Girl Guides: Levi's CMO Jen Sey on her gymnastics career, parenting and the brand's ecommerce evolution
From somersaulting her way to the USA Gymnastics National Championships in 1986, to trailblazing the e-commerce business at Levi’s, there is a competitive streak in Jen Sey that runs deep. As part of our Girl Guides series championing digital role models, The Drum’s Natalie Mortimer catches up with the seven months pregnant global CMO in a UK exclusive as she prepares to launch a $96m marketing campaign.
Jen Sey knows the meaning of hard work. On the verge of delivering a global campaign – as well as a new baby to boot – an inherent thirst for a challenge has seen Sey rise up the ranks at Levi’s to global chief marketing officer. Drawing on an intense childhood of gymnastic training (she would often compete with injured limbs) Sey applied the work ethic she learnt in sport and made the move from the balance beam to the boardroom after growing tired of competing.
“Gymnastics is a young person’s sport and I felt like I had an entire career by the time I was 18,” she says. “I remember going to college and people being so excited to be on their own for the first time, and I’d lived away from home because I was training, and I felt like I’d just retired. They had this whole perspective that they were starting their lives and I felt like I was going to the old age home. I was exhausted and it took me a few years to recover and realise I had my whole life ahead of me and that I had to find something new that I loved to do.”
The creative and analytical aspects of the industry enticed Sey and she began her career in her early 20s at Foote, Cone & Belding (FCB) in San Francisco, marking the start of her relationship with Levi’s as the agency was looking after the firm at the time. From there she moved to the client side, a challenge that she relished.
“Levi’s was at its height of popularity and it was a really fun and exciting time to work on Levi’s. From there I ended up going to Gap for three years, where I worked on Banana Republic. “It was a big difference to be on the client side – you learn that you’re not just responsible for making creative but for driving the business. It’s a pretty big mindset shift, but I enjoyed that as well. The stakes are little higher, but to me that was exciting.” Despite having worked for a host of strong women over the course of her career, Sey believes there is still a lack of females in senior business roles in the industry, something which she sees shifting as the amount of women graduating overtakes men.
“When you look at how many CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are women it’s paltry, it’s embarrassingly small. But when you think of the amount of women who are at graduate school, they outnumber the men, so it’s inevitable that they are going to be equal in positions of leadership in the future,” she says.
With responsibility for consumer marketing, creative services, brand environment, PR and publicity, Sey says the team at Levi’s is diverse to meet the demands of a broad consumer base. However, she is aware that not all companies have equality at their heart – not least through her own experiences.
“I worked at a very small agency before I came to Levi’s and I was in a meeting and the client actually said he didn’t want me to talk. He said, ‘You talk too much, I want to hear from him’ – I was there with a guy that was the creative and I was the account lead. I was shocked, but the creative lead defended me and said, ‘I think you should listen to what she has to say’. So it’s not that I’m not aware that there’s subtle discrimination and overt discrimination, it is all there, but it just has not really daunted me and I love the work that I do.”
Testament to that passion for Levi’s and an indication of her work ethic, Sey is in Europe to prep for the new campaign – which has taken her from her home in San Francisco to Levi’s stores around the world –despite being seven months pregnant. She says: “There’s a lot of talk about whether women opt out – I’ve read ‘Lean In’ [the 2013 book by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg]. I think that’s true of some [women], and I wouldn’t sit here and say you can have everything – there’s obviously sacrifices. I have two kids and a third one coming, but I love my work and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I still feel like I have lot of time with my kids; I’m very involved as a parent.”
Sey plans to work right up until her due date on 4 September, and is adamant that she will stay in touch with her team as the campaign unfolds. “I’ll work till my due date, or whenever the baby comes. I’ll stay engaged even when I’m out, but I will also enjoy my time at home. Having done it twice I know that you don’t get that time back, but I’ll stay connected.”
The explosion of e-commerce and the competition that brings to the apparel industry is clearly a driver for Sey, who says she enjoys the dynamics of the ever-evolving digital landscape. She built Levi’s e-commerce business from scratch and had to work hard not only to turn around the brand’s legacy as a wholesale manufacturer, but also to convince the company’s CEO that it was right direction to steer in.
“When I started, Levi’s was the only game in town. I started on Levi’s in 1994 at the agency [FCB] and there were only three brands we competed with – Wrangler, Lee and Gap. Now there are new competitors introduced daily. It’s a much tougher market, which makes it harder, but it also makes it more exciting. “We didn’t have a global e-commerce group, so creating the VP e-commerce role and making it really matter within the company was exciting. It wasn’t anything I’d ever done before so it was sort of scary, but I like it when it’s a bit scary.
“Taking this on for the whole company and building belief for what e-commerce could be, building the vision and getting everybody on board with that was challenging, but really fun.” A self-confessed hard worker – “to my detriment at times” – it’s clear that Sey is always searching for a new opportunity to sink her teeth into.
She has been in her current role for around nine months, but doesn’t rule out moving on to pastures new should something exhilarating enough come along in the future. “I started at Levi’s as a marketing manager in 1999 and I’ve seen this brand from every angle. To start at a very junior level and work your way through the organisation to lead the marketing effort is a pretty awesome opportunity, so I want to do this for a little while, but I definitely won’t want to do it for ever. I’ll want another challenge – if it’s not a little scary it’s not fun to me, so something will have to scare me next.”
This article was originally published in the 9 July edition of The Drum Magazine, available through The Drum store.