examples of how entrenched that culture has become than the self-defeating and self-flagellating debate over ‘profit against purpose’. For so entrenched is that cynicism that it is seemingly beyond the realms of belief the simple fact that purpose and profit are not mutually exclusive pursuits. In fact at a time when not just boosting company profits, but blustering employee morale is at the very top of the agenda, purpose and commitment to change have never been more vital to success and creativity.

It’s a drive which is central to Beth Gordon’s ethos both professionally and personally. As winner of the Changemaker of the year award at the Women in Marketing awards it’s an endeavour which has driven some of the most impactful and meaningful work of Gordon’s marketing career so far. In a business ecosystem in which women are still criticised for ‘caring too much,’ Gordon is unapologetically passionate about creating change. Her passion, combined with effective and meaningful brand activism, led to Gordon successfully being named the Changemaker of the year at the Women in Marketing Awards. It is therefore apt to kick off 2023’s Women in Marketing interview series with a marketer who proves not only that business to business marketing doesn’t have to be boring but it can be a vehicle for positive change. 

For Gordon the most exciting and meaningful marketing force this year is embracing the true potential of Purpose. “I'm always wary of anything that has a label, but purpose-led marketing is the most exciting - when it's done in the right way,” she explains. “The Independent has always been about purpose. It's really gratifying to see brands recognising their role in making life easier for people authentically and not just having a checkbox approach. It can genuinely make a huge positive difference.”

Challenge things that don't make sense, always be a voice for people who haven’t got one and work hard and keep going.

Beth Gordon Trade Marketing Director at The Independent

Storytelling for change

Gordon brings an impressive clarity and merciful lack of jargon when it comes to explaining the building blocks of making change. As she explains: “Challenge things that don't make sense, always be a voice for people who haven’t got one and work hard and keep going.” The three principles that Gordon believes underpin being a changemaker are an ethos that could fuel many a future marketing career.

It is apt that Gordon, who works for a newspaper and is married to a journalist, is equal parts eloquent and passionate about the power of storytelling to create change. 

Like many of the best marketers, you cannot fit Gordon’s experience into a box. From a stint as Head of Business Marketing, EMEA at Twitter, to laying the foundations of the Spotify story as Director of Business Marketing and Brand Strategy Director, her career has many layers. With experience in radio (Global and Jazz FM), agency life (M2M) and events (Broadwick Live) it is clear to see how Gordon has embraced such an expansive approach to brand building.

It is an approach that is backed by a belief that she has agency, both in her life and in her work. “I was brought up by my parents to believe in myself,” she explains.  “It was never you who can do anything even though you are a girl, it was you can do anything. My family always roll up their sleeves, get stuck in and always felt I can make a change.”

Telling untold stories

But when your to-do list includes changing the world how in practice do you avoid overwhelm and keep making progress? “Nine and half times out of ten there is an answer to a problem. People accept no for an answer too easily,” says Gordon.

She is acutely aware of the privilege which comes hand in hand with that experience and it is clear that she takes leading people as seriously as leading landmark campaigns. “When you have the power and when you have that freedom it's really important to give people a really good experience and help them in their career.”

On a macro level, Gordon advocates for amplifying the voices of people who may feel that they cannot speak. “I feel it is really difficult to deal with injustice or unfairness. When you see people suffering that really motivates me. I can move quickly and see where I can make a difference.”

Don’t let perfect be an enemy of good.

Beth Gordon Trade Marketing Director at The Independent

Changing the DNA of business to business marketing

In the midst of a business marketing ecosystem which is often in danger of placing processes before people, Gordon has a unique experience of building a narrative for a new brand. 

“When I joined Spotify we were selling a brand new way of selling music. I love working for a company which has change-making in its DNA, I love working for brands that come a part of people’s daily lives,” she explains. This is the red thread which runs through her career path. “Spotify, Global, Twitter; its all about making people’s lives better,” she explains.

It’s clear that she understands the power of seeing customers and potential customers as more than a lead, or a data point in some soulless sales software. Instead, just as she brings the entirety of herself to her work, she sees customers as multifaceted people. “We have to think more about how people are feeling,” she explains, adding: “January is a slog but it's all about keep going and whatever a bad day you might be having, someone else is having a worse day.”

The biggest challenge is we are going to see less and less creativity.

