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Chris Waters, Group CFO, Branding Science Group 

About Branding Science Group 

Branding Science is an integrated consultancy and market research business that helps global pharmaceutical companies maximise their products and enhance their potential. The company works with global biotech and pharma clients, using the science of behaviour to shape effective strategies and compelling brand stories. Founded 20 years ago, Branding Science now has 12 offices in nine countries, and is continuing to grow rapidly.

Q: Can you give us a brief introduction to your career background?

A: After completing a languages degree and then a master’s degree, I decided to head into the world of business, qualifying with EY before embarking on a career in media – firstly as a Finance Analyst at Sony Music and The Guardian, before becoming a Financial Controller at Aegis, European FC at Omnicom Media Group, and then Finance Director at Manning Gottlieb OMD. 

After working at the advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty as the Commercial Director, I had a brief stint as Chief Financial Officer (CFO) at Ogilvy UK, before joining white-space digital innovation consultancy Bow & Arrow as CFO. I’ve been at Branding Science for two and a half years, helping the company grow and innovate.

The big questions

Q: What’s been your biggest success in your career?

A: I am proud of the due diligence process we went through in the Bow & Arrow sale to Accenture. It was my first experience of this type of process and to receive feedback from the buyer saying we delivered ‘best in class’ work was a real compliment to the finance team, who put in a huge amount of preparation and hard work to make the financial side of the transaction as seamless as possible. 

Q: What has been the biggest challenge in your career?

A: I found moving from accountancy practice to the world of business, especially music, a huge cultural shock but it was there where I earned and enhanced my interpersonal skills. Seeing the group chief executive officer (CEO) suddenly leave Ogilvy, after I had only been there for three weeks, was an incredibly difficult situation. Throw a finance restructure into the mix and it made for a very challenging time for all those involved.

Q: What has been the biggest regret of your career?

A: I don’t have any career regrets – life is too short for that. I have learned valuable experiences from every role I have had, be it good or bad. That lived experience better prepares you for whatever comes next. 

Q: What has been the biggest learning opportunity of your career?

A: Moving from big media holding companies to a fast-paced SME was a huge eye-opener. Having the ability and need to get involved in all aspects of the business, from IT and HR to commercial and strategy, was a massive learning curve but the best thing that happened to me in my career. I would now find it very difficult to go back to a big group; I have learnt so much in five years working in SMEs and the opportunities to continue to develop in a rapidly expanding company are endless. 

Q: Who have you learnt most from?

A: I have been very lucky to have worked with so many generous people who have helped me with my career. Andrew Ho and Peter Poelzlbauer at Omnicom taught me what excellence looks like, and Martin Telling (Group CFO at OMG UK) gave me my first finance director opportunity, for which I will be forever grateful.  

Ben Slater, CEO and Founder at Bow & Arrow, saw potential in me that I didn’t know I had, and took me with him on an amazing journey to growing and exiting a business, and my present CEO Peter Cunningham has placed an incredible amount of trust in me to partner with him in developing Branding Science.

Q: What's the biggest challenge in your marketplace at the moment?

A: Recruiting top-level talent is a huge challenge, particularly in the UK and US markets, with massive competition for candidates. Quick decisions need to be made, and for an SME, these can be expensive decisions if they are not made correctly. 

Tips from the top

Q: What advice would you give to your younger self?

A: That it’s ok to say: “I don’t know, but I will find out and get back to you.”  

People understand that you don’t necessarily have all the answers at your fingertips, and would rather you take the time to get the information they are looking for, rather than trying to avoid the question or fabricate an answer. Doing that will catch up with you sooner or later.  

It’s better to hold up your hands if you make a mistake, and say how you are going to fix it. Do thorough research on the company and the role you are interviewing for, and don’t be afraid to walk away if you aren’t 100% convinced about the answers.

Q: What advice would you give to an aspiring CFO?

A: Try a number of different roles, including internal audit, financial analysis, financial control, global role, or commercial director. This will give you a wide range of experience which will stand you in good stead as you make that journey to CFO.  

