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A sporting career

Amanda Jennings

A sporting career

With Otago degrees in physical education and human nutrition, Amanda Jennings’ journey to the challenging role of Head of Brand and Marketing for London 2012 was, itself, a marathon effort.

Epiphanies come in all shapes and sizes. For New Zealander Amanda Jennings, hers came in the form of the diverse bodies that filled the athletes’ dining area the day she visited during the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.

But it wasn’t the honed physicality of the “glamour” Olympic stars – many of them household names around the world – that took her breath away. Rather, it was her sudden awareness of being the only able-bodied person in a roomful of hundreds of athletes who, despite physical disability, had succeeded in reaching the pinnacle of sporting achievement – the Paralympics.

At that moment, the courage, sacrifice and supreme effort it takes to commit to Olympic excellence was both palpable and humbling. You could say this was the moment Amanda Jennings was captured by the Olympic spirit.

The Otago alumna carried this personal torch back to England with her and, for the next four years, held on to it while she took on her own Olympic challenge as Head of Brand and Marketing for London 2012.

“I thought, ‘I’ve got to do this’. But it’s hard. You want to quit the whole way through. The Olympics challenge every part of your being.”

“The trick is to figure out what you stand for and what you want to do with your life that is meaningful to you and your family. And there is nothing like sport to clear your head and figure this out!”

The games’ headquarters on Canary Wharf, London, were a long way from Seatoun, Wellington, where Jennings was raised. But the story of how she arrived on the bank of the river Thames is one of those circular narratives that often emerge in our lives over 10 or 20 years.

A ballet dancer throughout her youth, Jennings had, by her late teens, become obsessed with sports injury and rehabilitation, and the physiological demands of high performance sports. Family connections meant she felt at home in the south so, in 1991, she headed to the University of Otago hoping to study physiotherapy.

Her plans, however, were thwarted by a B bursary result, which prevented her gaining entry to the BPhty programme. So she opted, instead, for physical education and quickly fell in love with the subject that spanned anatomy, biomechanics, motor learning and much more.

Always average at school, Jennings had transformed into an A student by her final year at Otago – “I felt I’d been given an opportunity to be here so it spurred me on to be the best I could be” – and she enjoyed learning so much that she added a BSc in human nutrition to her programme of study.

She also revelled in the broader Otago student experience, following a year at University College with various flats in Leith, Dundas and Castle Streets.

Today Jennings describes her Otago experience as the “rock” that has provided a solid foundation for the life that has followed, not just in terms of her qualifications and the skills gained therein, but also her social and professional networks and a broad, enquiring interest in the world.

She credits her lecturers with motivating her to succeed, the stand-out among them being Associate Professor Dave Gerrard, whom she describes as a “massive inspiration” during her student years.

“He inspired me to want to work for the International Olympic Committee even though, at the time, I didn’t really know much about it. It was at the centre of all things sport and, through sport, there is a genuine possibility to enable positive change in people’s lives. So I decided I’d get into sport somehow.”

There were a few career stops to be made along the way, however. First up, Jennings was accepted into Otago’s postgraduate course in dietetics – potentially an entrée into a career in sports nutrition – but not long after embarking on the practical component at Wellington Hospital she decided a clinical career was not for her. Instead, she followed the advice of a friend’s father, who suggested that the outgoing young woman should consider a career in advertising.

It may seem an odd step, but Jennings came from entrepreneurial “stock” – her parents had run Wellington’s first independent cinema. She had also demonstrated an aptitude for sales in her university holiday employment, including taking line honours as the country’s top seller of Cookie Time Christmas Cookies, and successfully running, together with a friend, a company called Nut Time – an initiative which resulted in the two young women featuring on the front page of the Dominion newspaper. Such experiences had given her a taste of sales and marketing – and demonstrated that she had a flair for it.

So Jennings moved to Auckland to tackle a media-booking role in the sales department at TV3. From there she moved to a media planning position at DDB Needham, before heading to London on her OE. She arrived at the dawn of the dot-com boom with £500 in her pocket and landed a job at one of the first digital agencies, Organic, before being head-hunted for a marketing role at BT Wireless mobile phone start-up Genie.

Following the company’s sale Jennings, as Head of Brand Experience, was involved in its re-branding to O2. She was similarly involved in the sponsorship deal that resulted in the Millennium Dome being rebranded to The O2 and, later, as Head of Sponsorship, re-negotiated the company’s sponsorship deal with the RFU and the Arsenal football team.

By then it wasn’t such a far leap to the Olympics, although Jennings quips that she attended 15 interviews before she landed the job of Head of Brand and Marketing. The nature of the Olympics requires people who can stand up to scrutiny and get things right first time, she says. For her, personally, the stakes were high.

“My biggest brief was to engage and mobilise the nation,” she says. “But we didn’t have a clear run because there were endless sporting and general events in the lead-up to the games, including the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations, Wimbledon and the Football World Cup.”

Jennings points out that marketing in a commercial organisation is different to marketing the Olympics Games, where her work was focused on generating public engagement and driven by relentless weekly metrics that measured this.

“We got addicted to the numbers,” she says. “About two years out we had 60 per cent favourability, which is about what Vancouver had the day before the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics began.”

Such marketing “insights” she likens to the evidence on which scientific discovery is based to demonstrate how the methodologies and skills she learned at Otago have made a big contribution to her marketing acumen.

“Proving a hypothesis is like building a marketing case – the data make it stronger. Equally, a brand is similar to a hypothesis in that it only takes one piece of contradictory evidence – or in the case of a brand, negative publicity – to destroy it. Look at BP or Tiger Woods.”

That the London 2012 Olympic Games are widely regarded as being the best promoted and most popular yet is evidence that Jennings and her team did their jobs well. But given her “moment” four years earlier in Beijing, Jennings is particularly proud of her achievement with the Paralympics, thought by some to have done more to change public attitudes towards people with disabilities than any other single event.

The other highlight for Jennings was sitting with her old lecturer, Commonwealth Games 220 yards swimming gold medallist and 1996 New Zealand Olympic team chef de mission, Associate Professor Dave Gerrard, to watch his old event. At that moment, the wheel that had been set in motion all those years earlier at Otago had turned full circle.

Not surprisingly, Jennings has taken a well-deserved break since her Olympic role ended. She is currently “window shopping” for the next challenge, preferably one which will enable her to more readily combine her career with motherhood, and draw further on her background in physical education and nutrition.

“I think you can have it all if you are willing to be brave and look beyond the traditional 40-hour week. I have come to a natural pause in my life where I get to press the reset button. I have the chance to refine and build on what I have learnt and what I know.

“I am fortunate to have the opportunity to take stock and re-structure my life around what I am good at and how I want to spend my time. Why postpone life until your retirement? If you are clear on your values and you map possible lifestyle pathways, building on what you are good at, then you will never work a day in your life.

“The trick is to figure out what you stand for and what you want to do with your life that is meaningful to you and your family. And there is nothing like sport to clear your head and figure this out!”

And that could well be the epiphany that Amanda Jennings holds on to for her next role, whatever that may be.

– REBECCA TANSLEY