Beth Gordon Trade Marketing Director at The Independent

Breaking down the bravery barriers

There is no question that the broader marketing industry now has a clear understanding of the importance of creating ‘brave’ work. Such is the impact of the Marketing Society’s ‘brave agenda’ spearheaded by then CEO Gemma Greaves - the language of braver has become part of industry culture. Yet a disconnect remains between the rhetoric of bravery and the reality of economic and cultural challenges which in effect lead marketers to shrink both themselves and their ideas. 

For Gordon, this bravery deficit is the biggest challenge for business to business marketers today. “When there are challenges people see things in a smaller way and it's hard for people to be brave,” she explains.

According to Gordon: “You need to grab those opportunities to take risks. The biggest challenge we are going to see less and less creativity.”

The fallacy of business to business marketing

In an industry ecosystem in which agencies are keen to market the fact that ‘B2B marketing doesn't have to be boring’ Gordon thinks bigger. “B2B as a word just doesn’t help and consumer marketing is seen as the sexy sibling.”

Yet like all marketing challenges, fundamentally they are about people, not an individual sector. As Gordon explains: “Because B2B is all about a smaller audience you have a much bigger opportunity to build meaningful relationships. Those deep and meaningful relationships are what really matter. The challenge is that as technology permeates everything we lose those vital human relationships.” Pointing to her experience in agencies as well Gordon advocates the power of a people-centric approach to marketing. “I don’t think in terms of numbers, I don’t think in terms of clients, I think about people,” she explains.

In the midst of the permacrisis and the numerous friction points, opportunities and confusions which surround our nascent new working world, understanding those people is more important than ever. “It is more of a challenge,” she explains “If you are planning an event there are so many more considerations, you have to recognise that people work from home, they aren’t in town every day. If you’re doing an event before Covid you could follow what had been before now we need to start from scratch.”

Even a previously simple element of marketing such as doing the gift drive at Christmas becomes more logistically complicated as people aren’t in the office. Yet Gordon is clear that smart marketers won’t simply jump to making everything virtual, however frictionless and efficient that might appear on the surface. 

“People will opt out of face to face in some ways, but we should facilitate as much human connection as possible and muddle through. People build relationships with people,” she explains. 

Campaigning for change

There is no question that The Independent has set a new benchmark for successful campaigning over the past two years. “We are a campaigning organisation,” explains Gordon. “We campaign for causes we believe in, and unusually for a news brand we are not aligned with a political party.”

On the breadline is the newspaper’s campaign to tackle the cost of living crisis. There are 14.5 million people, including 4.3 million children who live in poverty in the U.K. Yet the brutal truth is that in the midst of the pressures of life in a permacrisis, readers become numb to the reality of this experience. Or they feel that their newspaper is simply lecturing them, heckling them and making them feel too small or too powerless. Yet the thousand tiny paper cuts of this campaign live in the craft of the storytelling. Those small details which in all honesty, for this writer at least, were impossible to forget.

A joint investigation by The Independent and the Evening Standard revealed the reality for children facing a hunger crisis, with details that belong to a bygone age. Not only are children stealing food from supermarkets and friends, but they are hiding empty lunch boxes. As Luke Kemsley, Head Chef at Rushey Green Primary explained in one article: “Some children don’t have enough food in the packed lunch box but they pretend otherwise because they’re embarrassed.” 

Gordon shares a genuine pride in the work, explaining: “The stories our editorial team told - you could not fail to be moved by them. Children with empty lunch boxes facing the wall so their friends couldn’t see, or the children who were eating rubbers to feel less hungry.”

She continues: “We have a huge audience and our audience all feel they want to make a difference. Our readers are more likely to commit to making change, whether that's marching, making different purchasing decisions or taking charitable action.” 

Notably, Gordon believes that people have never needed brands they can trust more. She explains: “They want connection, but they also want facts and credible information. We are living through a period of time where there is a lot of information which can’t be trusted.” Pointing to research from Newsworks which shows that a third of readers rely on journalism more, she believes that brands should be investing more in trusted news brands. 

Curiosity, clarity and creativity in a permacrisis

Notably, Gordon is clear that The Independent is laser-focused on ensuring that readers don't feel overwhelmed or out of control in the face of crisis. “The Independent doesn’t 

make you feel judged, it's not about telling you are not doing enough,” she explains. In line with this, the newspaper packs a punch with entertainment, arts and culture. 

