Lead Interview: Lorna Willis, Archant

Our lead interview in the CULTURE issue of Norfolk Director business magazine is Lorna Willis, Chief Client Officer at Archant



Published in Norfolk Director Magazine Spring 2021
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Culture: Values, Ethos and Integrity

“Growing up my parents instilled a belief that what you put in, you get out and the world does not owe you a living. An early lesson learnt was that hard work really does pay off. I have taken that into leadership; I value a strong work ethic in my team above almost any other quality, the exceptions being bravery and integrity.”

Interview: Sue Wilcock
Pictures:
Warren Page

Chief Client Officer at Archant, Lorna Willis, talks to Norfolk Director

Lead Interview: Lorna Willis, Archant 1

There is something about Lorna Willis, the Chief Client Officer at Archant that makes you want to smile. And not because she is a comedian, but because she exudes an innate ability to make you feel good.

“I was an extremely energetic, some would say hyperactive, child. I was always getting told off for running in corridors and I found it hard to sit still and concentrate. I was mischievous rather than disruptive. School was always about having as much fun as possible for me.”  Lorna explained.

An idyllic childhood

“Being one of four – I have an older brother, an older sister, and a twin sister – made me competitive. My parents always worked incredibly hard and I grew up in an environment where they wanted to give us the chance to try as many things as possible. We were encouraged in those things we enjoyed.

“From a young age, I was surrounded by animals: horses, dogs, cats, goats, and chickens, which instilled a very early sense of responsibility.  My first pet was a guineapig called Fuzzy peg and at nine, my sister and I shared our first pony, Zebedee.  My mother was our influence in the world of horses, and she supported my sister and I as we spent many of our weekends competing at local horse shows and attending pony club rallies.  

“My childhood could be described as idyllic and a little bit Enid Blyton, lashings and lashings of ginger beer and cake…all homemade! We were a traditional family and laughed a lot. My mother was a housewife, giving up her career in pathology to bring the four of us up. My father was a teacher.  

“To make ends meet, or more accurately enable us to do the things we loved, such as ride, sail, play tennis etc, my mother would knit all of our jumpers and make our dresses. I am not sure how my mother managed the four of us; we were constantly making up new challenges and games of varying risk factors and danger. I am sure my brother will contest this, but I still hold the record for swing jumping.

“Family holidays were not a big part of growing up, probably because we had lots of animals to look after!  Although from a young age my father would take us camping and hill walking. Together, we completed the three peaks challenge, and until about three years ago, my father and I continued our annual camping and walking holiday. With no technology, it was a week where the world would just slow down, and I think it was an important part of maintaining good mental health.

“I still wake up early, so that I have time to visit my parents and go for a morning walk, and every weekend I take a walk around local woodland, which acts as my recharge button. It is where growing up we would make dens, climb trees and be free to explore independently; with hindsight I suppose it was an important part of developing self-confidence.”

Describing hard work “as part of the family DNA”, as soon as she could, Lorna had part-time jobs which were fitted in around her education. She worked as a paper girl, then moved on to take a job mucking out the horses at a local riding school. She also had an evening job in telesales, setting up appointments for double glazing. Yet, it was her job working on a farm in the school summer holidays where she learnt a very valuable lesson.

“We were one person down on the potato harvester which meant I had to do the work of two. I felt a bit hard done by, but at the end of the week the farmer doubled my wage packet, telling me he had been watching all week and the hard work I had been putting in meant he didn’t need to bring in another person. It was an early lesson for me and instilled a sense of belief that hard work really does pay off.”  

Lead Interview: Lorna Willis, Archant 5

A career in the media

“As a child, I loved watching old black and white films and the good guys always found the answers from the local newspaper archives or the library. I was way too chatty to be a librarian, so I settled on wanting to get a job working for a newspaper. 

“In 1998, after graduating from Sheffield University with a Business and Economics degree, I wrote to the FT in London and asked for a job. It ticked both boxes of being relevant to my degree and my desire to have a career in media. It didn’t even occur to me that they wouldn’t give me a job as I would have worked for free, so why would they reject me?”

“From the moment I started, I loved it. I loved London and the pace of life. It was very early doors for digital technology, and I worked in sales, selling advertising for their website, FT.com.

“I stayed in the job for eighteen months before deciding to take some time off to go travelling with my best friend, Jo. We had been planning the trip since we were 16 years old and in the eight months we were away, we visited Africa, Australia, and Asia.”

“The experience taught me that the kindness of strangers is real, and that there is not much that you can’t face in a day with two banana pancakes for breakfast”

On returning to London, Lorna joined The Guardian newspaper where she stayed for eight years.

“The culture at The Guardian was great and I lived and breathed the brand. It was a listening paper, giving both sides of the story, and they stood up for what they believed in. It was brave journalism and it felt good to be part of that.”

“I was in my late twenties and was asked to host a table at a Guardian charity awards event. It made a big impact on me and I was inspired by the stories I heard that night. I decided that I wanted to work for a charity. It took two years, but I eventually went to work for Macmillan Cancer Support in Stowmarket as a Fundraising Manager.

