With the dual roles of chief experience officer for EMEA at VMLY&R and chief transformation officer for Boots UK and ROI at WPP, Karen Boswell doesn’t think like a standard advertising person. She doesn’t even really think like a standard experience design person. With a background spanning graphic design, web design, experience design, account management and broad innovation-led roles, she rolls all of this into her leadership in experience and business transformation.
Karen is responsible for developing VMLY&R’s experience capability across the EMEA region and growing clients’ engagement in the discipline. And for almost two years now she’s been working with British high street chemist and retailer Boots, drafting and then navigating an “ambitious roadmap for showing up in people's lives with a newfound meaning.” It’s an endeavour that’s clearly well underway, looking at the two big summer campaigns and one huge Christmas push the brand has put out since that journey began.
LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Karen to understand how she’s balancing all this and what values help guide her.
LBB> What were you like as a kid? Did you have any interests that have a bearing on what you do now?
Karen> I remember as a five year old my favourite toy was this Formula 1 go-kart. Five-year-old Karen would rag this thing around the house. We used to live in this little detached house with a path that went all the way around it. And I was always seeing how fast I could go and how quick I could stop, then how fast I could get going again. I don't think that's ever changed.
I was a tomboy, always scrubbing around in the dirt. I would be the one that would offer to wash my dad's car. I didn't take much interest in Barbie dolls. I had a Scalextric, which was my favourite thing. I was fascinated with Meccano and building things, putting things together and seeing how I could solve problems.
Our first computer was this hand-me-down relic that my dad brought home from work and we had all of these dodgy early versions of [games like] Altered Beast on there. There was this one really bizarre piece of software called Sopwith where you basically had to fly this eight-bit pixel plane through all these routes whilst not being shot down.
It didn't matter what I was doing. I was always sort of tinkering around where I wasn't meant to be tinkering. 35 years on, I'm basically still doing exactly the same thing.
LBB> Did you care about advertising? When did you first take an interest?
Karen> I ended up in advertising by accident. Design is what fascinated me. I was always very artistic. I remember my granddad teaching me to colour in between the lines as soon as I was old enough to hold a crayon. I Ioved sitting with him and making pictures come to life. I think it was his passion for visions that captured my imagination at a young age. He was an engineer, so there's this standing joke that all the creativity skipped my parents and went from my grandfather straight into me. I’ll take that.
I studied art at college and through university I studied design and, what was then called, 'New Media'. When I came out of uni, I was a graphic designer and then taught myself code and started building early websites. From there I just got really fascinated about how we can help people find things online.
The social scene broke, the commerce scene broke, I kind of followed the tech wave. And then at some point, what we would now call experience design, user experience, customer experience, brand experience sort of dovetailed into advertising, as it were.
But my first ‘oh, this is advertising’ moment was probably when I got to AKQA and then into adam&eveDDB. I was like, 'this is proper advertising.' Because I came in through this technology and design route, I didn't necessarily connect all of the dots in my early path. It was all about driving change in the digital space. And digital was a dirty word when you went into the world of advertising. I remember having a conversation with several people at adam&eveDDB about how to dispel this myth. How do we bring the polish and craft of a 60-90-second television advert into as much meaning as a last-click commerce solution? So I guess it was a series of twists and turns that brought me into this world.
Bring this bang up to date and I think you could argue everything's brand or advertising - and you'd be right to a certain degree. You could argue everything's about the customer and you'd be right to a certain degree. So it's interesting to see how it's all collided. I think what advertising is now is very, very different to what advertising was 20 years ago when I first started out.
LBB> Of course. Advertising is not much of what you do really.
Karen> For me personally, it's an out-of-date term. I think it's less about advertising and more about brand engagement - if I were to use a relevant phrase as close to advertising as I could. Building on that, good advertising is about making your brand or business accessible wherever, whenever your customer is on their journey, and therefore the experience becomes about their perceived interactions with your brand. What I would call traditional advertising is more about brands that have a story to tell and they simply broadcast it. I don’t think that’s as effective in the world that we live in anymore.
That's not to say there isn't a place for broadcast. I think you can still tell beautiful stories, powerful stories, meaningful stories, stories that drive change. You could also have hard-working trade that just says 'you buy one, you get one free' – great, job done. But I think the power of advertising and what it stands for has gone on quite a journey, certainly in the last decade. It'll be interesting to see where it goes in the next decade too.
LBB> It's funny, I used to work at Homebase when I was teenager. That showed me the power of the most provably effective advertising that says: “come in this weekend for 10% off everything in store,” and I'm the one getting the brunt of that on the checkouts.
