The grit in the oyster

Eve Sleep’s CEO Cheryl Calverley on why she’s always looking to shake up the status quo

“We’re in a constant tsunami of change,” admits Cheryl Calverley, chief executive of Eve Sleep, a young business currently in the process of evolving from a single product (mattresses), direct to consumer proposition to a ‘sleep wellness’ organisation.

“We’re a change catalyst and so comfortable in a state of disruption,” she adds, which is just as well as we speak shortly after the latest iteration of the rinse-repeat cycle of lockdown and release, driving constant uncertainty in consumer’s lives, as well as the business community.

Calverley claims “we probably handle this better than most” but admits that even a young, vibrant team and company has its wobbles. “As with most young businesses, we’re pretty constantly creative and doing that continuously remotely is draining, especially when there isn’t a chance to celebrate, to get together and create the best solutions and the best ideas.”

To speak to her, you’d imagine that Calverley has been bouncing from entrepreneurial enterprise, to start-up for much of her career. That couldn’t be further from the truth. She has one of the most ‘blue chip’ marketing pedigrees you could come up with, working for The AA prior to Eve Sleep and beginning her career at Unilever on the much-beloved (or hated, depending on your point of view) Marmite brand.

Agent for change

“When I picked it up, it was a family favourite breakfast spread with a bit of irreverence. I love working with traditional, historic brands,” she adds, somewhat surprisingly given her current role. But, she goes on to add: “…that need some change and energy and fresh thinking and bringing that to them. It’s hard yards because you’re trying to turn the tide. When I picked it up, Marmite was in terminal decline. I enjoy being the grit in the oyster.”

Being a change agent is much more than just coming up with some fresh ideas. That’s the easy bit. Bringing an organisation around that has some deeply cherished beliefs is another matter entirely. “You have to understand the history of the brand and the product deeply so you know you’re not changing, you’re evolving. People see the respect and understanding of that history and how you’re going to make it stronger, and they embrace that. When change is forced upon people for no reason, that’s when you get resentment,” Calverley warns.

She talks of defining the ‘burning platform’ for change and even the language that’s used to communicate it. Noting that people can be very wary of the word ‘change’, she advises couching it in terms that inspire confidence. “You can talk about evolving, developing, growing and prioritising, using lots of language around how you’re going to take [the brand] forward and make it fit for the future. Everyone’s burning platform is different.”

Stepping up

For Calverley, the most significant recent change has been the move from chief marketing officer to CEO. It is a topic of fevered debate among the senior marketing community, getting their contribution recognised at leadership level and then, ultimately, taking on the top job themselves. For Calverley, she believes her CMO-level experience at previous companies and latterly at Eve Sleep itself, lends itself well to the CEO position in this company but, she adds, the trajectory and the goal have to be compatible.

“I had every hope when I came to Eve that I would be able to grow the role I was in. I didn’t know where the business would go but I hoped it would get bigger and more stretching. This is the business I could see myself being CEO of, it felt like the right size. I didn’t anticipate it coming quite when it did.”

For marketers looking to make the same step up, she notes: “The CMO is a title that can describe lots and lots of different roles. As does the chief commercial officer (CCO). The role that transitions well to CEO is one that thinks holistically about the business and what it means to the customer. How the market and the customer come together.”

However, she adds that this can prove difficult as not every business has given the CMO as holistic a view of the company as some might like. “In a lot of businesses, the CMO is not involved in product and customer experience and that means you can’t step up to CEO because if you don’t understand product and deliver it well, then you don’t have a business.

“I came to Eve because it’s a brand-led, customer-led company. You’d want an operations guy in a mining company. But if the heart of the company sits in the brand, then it’s quite easy for someone like me to step up to CEO,” she insists.

Project in development

Calverley adds that it doesn’t mean you cart your marketing tasks to the top table, although naturally they are going to play a significant part in your leadership ethos. But as much as you want the top job to adapt well to a marketer in the seat, the marketer also has to adapt.

It is abundantly clear that Calverley is a people person. Indeed, her degree is in psychology and she suggests that there is no better job than marketing if you are fascinated by people. Having reached the top of the tree at Eve, she is keen to help others do the same. “To get reflective, the thing about becoming CEO is that you slightly shift why you go to work. My greatest pleasure is seeing the team grow. I would love anyone at Eve to develop skills and go on to do great things.”

Part of that involves mentoring – in a matter of months she had some 50 people under her wing for mentoring to one degree or another. She is on a number of boards, societies and judging panels with a view to developing both the industry and individuals. “Genuinely, the marketing and creative industries are full of interesting, passionate, lively people. I guarantee I’m going to have an interesting conversation and find something out.”

To hear her list all the commitments and activities on top of ‘the day job’, she keeps up a pace that is nothing short of frenetic but, she insists, it is simply part and parcel of being passionate about what you do. She doesn’t have a ‘to do’ list, she says, she has a ‘To Be’ list. “I love what I do, I love marketing, I love the industry, I love brands and I love giving back.”

It’s not all work and no play, however. Calverley also finds time to run a smallholding with a number of others and is frequently to be found communing with horses as much as poring over sales figures. In 2020, she was part of a troupe of 10 CMOs who joined forces with the Marketing Academy to take comedy improv lessons in order to put on a show for Comic Relief.

It’s therefore no surprise at all that Calverley would conclude of the ‘secret to her success’: “If I were to give one piece of advice to someone wanting to build any sort of career – just say yes to stuff. Do everything, meet everyone. My entire career has been built from just saying yes.”

Morag Cuddeford-Jones

Morag Cuddeford-Jones has been a marketing journalist and editor for 20 years but is still trying to convince herself that she doesn’t look it. Writing for well known national publications as well as contributing to broadcast media and industry specific reports, she came to journalism after a brief flirtation with the music and entertainment industry which ended when she discovered her passionate dislike of any tunes not produced in 1985. Morag has consulted with the censhare marketing team for almost a year now, is the editor of Catalyst, a global marketing magazine, and acts as an editorial consultant for blue chip brands, consultancies and publications.

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