Championing success: Which? CEO Peter Vicary-Smith

27 February 2015 -


Forget frameworks – the consumer watchdog's boss says that the best leadership style is to manage people as you find them

Jeremy Hazlehurst

These days there is no shortage of people on the internet willing to tell you how good or bad a television package, hotel, mortgage broker or washing powder is. It was not always that way. Before the age of user reviews and customer comments there was Which?, the consumer champion that was synonymous with straight-talking, customer-helping honesty. You might think that its day is done and that it has been swept away in a world that it helped create. You would be wrong because Which? is thriving like never before. Its magazine has the highest number of subscribers of any paid-for print publication in the UK, a stunning 1.4 million, and is the most profitable online publisher in Europe. Not bad in any circumstances, and when you are swimming against a tide of free reviews and content, and a culture where everyone wants to give their two penn’orth worth, it is deeply impressive.

All this has happened under the leadership style of Which?’s affable chief executive Peter Vicary-Smith, whose decade at the helm has seen the brand change from a slightly uncool one associated with penny-pinching – which was arguably out of step with the rampant consumerism of the 2000s – into one that is bang on trend. “The most common comment I got when I joined was ‘Oh, is that still going?’,” he laughs. “I’d been here a couple of years before my brother-in-law told me he was a subscriber, but I was surprised at the number of people I know who subsequently told me they do subscribe. I think it used to be seen as one of those things that old people do, but it’s obviously becoming more acceptable.”

Why Which?

Vicary-Smith is only Which?’s fifth chief executive in 55 years and, like his predecessors, he clearly loves the job, not just the variety – “we’ve tested everything. Condoms, toilet paper, everything” – but also the firm itself. “It’s a fantastic business,” he says. “It’s big, but small enough to get your arms around.” And he also evidently loves that people genuinely find Which?’s work useful. “At dinner parties people always ask me what they should buy,” he says. “At all times I have to have the name of a television, a dishwasher and a washing machine in my head.” He adds: “It’s also great that you’re not ashamed of what you’re working in. I don’t have to tell people, ‘Actually, I’m a banker’.” (He dismisses any suggestion that this ethical drive is connected to his ancestors being missionaries, as were his wife’s.)

In his 10 years in charge of Which?, he thinks his biggest achievement has been changing it from something “tangential to people’s buying decisions” to a service with “relevance in people’s lives”. That was achieved through two successes. First, Which? dealt with the growth of online publishing better than most, recognising that people want a good read and “the best way to give them that is to update it daily, so you can go online and find out the latest on what the best television to buy is, car insurance and so on.”

Second, the organisation reacted quickly to the financial downturn. “When the recession hit, within two months we had completely reengineered the focus of the website,” says Vicary-Smith. “We talked much more about how to get value, get more lifespan out of your products.”

He believes that there is no conflict between expert reviews and user-generated content: “If you want to know what is the best television to buy, you want an expert for that, because it will be different if you want it for watching football or golf, cartoons or films. We use an expert for things that we can research, but users can tell you the experience of using something over several years, not only if it stops working, but what the thing is that really annoys you about it. The last toaster I bought I didn’t think to ask if it beeps, and that started driving my wife mad when she was in bed and I was up making breakfast. You get that sort of knowledge from people using the product.”

On a mission

The resulting increase in subscriptions – all Which?’s online product comparisons are paid-for – “gives us the finances to achieve all the other things we do”. That’s important because Which? is entirely self-funding.

Its mission has three prongs. First, helping people make better decisions about the products and services they buy. “We say that we make individuals as powerful as the organisations that they have to deal with,” enthuses Vicary-Smith. Second, it also lobbies and campaigns for changes, either to regulations or the way organisations behave and companies operate, to favour the consumer more. Current campaigns include making it easier to leave your mobile phone contract, demanding broadband firms deliver the speeds they promise, and ensuring meat is what the label says it is.

Third, where it sees a market that is not giving consumers a good deal, Which? will actually start working in that market and show that you can make money while acting well. “Then we will argue, ‘We can make money doing it in a way that is fair to the consumer, so why can’t other people?’” he says. Which? currently runs a mortgage advisory service, recommending the best mortgage in the market, whether it gets paid a commission or not. A few years ago it reduced car prices in the UK, which were higher than in continental Europe, by buying them there and shipping them to UK customers.

