Vikki Little is an automotive marketing expert with more than 20 years experience in this very male-dominated industry. Having held a number of high-level positions, she decided to set up Feisty Consultancy to cater to the automotive market.
Vikki has an extensive range of marketing planning and strategy experience in both business and consumer markets, working in a variety of sectors with BMW, MINI, Honda, Crosby Homes, Porsche, Crystal Clear, Land Rover and Jaguar.
Over the years Vikki has overcome a number of challenges and continues to be an inspiration to women chasing careers in this industry. We managed to speak to her about her career so far and what advice she has for others looking to take a similar path.
What made you decide to set up your own marketing agency?
After 10 years of working for other people, albeit in senior roles with plenty of autonomy, I felt that I wanted to have more choice in the type of work I did and the clients I worked with. I also wanted to have the opportunity to run an agency ‘my way’ and I felt that I had enough industry experience, skills and contacts to take start my own business.
I was a board director in a marketing agency and I realised that the next step was either to buy the other director out or set up my own agency, which was my preference. I wanted my own business! I’d always enjoyed the business-side of running an agency and had wanted to be in charge of my own destiny.
I’ve always been quite resourceful, even as a child; when I sold sweets to kids on the school buses that I’d bought at the cash and carry when shopping for my parents’ business, and enjoyed working on a variety of projects at any one time, including property development, so I felt comfortable taking this next step. I’ve always enjoyed doing things ‘my way’ and often have a clear idea of how I would approach different clients and the challenges and opportunities their businesses face.
Another important factor was the experience I had when I was deciding whether to start my own agency. Having been approached by a headhunter for a marketing director role at a luxury yacht manufacturer, I was beaten to the position by a middle-aged man with a family, as ‘he was a safer bet’, as they were ‘worried about employing a young, single woman’. I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing and it made my decision even easier. I wanted to work on my terms, and I’ve never looked back.
Why did you choose to specialise in automotive?
I have always loved cars, having been brought up with a father who loved both driving and working on cars (in the days when you could service and repair your own car!). I couldn’t wait to learn to drive, not just because I wanted to be independent, but because I loved the thought of how driving could make me feel. I love driving, especially cars that I consider to be ‘driver’s cars’ – those that demand more skill of you as a driver, than simply sitting there steering and accelerating. I enjoy speed and precision and the way that different cars respond. They’re clever, and fun, and exciting.
I enjoyed the experience of choosing my next car, test driving vehicles, and how different cars made me feel. I thought the industry was exciting, interesting and fast-paced (and still do) and wanted to work in the heart of it. To be surrounded by cars, responsible for marketing comms and involved in car sales and the enjoyment owning a car brings was the only career I wanted.
What are you most proud of in your career so far?
My role working with BMW, specifically for BMW Corporate Sales. I lead the agency team that was responsible for successfully re-launching this key area of the business both nationally and locally through the Dealer Network.
I am also proud of my automotive marketing business, which celebrates its 10th anniversary in September, and our approach to the way we work with clients. We work closely with all of our clients, as an extension of their team, and work hard to deliver campaigns and projects that contribute to the success of our clients’ businesses. My team and I have worked on a range of successful projects and campaigns for Car Manufacturers, Dealer Groups and SMEs, many of whom we have been working with since the company started. We have worked with a number of turnaround businesses who are now successful companies and no longer in ‘turnaround’, which has been particularly rewarding.
Have you had to overcome any challenges in being a woman in this industry?
Unfortunately, yes, but as gender isn’t something I often think about, it hasn’t affected how I feel about the industry or my career as much as it could have.
When I first started working in the industry 20 years ago I experienced the most resistance, as I was young and the only woman at a management level in a Dealer Group, which was then unusual. At that time, you had to quickly and clearly demonstrate your knowledge and understanding of the industry and your capability at the role. I think it’s fair to say that then women had to be better than their male colleagues in order to be taken seriously and progress in their career.
I have had to be careful about the way I look and behave; I don’t wear anything that may provoke comments and I don’t mix business and pleasure. It is still not unusual for people in the industry (men and women) to suggest that some women have progressed in their careers through unprofessional behavior, despite this being untrue.
Some women in the industry can also be unsupportive of other women, rather than encouraging women to both join and progress in the industry. There’s plenty of room for more women.
Do you think women have to work harder in this industry to achieve the same level of respect/authority as men?