Karen> To run with that story and translate it into why it's important to connect the dots across the totality of a brand experience today… You, Alex, as an asset to Homebase, would have been part of a modern day brand engagement.
The people in-store serving customers should be equipped to deliver their best version of a brand experience. How you show up, the smile you have on your face, the fact that you know where the products are, the fact that you authentically engage with a customer. When I consider successful brand experiences, the human truth and the digital truth merge. The frontline of an organisation - people like you at Homebase - are a very important part of a brand experience that delivers a great customer experience.
When I walk into Homebase I want to see on-brand Alex and vice versa. I want to see Alex bring to Homebase why Alex is an integral part of Homebase. And that for me is what experience should be. Then consider how those two truths start to come alive, human behaviour reflected in the app online... it's not just cold technology versus some people floating around in a store looking for paint.
LBB> How did your career jump from working in account management to the innovation and experience side of things?
Karen> I worked in an amazing agency up in the north of England, that's where I did my first major grown-up stint. I had been an account handler for a little bit but shifted to a hybrid strategist designing for digital journeys. At the time I had a really good mentor, also the founder of the company, who showed me how to think from a journey point of view.
Then I came down to London and worked at LBi, learning how to manage multi-million pound platform projects, really taking it to another level. I got exposure to clients like Marks & Spencer, Compare the Market. My next move took me to AKQA.
When I got there, I found a really good manager, a lady who is still a friend and a mentor to this day. She's like a real living, breathing Tinkerbell. She gave me the room to explore being part strategist, part technologist, part change agent. All of those were client-facing roles.
Being able to listen to a client's question and answer them honestly, and to collaborate with them on the solution is a really powerful place to be. So I became this hybrid client lead / strategist and experimenter of models. Brand and digital came together and from there it became about brand transformation - and you can’t transform a brand if you forget the business that sits behind it.
LBB> How was that kind of discipline seen at the time?
Karen> Innovation was a rising buzzword at the time. It was kind of like what happened behind a locked door with five people who seemed to be very clever. They would roll out these prototypes. And then we'd sit there and go ‘but what the client's actually asking for is this thing over here’.
I don't think I really understood how much of a buzzword it was until I became head of innovation at adam&eveDDB. I was the last five charts on every pitch deck. One of the conversations that I was having with the executive team at the time was that it should be the first five charts, because innovation should be about a mindset. We are all innovative, the work that we were doing there was incredible. It was pushing boundaries.
At VMLY&R, what's really nice is that innovation doesn't sit in a room. It's not like a team of people over here. Yes, we have innovation leads, but if you actually look across our organisation, very few people have it in their title because it's part of our DNA. And I think that's what's really exciting.
So I've probably always been a bit of an account handler, a bit of an experimenter, a bit of a technologist and a bit of a strategist - that's probably the sweet spot of what we call experience today. So, whether by design or serendipity, I feel like I ended up in the perfect role leading transformation through experience thinking. That's essentially what we're doing at VMLY&R. We build connected brands. A connected brand needs to live in a person's life wherever, whenever you're needed, and that needs all of those mindsets and models working together.
LBB> In your current role at VMLY&R, what are the kinds of decisions that you feel are most important?
Karen> At VMLY&R my role is to build and lead the experience practice across EMEA. What experience means in the many different cultures and countries that we have across Europe, Middle East, and Africa is very different from border to border.
The level of maturity that we have in those markets is reflective of those cultures and countries. So often the decisions that I'm helping our leaders in those markets make is where to start or where to level up and how to do it in the most relevant way that enables us and our clients to grow sustainably together.
Experience in some markets will be more about the brand - connecting what we say across every touchpoint, getting brand experience to a place where it hangs together, it makes sense and it feels right.
In other markets experiences are quite mature, so we're thinking about how we close the gap between what we say in a brand experience and what we do to deliver on those promises across customer experience.
In more advanced markets, we're now full circle on experience thinking extending beyond brand and customer into an employee point of view as well. So back to your Homebase example, how do we empower the employees within our client organisations to be the best, most inspired, most enabled, most empowered that they can be? So that they live and breathe the brand experience and therefore deliver the best customer experience. For what is a business, if not it’s people?
All of this is underpinned by operational experience. How do we connect technologies and data to enable our people wherever, whenever, whether that is from an EX point of view or a CX point of view? This language of experience thinking and experience doing is a vernacular that is in a lot of places often overused and underutilised. So it's helping people break down what you really need, and what is it that you're empowering people to do that they couldn't do before? And that's the single mindset that helps us answer those questions.
LBB> You're also WPP's chief transformation officer for Boots UK. Where was the brand when you began with that?
