Managers Abroad: If the shoe fits

Sarah Robb O’Hagan has taken the occasional wrong turn in her career. Not least was arriving to work on her first day at Virgin Atlantic to find her boss had been sacked. This was followed by disastrous decision to work for video game maker – despite having no interest in the technology.
One doesn’t get to the top without hiccup or two, but her interest in sport along with passion for advertising and marketing, has helped Robb O’Hagan scale the corporate ladder in the US.
Today, the daughter of former All Black John Buxton, is the Chicago-based president, Gatorade North America global chief marketing officer, PepsiCo Sports Nutrition – which, like sports the drink, is quite mouthful.
Starting out at Air New Zealand – landing prized place as graduate trainee – she was keen to work for Richard Branson’s Virgin group. But getting in front of anyone who could hire her was going to be mission. She was in the right place though; Air New Zealand had posted her to the US, putting her marketing degree from the University of Auckland to good use.
While doing well at Air NZ, she kept her eye on the funky Virgin brand, waiting for an opportunity to connect with them. marketing conference featuring senior Virgin Atlantic staff seemed perfect place for Robb O’Hagan to pitch herself.
Even better was that the conference was to be held on ship – Robb O’Hagan’s prey had no escape…
“The conference was taking place on ship off Manhattan and the head of marketing at Virgin was going to be there,” says Robb O’Hagan. “I thought, ‘I don‘t care what it costs me, I’m going’.”
Over three days Robb O’Hagan, then aged 25, got to know the person who eventually hired her as Virgin Atlantic’s marketing and promotions manager. However, on her first day at Virgin she was told her new boss had been sacked. Robb O’Hagan pushed to see someone in HR and was given job.
“I got to look at the business and began to understand why the last person was sacked. There was no business or marketing plan,” said O’Hagan speaking at this year’s World Class New Zealand conference.
She wrote one, handed it to the head of the US business and three weeks later was promoted to marketing director. One of her first campaigns was the infamous Shag Atlantic promotion that included the line “we’re not the type of airline to knock on the toilet door”.
It turned out to be good move for Robb O’Hagan who went on to work for Virgin’s music division and – at 26 – attended the Cannes Film Festival where she met Virgin’s owner Sir Richard Branson.
A job as vice president marketing at video game maker Atari Interactive seemed to be good move. But she learned tough career lesson when the company told her ‘Game Over’. At 28 she was sacked after two years with the firm.
“I decided to join Atari, but completely overlooked the fact that I hate video games,” she says. “Know who you are, and know who you are not. I should have known at the [Atari] interview that it wasn’t going to be fit for me. I had no emotional connection with the products we were making, it was really tough experience.”
But out of disappointment and severe kick came clarity. Robb O’Hagan decided to play to her strengths – advertising, marketing and sport. Sports shoe manufacturer Nike seemed the perfect fit.
“I had tried to get into Nike for about three years,” says Robb O’Hagan. “I had passion for the brand.”
Ultimately, she took pay cut and lower grade job to get in the door. She spent six years at Nike in various marketing and general management roles and had hand in campaigns such as the Nike+ ipod collaboration and the launch of Nike’s move into the action sports business.
Although feeling quite settled in her role, call out of the blue from Gatorade in 2008 placed fork in the road for Robb O’Hagan. Pregnant with her third child, she decided to move to Chicago to help lift the sales performance of the company as chief marketing officer.
In January this year she became responsible for the North American Gatorade business and the global brand management. M

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