I do think that women have to a) work harder than men and b) prove themselves more quickly than men. We have to prove quickly that we understand the industry, can perform in our role and get results in order to achieve the same respect that our male colleagues enjoy. Some, but not all, colleagues still feel that women aren’t interested in cars and don’t understand the automotive industry or business, which clearly isn’t the case.
Even now, I feel that as a woman I have to quickly establish my credentials when I first meet a male colleague or client. Of course, it’s easier for me now, as I have an established career in the industry.
Men in the industry, and outside of it, are still surprised that I work at a senior level with car manufacturers and dealer groups, which I find surprising.
That said, gender is rarely something I’ve given much thought to, which I think has helped me. I don’t consider my gender and have always been confident of my skills and experience, so never think about underestimating my value to either employers or clients. Even when I was employed I was confident in pursuing promotions and never expected to earn less than my male colleagues.
What advice would you have for a woman going into a male-dominated industry?
Understand your value; it’s particularly important in a male-dominated industry.
Ideally, don’t consider your gender, just your skills, qualifications and experience. When you think about what you offer the industry, gender won’t even figure in your thoughts.
You do, however, have to be confident; in your attitude and your abilities. It’s a fast-paced industry, which is demanding and tough, so it’s important to understand your sector, gain the knowledge and skills you need to be successful in your role and, quite frankly, work hard.
Having a commercial approach to your role will also help; this is a target-driven, highly competitive industry and those who have a strong business acumen will have the ability to understand the needs of the businesses they’re working with and meet those needs effectively and efficiently.
What does your work-life balance look like?
I have to be honest and admit that work-life balance can be poor in the automotive industry. Traditionally this industry is very demanding, both in terms of hours and effort, and can be unforgiving of those who are less willing, or able, to work long hours.
The demands placed particularly on those working in Dealer Groups can be overwhelming, with the need to meet high targets, in both sales and aftersales, and adapt to quickly changing requirements, for example a change in new car offers, campaigns and promotions. Working long hours is often praised and respected, thus encouraging people to work longer and longer hours, especially if they are keen to progress in their career.
Often dealerships are open seven days a week, which results in a working environment that is rarely ‘off’, especially with most people having smartphones. Prospects can contact a dealership 24/7 online and the quicker those enquiries are responded to, the more likely a test drive or service will be booked. In this type of environment, it’s difficult to switch off, especially with the new car sales targets dealers need to meet, the used car profit margins they need to achieve and the number of workshop hours they need to sell.
Car manufacturers are increasingly demanding, with regards to targets, administration, guidelines and processes, in addition to the FCA and ASA regulations Dealers need to adhere to, contributing to a pressured, competitive environment.
It’s not unusual for me to work between 60 and 80 hours a week, and work every day when on holiday, but I’ve learnt to create a better work-life balance recently, by being stricter about workloads and delegating more. As it’s my business, I expect to work outside of ‘normal’ working hours, and when you love what you do it’s just ‘what you do’, rather than work as such, but I am more careful to enjoy time outside of work, which in turn makes me more productive.
What advice would you give to anyone struggling with self-confidence when starting their own business?
It can be a lonely place when you start (and run) your own business and it’s not unusual to lack self-confidence or for doubts to creep in.
Take a step back and think about what the products/services you offer, how your business helps your clients, the successes you’ve already enjoyed in your career, why you started your business in the first place and what your plans are for it. This will help you focus back on the most important parts of the business and remind you of what you can, and will, successfully deliver.
It’s also important to spend time with friends, family and colleagues, and mix with other business owners, as the support they offer can be invaluable. You’ll find that other business owners have been through the same feelings of a lack of self-confidence and overcome similar hurdles to those you might be experiencing when starting your own business.
Give yourself time to work on your new business and don’t be too hard on yourself. Of course, set goals and deadlines, but also remember to be realistic, ask for help if and when you need it and enjoy the experience. It’s easy to focus on needing to make the business successful, which is ultimately one of the objectives of running a business, but it’s equally important to remember why you started the business and enjoy the experience.
If you can, find a mentor or coach, who can provide you with support and guidance while you set up the business and during the launch and over the first 6-12 months. Their experience could be invaluable in giving you the confidence to take the decisions you need to make, offer advice when you need it and introduce you to other business owners, potential clients and suitable suppliers.
Having support is an important part of running a successful business, whatever stage you’re at, and you’ll find plenty of people who are happy to help you, whether formally or informally.