“My time with Macmillan was a massive culture change and it was hard work, but it was humbling, and I met lots of people who were very inspiring.”

After eight months, Lorna was asked to go back to The Guardian.

“I was tempted, but I had applied for a role as Digital Ad Director at the East Anglian Daily Times, which is part of Archant. I had grown up with the paper and was a passionate advocate of local journalism. It matters, and I wanted to be a part of supporting and sustaining local news, supporting journalists who celebrate and champion the communities in which we live and work. I got the job and the rest they say is history…OK, not quite.”

A culture shock

A couple of weeks after Lorna joined Archant in 2010, she was questioning whether she had done the right thing.

“I was a little shocked at the culture. Learning and development didn’t seem to exist, and there was a very defined hierarchy which sometimes blocked excellent ideas coming from the people closest to the clients. Every day was a battle and there just wasn’t a route through for our client representatives to be heard.  

“The business was heavily focused on results at the expense of creativity and there wasn’t room to celebrate campaigns that delivered outstanding results for clients. Everything was about targets with nothing to help build the confidence of the teams. 

“Within a month of my arrival, I was seen as a disruptive influence. I was surrounded by people who really cared about their clients, but were just not being empowered or celebrated for being customer focused.

“I spent about six months trying to improve our digital capability and that of the teams, but not only did I not get anywhere, I had my probation extended for a lack of professionalism.  Ironically, despite all of this, we were delivering the best digital results across the entire organisation.

“Perhaps most challenging for me, was for the first time I was in an environment that actively tried to change me. I was on one occasion sent home for not wearing a suit, and repeatedly told that I was a rough diamond, and with a warm smile reassured that “together we would work on smoothing the edges”.  I like my edges and I thrive around people who are comfortable in their own skin and unapologetic for who they are.” 

At this time, Lorna’s friends were telling her that it wouldn’t be long before she was back at The Guardian and she was seriously considering making the move. Then a pivotal moment took place when Managing Director, Johnny Hustler, became her boss.

“We had just restructured to Archant Anglia and Johnny walked into the office. He stopped and sat down with us, asked questions and just listened.

“After that conversation, things literally changed overnight.  He promoted me to head up Archant’s digital operation across the east and told me if I wanted to make positive change then “to ask for forgiveness and not permission”.  

“It’s amazing what a difference it makes when you know someone believes in you, but it really changes things when that person kicks down doors for you.”

Over the next six months, steady progress was made, but it was still far too slow for Lorna.  Yet, within a year she was promoted to Client Solutions Director, in a different area of the business. A conflict of strategy and approach with her new manager though, led to her offering her resignation.

Transforming Archant

It was at this time that Lorna met Dee Willmott, another individual who was to have a tremendous effect on her career.

Lead Interview: Lorna Willis, Archant 9

“Dee is Chief People Officer at Archant. The first time I met her, was when she intervened in a heated argument.  At that stage she was several levels above me, so when she called me into a nearby meeting room, I was full of fire, defensive and set to tell her exactly why I was cross. Instead, she looked at me and quietly stated, “I am looking at a stressed individual, how can I help?”  

“However, when news of my resignation reached Dee, she was not quite so supportive, informing me in no uncertain terms that I would be working my full six months’ notice. Furthermore, I would be reporting directly into Dee in Learning & Development, where I would be tasked with helping her to get the business ready for cultural change and transformation while accelerating her goal of creating a learning organisation. 

“I spent three months crafting learning material for all things digital, I was rather impressed with my efforts, and expected Dee to be equally impressed.  I vividly remember her feedback. “Lorna who are you trying to talk too?  Your task is to make this knowledge accessible; no one is going to understand this.” Crushed at the time, I took the feedback on board.” 

“It was a “Eureka!” moment. I realised the ability to communicate and translate complex ideas or products in a way that helps people learn and understand does more to accelerate the required progress of our teams and business than any other initiative.” 

“The upshot was that I stayed with Archant, and without question, the three years I spent as Digital Development Director working for Dee, were the most fun and rewarding of my career.

“Dee was, and still is, a passionate advocate for people. Her set goal of becoming a learning organisation laid the foundations for our current transformation and instilled the capability into every level to deliver. 

“Many people talk about transformations failing because of poor planning, lengthy timelines, lack of agility, poor management etc. Of course, all those things can contribute to failure, but I think transformations fail because the time hasn’t been taken to get the business and every individual ready and equipped to drive the change. Specifically ensuring we have the capability, knowledge and understanding to change, but most importantly, building belief and confidence in our people and the business.  

“Only when we had the capability, did we start initiating the transformation programme.”

In December 2017, Lorna was offered a role on Archant’s Executive Team, tasked with building out a market and industry-leading digital and data function.

Taking things one step at a time

“I was offered the role at 11am in the morning and it was announced at midday.  I had less than an hour to get my head around it before the calls started coming with all sorts of questions from my new team. I had no answers, so I just listened. I spoke to Dee, she advised me to take it one step at a time and while I was privately freaking, she reminded me that I had a real chance to make a difference, be myself and others would follow.  Nervousness became excitement.