Gaining focus

The most searched-for product category on Which?’s website is televisions, but it is the range of products they test that makes them so valuable, says Vicary-Smith. “We cover things that other people don’t. If you want a dishwasher there are not that many places that you can read about them; that is bread and butter for us.” But they also look at more obscure products too, such as golf clubs (“I o.ered to test them myself but they told me my swing was too inconsistent,” he jokes) and financial products. “We are the place people often turn to for that really difficult, esoteric search that nobody else can help with,” he says, adding that he found someone to clean out his septic tank on Which?

Although “ferociously party politically neutral” and focused on “the consumer agenda”, Vicary- Smith says that Which? is “immersed in the politics of the day”, whether that be the freedom of pension holders to access their own annuities (Which? had been talking about this for a long time before George Osborne changed the rules earlier this year) or energy companies, which they criticise fiercely.

Which?’s enduring appeal suggests that customers often get a bad deal. Why is that? Poor management, says Vicary-Smith. “There are still many companies that don’t start from the point of view of ‘What does my customer want and how do I produce it?’ They start from something like ‘Let’s do something really good; now who can we sell it to?’’’ But there are plenty of ways firms go wrong, even if they get the basics right. “You can also go off the rails with all the things you are trying to juggle, all the other things that a manager is having to focus on – pricing strategy, marketing, competitive reaction, new entrants from overseas – all of that can distract you from concentrating on what the customer wants.”

This was all drilled into Vicary-Smith when he worked at Procter & Gamble (P&G), he says, and firms have to take this customer focus and “hardwire it into remuneration and reporting structures that go all the way to the board, so the directors are focusing not only on the profit level, whatever it might be, but the customer satisfaction scores, measured in a whole range of rich ways”.

Broader plan

He agrees with the recent CMI research that found that “robotic compliance” is blinding managers to this fundamental aim “If you look at the financial services industry and the problems we had under the Financial Services Authority that is exactly what happened; you had risk committees who said ‘Our job is to tick boxes’, then we had a financial crisis. It’s recognizing that ticking boxes doesn’t discharge you from a responsibility to actually find out what is going wrong in business and serving customers,” he says.

How does he see his own management style? “I think it is often formed very early on in your career,” he says. “I have that P&G way of managing what’s important; I can still write a one-page memo, it’s just ingrained in me.” As a chief executive, he thinks that “the setting of a very clear strategic direction and sticking to it” is critically important. He remembers that a tutor on a management course he once took told him that “strategy gives you permission to say ‘no’ to a great idea”, meaning that you shouldn’t do things, however wonderful they sound, unless they are part of a broader plan. “If you asked people about my management style I think they’d say I set a really clear strategic direction and I’m relentless about pursuing that,” he says.

But he is also hot on the personal side. He says the manager he most admires was a marketing expert who was “also a very human individual. He cared about how I was, how I wasadjusting to life in Newcastle when I’d only ever lived in Croydon and Oxford before, and what I was interested in. He was a brilliant marketer, too, and that kind of interaction of the strategic, the managerial and the personal is, I believe, quite important. I think people who’ve worked with me will say that I am interested in how they are and what they are trying to achieve, as well as the day job.” Inspired by the example of a manager who let him take off half-days to do a gardening course at Chelsea Physic Garden, he is keen to give people what they need. “For some people it’s holiday, for some it’s respecting what they believe in and giving them space for that, for others it’s just appreciating what they do, and for some it’s money. You have to recognise people for what they are and try to give them what they need. I am not believer in standardised procedures or ways of treating people,” he says. “I’m a nightmare for an HR department.” Maybe so, but when they want to know about toasters, you can bet they’ll still give him a call.


2004 Chief executive, Which?

2002 Commercial director, Cancer Research UK

1996 Director of fundraising and communications, Imperial Cancer

1991 Head of appeals, Oxfam

1988 Consultant, McKinsey and Company

1984 to 1988 Procter and Gamble, Mars and Kenner Parker

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