My biggest mistake: Jan Smith

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Jan Smith, 45, is marketing director of Mazda Cars UK. She left the University College of Rhodesia in 1969 with a degree in English and moved to London as a trainee with Midland Bank International, where she stayed for nine years. In 1980 she joined the TSB Group, eventually becoming head of product and market development. Six years later she moved to Lloyds Bank as senior manager, personal banking. In 1988 she returned to Midland Bank as marketing director for Firstdirect, then in 1990 became director of network marketing at TSB. She joined Mazda last August.

MY BIGGEST mistake was in failing to communicate my vision for the development of a product. I had been asked in 1988 to return to Midland Bank for the launch of Project Raincloud, and had not been told what it was because I was working for a competitor at the time. It turned out to be the launch of Firstdirect, the first telephone banking service.

My initial task was to devise a strategy. Hundreds of millions of pounds are spent on advertising financial services every year, and since this was a revolutionary banking concept we had to make sure it stood out from all the clutter. Otherwise it would have been lost.

You can't expect customers to buy a product if they don't know what it's all about, so we had to concentrate on building the brand.

The direct marketing, PR and advertising agencies knew exactly what I was trying to achieve. We made 74 10-second TV commercials explaining the concept of a 24-hour bank without any branches, and used really unusual visuals: Wellington boots, laundry baskets, buckets and fish - virtually anything not connected with financial services.

I didn't realise there had been a communication breakdown within the company until the day we demonstrated the advertising campaign to the management team. People didn't understand how we could advertise financial services without showing cheque books and credit cards. No one understood the purpose of the commercials. They were concentrating on the product without appreciating that a brand has to be built before customers come in.

Initially I felt despair that they didn't share my vision. Then I realised the fault was mine for failing to communicate effectively.

Whenever you devise a strategy, there is a tendency to get so close to it that you assume it will automatically be understood. The fact is, internal communications are even harder than external communications.

In the event, we changed the strategy. Instead of concentrating on building the brand, we came off television and pushed the product through the press. Three years down the line, Firstdirect is well established, but it took longer to build the brand and get the customers than I had envisaged.

I had been so enthusiastic about this new banking concept, I expected everyone to feel the same way. As a result, I underestimated the apathy of the public. I didn't appreciate how long it would take people to change banks, but I certainly learned my lesson.

Last year I decided to indulge my passion for sports cars by joining Mazda. I had always worked in financial services, and it was time for a change of direction.

Mazda has an interesting image problem. Customers refer to a '626' or an 'MX5' - so they've bought a product, not a brand. With BMW, people will say they've bought a BMW, then go on to say which product.

The experience I gained at Firstdirect means I will not make the same mistakes. These days I communicate all of the steps I am taking, not only to everyone in marketing but throughout the company and to the dealer.

No matter how your vision changes, I have learnt that you have to take people with you.

(Photograph omitted)