“For me, this was the first stage in our actual transformation and our aim to make sure we had the ‘best-in-class’ digital capability.

“I started by appointing two highly talented individuals to manager level; one in Product and one in Data, and together we built the function. They both now sit on my leadership team. Ryan Cousins is Platform and Product Director, and Adam Cole is Group Data and Insight Director. 

“I learned from my first year that it was going to be critical to run a flat line structure. As well as allowing everyone to contribute to driving the business forward, it would enable us to access ideas, expertise, and innovation at all levels.”

“If you really want to be the best, you should push yourself and “skate to fall”. I want people to be successful and for that you must allow them to fail, as long as you are there to pick them up and set them back on their skates.”

“If, within a work environment, we make people feel uncomfortable because they don’t conform, we will stifle creativity and productivity, while at the same time actively reducing confidence and self-esteem.  I want people to be given the space to be themselves. I saw my task as celebrating every person based on the merit of their work, their will, skill and manners, not on the cost or sparkle of their suit or the straightness of their tie, unless of course that’s what makes people comfortable.  The new Archant values of respect, creativity and pride, support this approach to leadership.  

“During the first year we grew the team by 300%.  We had one objective, which was to ensure that every product that we took to market delivered measurably for our clients.  By focusing on just that one goal everything else took care of itself. In 12 months, we went from a cost centre, to a profit centre and had a lot of fun doing so.

“In 2018, we now had the capability and the digital products and services to transform Archant into a truly client-led business. It was at this time I was approached by Gary Attfield, Client Director at Archant.  In simple terms, he told me we needed to do better for our clients, and that change needed to be ingrained at all levels of Archant – starting with the executive team. He asked for my help.”

Over Christmas, Lorna set to work creating the commercial strategy that she shared with both Dee and the Executive Chairman in January. By February 2019, Lorna was promoted to head up both the digital and commercial functions at Archant, and together with Dee, they were tasked with the delivery of the strategy “Counting Every Customer so Every Customer Counts”.

“We still have a long way to go, but so far and by every measure we are succeeding. Workwise, I feel what we are doing at Archant at this moment in time is my greatest achievement.”

Leading the way

“We are leading the way in changing regional media, raising standards and expectations. We measure success through client happiness, the number of customers, retention, and knowledge. We have moved away from targeting our salespeople based entirely on revenue income, and segmented our markets, so that targets are now split between revenue and customer satisfaction. Our people are now more engaged and passionate, and really care about what they do. 

“I set high standards because I am surrounded by extraordinary talent, so bluntly I can. The pace is relentless, I ignore levels and hierarchy and there is no blame culture here. We work together to put things right, but most importantly we enjoy working with each other.”

In July 2020, Archant underwent a restructure. Lorna in her role of Chief Client Officer now has overall commercial responsibility for 54 newspapers, 19 county magazines and 140 websites along with 400 staff ranging from commercial sales to data, product, marketing and creative design and production. 

In August Archant announced their sale to investment company RCapital. 

“It is still early days, but initial signs are exciting.  They believe in our strategy and are excited by the talent and opportunity housed within Archant.

“Most challenging for me is the sheer volume and variety of the things that sit within my span of control. What I have quickly learned however, is that it is the most dedicated teams and individuals that don’t get enough attention, they just quietly crack on and deliver. I have 400 people in my function and the pace at which it has grown has meant that not everyone is getting the recognition they deserve, but I am determined that they will.

“The boundaries between work and leisure blur into one. When I have downtime, I read and ensure I keep up to date with the ever-changing digital world, a real passion of mine. Lockdown and COVID hasn’t helped. I started 2020 determined to have a better work life balance, but I have gone backwards.  

“My first meeting of the day is always with my leadership team. They are awesome and literally at each meeting they will share something that is super cool. This can be anything from a new creative campaign for a client, a new insight tool, the development of a new product or app or a marketing campaign to show how we as a business have changed in our approach and offerings, and how we can help other businesses grow and achieve their aims. Each day we make visible progress and it’s inspiring.   

Lead Interview: Lorna Willis, Archant 13

“I count myself lucky I am doing what I have always wanted to do, and I am in a business that now I can truly say is more than a publisher and more than an agency. I am also so incredibly lucky to be surrounded by such talented and passionate people. I get oxygen every day from the people I work with.

“What I have learnt from the pandemic, is that very few people ever put themselves first. This has manifested with people working insane hours for clients, sacrificing holiday, while all the time balancing this with the care of those dependent on them.  Some of what I have seen from my teams is inspiring, but people look visibly tired, they need a rest, and I think the pace I set makes it difficult for people to think it’s ok to just stop, or at least slow down. 

“In 2021, I will do better.  I will stop, slow down and find a better balance; more time playing in the woods, maybe taking up yoga so I can actually lift my leg up high enough to climb a few trees… maybe then my teams will know that its ok to switch off themselves.” 

Interview conducted and photos taken in accordance with and adhering to COVID rules and regulations at the time.

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