She is a former lawyer who negotiated construction deals and counted procuring a communications contract for a recycling campaign among her greatest marketing achievements before joining Sport England as CEO. Now, as Jennie Price, the brains behind This Girl Can, prepares to step down she exclusively talks to The Drum about how her new-found love of the ad industry will influence the next phase of her career.
“I knew nothing about marketing. Absolutely nothing.”
When Price was first appointed chief executive at Sport England in 2011, there was little on her CV to indicate that she would go on to help create one of the most highly awarded advertising campaigns in history or, more importantly, one of the most effective.
Her early career was spent working in private practice as a lawyer, and then in-house in the construction industry, before joining the government backed Waste and Resources Action Programme where she managed to turn five million people into “committed recyclers” in England within just two years through a national, albeit much simpler, marketing push.
“When we did that there wasn't such a thing as digital marketing,” she laughs. “It was unimaginable.”
How This Girl Can came about has been well documented and the focus of many a case study since it launched to acclaim three years ago. What’s less known, is that Price had spent four long years doing lots of smaller projects with varying successes under her expansive, “daunting”, remit of simply getting more people in England doing sports.
“It was probably, shockingly, three or four years before I really understood how big the disparities were between different groups when it came to sport,” she explains.
“I could have told you women weren’t playing football compared to men by a massive degree but at that time nobody was talking about these divides. You just got used to the graphs showing the women's line always being below the men's line. It was so common you almost didn't see it. It took a couple of years for me to realise it doesn’t have to be like this. And to stop it being like this we needed to do something radical.”
It wasn’t until a chance meeting with Maria Miller, the former Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport, at the Paralympic Games in 2012 that Price was given the autonomy to get “radical.” In an unusual move from the government, Miller promised her significant financial backing for an advertising campaign if she were to come up with something “amazing” to address the problem.
Price’s instinct - coupled with a rather unfortunate incident of being forced to change into sport’s gear in a car park as part of a team bonding exercise that highlighted just how much of an “outsider” she felt when it came to exercise - saw her hone in on the emotion behind why women avoid sport.
“I knew that if we could direct the advertising to how people felt, then that had the potential to make an enormous difference. It was a barrier that advertising could affect,” she says.
She understood what needed to be done, but had no idea of how to do it.
“When I approached This Girl Can, I had done one marketing campaign in my career and it had been 10 years earlier. I didn’t know what FCB Inferno [the creative agency hired] was. I didn’t know if it was a or big or small agency. I wasn't looking at reputations. I just knew that the agency 'got' it,” she says.
“But I had great help and advice; Kate Dale, head of digital strategy at Sport England, is a professional marketer and she helped write the brief and Tanya Joseph, who was the communications director at the time, was also an experienced marketeer."
While the agency landscape and myriad of media options available to her were somewhat of a mystery, Price did know that as a client, as a marketer – however new the role – she needed to be three things; demanding, brave, and unrelenting in the pursuit of greatness.
“[Being inexperienced] allows you to come to something completely fresh; it allowed me to be very challenging and set a really high bar. I was determined not to compromise [and that] creatively it was going to be of extraordinary quality, because if this had all gone wrong we had to prove we'd spent the money brilliantly,” she says.
“I didn't want it to be an advertising campaign that built up gently. I wanted it to make me cry. I wanted it to be eye wateringly excellent and so everything we did, every choice we made, was about trying to do that.
“We also knew it had to be rooted in the insight because every piece of work we'd done and behaviour change said: don't assume, don't just use your own judgment, your own experiences, look at the data. So that was a that was a principle from the start and I didn't realize that was a choice and not every marketer makes it.”
What results is the honest, in-your-face, 'get your freak on', warts-and-all portrayal of real-life women doing sport that galvanised a nation and has since been watched by millions of people around the world.
“The first time I watched it, it made me cry. And I don't cry at work. Ever!," she recalls. “I had absolutely no idea then of how successful it would be. I just thought people would quite like it.”
Price was similarly unaware of what a high level of engagement looked like – FCB had to explain that, frankly, people never get this excited about an advert – or that media publications around the world would sit up and take notice.
“By the weekend we were in Time magazine. I remember doing an interview in a car park with BBC with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation a week after it had been released. That was a complete shock. I think I was in physical shock for about a month at what happened," she says.
“And when it got to Cannes, I remember Sharon [Jiggins, executive vice president at FCB] saying: ‘you know this could go to Cannes, and I said ‘what’s Cannes?’. And then I got call that said get your passport, you’ve won the Grand Prix. It was surreal.”
Aside from flying out of the South of France laden with awards that many marketers will spend their entire careers hoping for, Price walked away with a wider appreciation for the global advertising industry.
“I realised that we weren't the only people in a darkened room in our offices thinking we want change. There were teams all over the world wanting to do their version of women's empowerment and breaking down barriers and using amazing creative ideas to do that,” she says.
“And that made me admire the creativity in the sector, the energy and ambition of the people who were doing it.”
The staggering results of the campaign have also been well documented: the participation gap between men and women shrank, and has continued to shrink, which hasn’t happened in the 12 years Sport England has measured it. Over 3 million women now say they do more physical activity and, more widely, have triggered an important conversation about how women feel about their relationship with sport.
So, at what is arguably the height of Price’s time at Sport England and after a decade of fighting to shift the dial, why has Price decided to resign?
“It's really important that things don't stand still,” she says. “11 years is a long time to be chief executive of anything.”
As part of a mandatory three-year review, Sport England is currently in talks with ad agencies over the next phase of the campaign, potentially meaning it will be taken out of FCB Inferno.
Price’s last day won’t be until October, and her priority until then is “to make sure This Girl Can is in safe hands and to pass that baton on.”
As for her next move, Price won’t be going into another CEO role. Instead she said she’ll “do some executive chairman work, some charity work and also some consultancy.”
“If you’d have asked me 10 years ago what the next phase of my career was, I wouldn’t have said diversity or women's empowerment. And now, that’s absolutely at the centre of what I want to do and where I think I can make a difference,” she reveals.
“The lessons I've learned with This Girl Can and the power of great marketing, sticking with the insight and being brave, being creative, that's coming with me.”
She might not have joined as a marketer, but Price certainly leaves Sport England with a reputation as one of the best.