Karen>I've been working with Boots for about two years now. I was drafted in to help from an experience point of view initially, looking at how we start to close the gap between what we say and what we do.
What became quite relevant early on was that what they needed was an ambitious roadmap for showing up in people's lives with a newfound meaning as what they stood for was changing in a world going into lockdown. Boots is an incredible organisation with incredible meaning that had been on our high streets for over 170 years. During Covid, they had the opportunity to step up and lean in at a time when the nation needed them more than ever. So it was an amazing opportunity to help redefine and reassess why Boots have the permission to be on our high streets for the next 170 years. That was our starting point.
Boots is very trusted, loved like a pair of old slippers. Our brief was essentially to help reignite that love and look at different types of love: love like a first date, the kind of love that makes you excited... but also just how we take the trust and expertise that we are known for, but help inject some modernity into all the other amazing things that they have. They have an incredible beauty offering, an incredible wellness offering, but quite often they're associated with that slightly rundown pharmacy on our high street that's maybe not got everything on the shelf. You look at that and some of their flagship stores and it's poles apart.
It’s been the most amazing journey of change for everyone. Leading brand, customer and employee programs through experience thinking, helping connect the dots across touchpoints. We've made some huge treads with two ground breaking summer campaigns and Christmas 2021 was their most integrated campaign ever across BX and CX.
Around all of this, we are relaunching Boots, gone are the days of their brand purpose 'Let's feel good', that served it’s time and well, but now we have a new mission, to serve your wellbeing and that is being brought to life under the new purpose of: 'Boots. With you. For life'.
What’s really exciting about this, is that it's inspired by the Voice of Boots, seeking representation of the 60,000 employees; on the roads, on the phones, online and in-store. Some had worked at Boots for over 20 years, some less than 20 weeks, but what soon became clear was that there was one unifying reason to be a part of the Boots business that resounded over all others; the belief that by working at Boots, they could make a difference to someone’s life.
From there we created an Experience Transformation Blueprint, a three-year roadmap for action linked to a measurement system tied to assignment goals, supported with a change management program to help the organisation evolve, create capabilities, and elevate the workforce. Four quadrants bring this together; BX, CX, EX and OX. It really is experience transformation at its best! And for such an incredible brand too.
LBB> Wow, so much experience to be had! What have been the most important changes to get right on that journey?
Karen> I apply this principle to my own teams as much as I do to my client partners: it starts with the people. I practice design thinking through a human-centred lens. I always have, always will. It is the only model that has never failed for me. Because if you can design the right experiences around solving needs for people, growth follows, whether that's growth within an organisation as a body of people, whether it's growth as a team and getting your foundations right, whether it's growth as a brand, having strength or stature in a marketplace, or whether all of that contributes to your bottom line and growth in terms of your profitability over time. I will never change. I will always be a people-first leader. If you get that right, the product follows and the profitability follows. But if you put profit before the people, the people don't stay and your profitability declines, whether you're talking about employees or customers.
LBB> What have you recently been most proud of and why?
Karen> I am actually most proud of the team that we have at The Pharm, our dedicated agency set up to serve this transformation – Boots, No7 Beauty Company and Walgreens in the US. The Pharm is powered by VMLY&R but we also have players from Mediacom and Ogilvy in the mix as well. I think what is most incredible about all of this is that it really is a partnership. The CMO of Boots and I share the same KPIs, our names are on the same contract for change. That is very new to the industry. It means that we're jointly responsible and that means our teams need to work together. It's always incredibly difficult when you start on a journey like that, but from the hardest times come the most amazing, ambitious people. And honestly, the team is just incredible. The energy that you have from both sides, the excitement and the slight apprehof the journey that we're on, brings this passion to everything that we do. I think that's where the most amazing work comes from.
When you’ve got people that turn up and genuinely give a shit about where we're going. It comes through in the work. The CMO’s first question to me was, "How do we get our customers to care about us again?" We talked about the need to show up and demonstrate we care first, before we expect care back from them.
LBB> What sort of work are you most excited about delivering in the coming months?
Karen> This is a really geeky answer. The thing I'm most excited about is actually building the attribution model that proves this works, because that's never been done before, not in totality. We have models for connected brands, we have models for customer experience, we have KPIs in employee experience. I have yet to find an organisation that robustly measures it all. But one of the things that we're looking to do as VMLY&R is fully build out with our partners full attribution modelling for experience led transformation. To do full attribution modelling for experience-led transformation is probably the thing I'm most excited about. Probably because it's the most difficult thing to do. The most beautifully complex problem you can give me is exactly where I'm happiest. It's gonna take a few months, but it's very exciting because then you really can put your money where your mouth is.