Don’t be shy to ask your current CFO for their wisdom and advice, as they will be more than happy to share it with you. Ask for extra responsibility or offer to help with something you haven’t done before; your CFO will appreciate it and you will learn something new.  

Interact as much as you can with non-finance people; it’s all too easy to sit in the office or just talk to your finance team. Put yourself out there, talk to clients, go to all-company meetings and so on – you will learn so much more about the business and be able to provide much more value to it.

Q: What do you think is key to managing a successful team?

A: Trust the team. Give them space to grow and thrive. Never micro-manage, as that erodes trust and self-belief on both sides and never ends well. Be honest and transparent as to what you expect from them and what they should expect from you from the outset, and live by those expectations.

Q: What's your top tip for managing work-life balance?

A: Separate your work phone from your personal one and turn off all work notifications outside of working hours. Set an example to your team so they feel enabled to follow it, which will make for a happy finance function. 

Study something outside your comfort zone to stretch yourself; I am currently completing the FT non-executive director diploma, which is a brilliant education into corporate governance and how to make boards function better.

Future gazing

Q: How do you see the CFO role changing in the next five years?

A: The role will become far more strategy driven, with an increasing focus on developing, setting, and delivering KPIs. The standard numbers will of course still be needed, but this is the bare minimum required – finance should be delivering added value to the business which is why we are using data and relevant KPIs to drive our business forward, and of course, to help the client-facing side of the business gain a much greater understanding of how to grow Branding Science. 

I see the boundaries between CFO, chief operating officer (COO), and CEO becoming more and more blurred in the future, with the expectation that a CFO will need a much wider set of skills in their locker besides delivering and commenting on the numbers. I believe interpreting and implementing change through data will become ever more critical.

Q: What technological advances do you foresee within your role?

A: We recently created a global chief experience officer role to report into the CFO with the clear remit to improve client and colleague experience through process efficiencies, so a lot of work will be invested in technological solutions there.  

We use Power BI for our commercial monitoring and reporting, and it has proved hugely successful – so we will continue to push that, alongside technological automation, cashflow reporting and accounting software innovation. As a finance team, we are focusing on implementing technological solutions in areas where we spend a lot of time but don’t add great value to the business, be that consolidation, accounts payable solutions or other similar areas. 

Q: What do you see as the future of work in the UK?

A: I think the four-day working week will be the preferred model sooner than expected. Flexibility on working from home/office will continue to be the ‘norm’ and be expected by the vast majority of professionals, while company benefits will become wider and more compelling in range as people’s perspective on what work/career means to their lives evolves. 

Love Mondays: at Reed we are on a mission to help everyone love their job

Q: What do you love most about your role and why?

A: A clichéd answer, but for me it is the sheer variety of the role.  

With numerous businesses, clients, and employees around the globe, it naturally means the work is hugely varied. I love to see all the hard work pay off in setting up new businesses; Germany and China being two recent examples which have both thrived. 

I also enjoy discussing client account strategy and project pricing with the client-facing side of Branding Science and seeing the project-win notifications come in. A professional services business is all about the people, and I am very fortunate to be working alongside so many talented and inspiring colleagues who make every day very fulfilling.  

A successful and growing business means we are helping more patients and that is ultimately what we are all about. 

Q: What does your average Monday look like?

A: No Monday is ever the same.  

I will start the day catching up on emails and reviewing our Asia business project pipeline, before joining our EU project resource meeting to get a feel of how current plans are progressing, and what is going out in terms of proposals and pitches for the week.  

I will also catch up with my CEO and group financial controller, and have various pricing calls with EU and US client leads, before hosting a US/EU pipeline review to go through the current pipeline in more detail. Between those meetings, I will usually be talking to our in-house recruiter, our people & culture officer, or negotiating client master service agreements – you never know what might come up!

If you are looking for a talented accountancy and finance professional for your business, or looking to find your next role, contact one of our specialist consultants today.