“It's a pemacrisis and it's hard not to get swept away by that, but we need the light and the shade people need to laugh and they need joy,” she adds.

It is a challenge which extends to our workplaces. Arguably one of the biggest challenges for marketers today is building and maintaining a culture of creativity in the midst of a growing number of data points pointing to a workforce in a state of overwhelm. 

For Gordon tackling this is rooted in active listening and really seeking diverse perspectives on a daily basis. She explains: ”I really want the team to feel that they can make a difference. My team is full of passion and you should never stop being a sponge and take in as much as I can and I encourage my team to do the same.”

With the same clarity of thinking she brings to campaigning, Gordon has the clarity to recognise that making space for inspiration, connection and rest is key to creating a positive and creative culture. A culture which proves so powerfully that far from being a passing trend purpose is the most underutilised tool in modern marketing.

Celebrating Women in Marketing

What can we learn from the most inspirational and impactful women in marketing and their allies? 

The story of the Women in Marketing Awards is one of building a movement and a network that is the antithesis of the ‘old boys network’, which has historically excluded women from key networking and profile building opportunities, so vital to building a career in the creative industries. To celebrate the Women in Marketing Awards, Creativebrief will be asking winners and supporters of the Awards to open up about their experiences in the industry and give their advice to the marketing talent poised to enter and pick up the much-coveted awards in the future.

Q: Tell us what the most challenging moment of your career has been and how you got through it?

A: It's all challenging. We have to recognise that and try to thrive on it. As a team we talk about being the best problem solvers we can be and that can run across different challenges. At Spotify when we were in our difficult ‘teenage stage’ of brand growth it was all about maintaining connection and what is our story was. But as we got bigger my strategy was to go right back down to making it feel personal through one to one outreach and making people feel part of that growth story. 

One challenge that stayed with me for a long time was the feeling that I left Spotify too early. There was an amazing opportunity at Twitter to look after business marketing across EMEA and anyone would be a fool to turn that down. The challenge was that when I started there I was still in love with Spotify and I felt like I was in the wrong place. So my advice would be even if something looks incredible on paper, go with your heart because I was in somebody else’s story. I would always say stick with what you love. I got through it by finding new things to love and things I could change. I recognise this is harder to do if you are concerned about finances, people will move for money and it's hard to stick with your heart. 

Q: Tell us about the biggest high point of your career?

In terms of what has been the most gratifying, it's been the last year at The Independent. I have had the most brilliant experiences in music and entertainment and now I am exactly where I should be. The Independent is all about change and being part of that has been 

a privilege. Working quite leanly we have grown revenue 41% year on year so our strategy is working. What is gratifying is the fact we are achieving so much which actively helps people and raising so much for charities. 

As trade marketers, we don’t just talk about change we make change happen. Identifying those key change moments across the year where we don’t just talk about an issue we make change. For Pride, we not only involved staff we educated clients. For Earth Day, International Women’s Day And Black History Month we made huge progress. 

We are the only editorial partner news brand partner for Pride. Every single bit of marketing we do makes an impact. 

Q: Tell us about the impact of winning a Women in Marketing award?

My son is 15 and my daughter is 4 and what they are proud of is the award itself. For me it's being recognised for the principles of being a Changemaker which is so important to me. 

My daughter keeps the award by her bed and she says it's for working hard and being good. I hope that what it does do is show that making a change should be a part of what everyone aspires to do in their businesses and in their world. 

Q: What would be your advice to women starting out their career in marketing today?

Never take credit for anyone else's work. Own up to mistakes straight away, As soon as you hold your hand up people will help you. The industry is really small so treat people really well. Be a sponge. Try not to take no for an answer and try to create change.

Don’t let perfect be an enemy of good. It's true so many people will come up with reasons why something can’t be done. But when you start that's when good will become perfect. Things don’t become perfect on a planning page.

Stand up for what’s right. Focus on helping people around you shine, don’t see everyone as competitors. Never be a ‘it's not my responsibility’ person - you learn more and people will do more for you. Most of the stuff I do isn’t trade marketing but it makes me a better trade marker. It's really easy to get stuck in your bubble so seek diverse perspectives every day. 

Try to find excitement and fun in everything you do - if you can be excited, if you can find a laugh or a moment of joy you can help the people around you. I want people to love working with me and to be excited. I genuinely love seeing our excitement as a team around our work.

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