Head shot of VCMO Founder Paul Mills
about paul mills

VCMO Founder - Paul Mills.

In this interview, discover more about our CEO and Founder, Paul Mills, his background before marketing and why he founded VCMO.

Before delving into the reasons behind launching VCMO, could you please provide some insights into your early background?

From the start, my career ambition was to become a fast jet pilot in the RAF. Unfortunately, this dream was cut short due to a medical condition. Since my parents couldn't afford to put me through university, I had to explore alternative career options. At the age of 18, I found myself trading a flight suit for a lab coat and joined Eli Lilly on an apprenticeship scheme with day release.

Laboratory technicians at Eli Lilly

I'm curious about your role at Eli Lilly. What responsibilities did you have there?

At Eli Lilly, I began as a junior analyst in their quality control division. My primary role involved testing drugs coming off the manufacturing lines to ensure they met stringent criteria. During my time there, I gained expertise in various analytical techniques, such as high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) and UV spectrometry, used to measure the quantity and quality of active ingredients.

Fascinating! What types of drugs did you work with during your time at Eli Lilly?

I had the opportunity to test a wide range of drugs, including barbiturates, salicylates, analgesics, antipsychotics, and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). If I were to mention a familiar drug, Prozac was one that I tested extensively—it was quite popular during the early 1990s.

Blister pack of Prozac made by Eli Lilly

It sounds like a highly technical role. How did you transition from chemistry to marketing?

While at Lilly, I hit a glass ceiling. Despite acquiring advanced technical knowledge, I was informed that I could only be promoted to other divisions if I had a degree or MBA. Although I was offered a company-sponsored degree, it had to be in chemistry. Instead, I decided to invest my company shares in pursuing a full-time marketing degree at Aston University.

Why did you choose Aston University for your degree?

Since leaving my job at 26 years old and covering all my university costs, I had to make a carefully considered career decision. I knew I had to select the best marketing degree that would offer strong work prospects upon graduation. It was a tough choice between Lancaster, Warwick, and Aston. Ultimately, I chose Aston due to its highly regarded placement program and the presence of Professor John Saunders, head of the business school and co-author of the marketing bible 'Principles of Marketing,' alongside Philip Kotler. It turned out to be a great decision.

What was your first experience in the field of marketing?

During my university placement year, I had the opportunity to work at the UK headquarters of Ford Motor Company. Initially, I was based in Ford’s Customer Services Division (FCSD) at Warley in Essex, where I played a role in implementing a crucial project to upgrade dealer systems across 600 UK dealerships.

I spent the second half of my placement year at Ford's research and development site at Dunton. One memorable experience was spending a week on the Ford stand at the British Motor show—an incredible opportunity especially as Ford owned Aston Martin and Jaguar and timing coincided with the James Bond movie ‘Die Another Day’. We had all of the cars used in the movie on display on a purpose built ice rink in the middle of the exhibition centre!

However, the most exciting part was contributing ideas for the next generation Fiesta. I came up with an innovative concept, which I coined as 'ambient mood lighting'. I remember my supervisor saying it would never be approved. When I presented the concept to Ford of Europe executives, they loved it, and it eventually became a standard feature in Aston Martins and Range Rovers. That year was truly unforgettable.

Ford cars on display at British motorshow
Image courtesy of AstonMartin.com

Did you consider returning to Ford after completing your degree at Aston?

Although I was eager to return to Ford, unfortunately, the timing wasn't favourable. When I completed my degree, Ford was facing significant global losses. They decided to withdraw from F1 and WRC, sold Aston Martin, Range Rover, and Jaguar, and implemented a global headcount freeze. As a car enthusiast, I would have undoubtedly gone back to Ford without hesitation, but it was just unfortunate timing.

So where did your journey take you next after Aston University?

After graduating from Aston, serendipity led me to Edinburgh, where I joined Johnson and Johnson Medical. I became part of a small division called CardioVations, which specialised in pioneering medical devices for minimally invasive heart surgery. It was an extraordinary experience that immersed me in learning about human anatomy, practicing beating heart surgery on pigs in Hamburg, and spending a significant amount of time in scrubs in the operating theatre.

It seems like there's a recurring theme of different attires throughout your career. Do you intentionally choose roles that require distinct uniforms?

Haha, not really, although I did have my fair share of regret after dressing up as a nun for the Rocky Horror show (that’s another story)! Since my time at Johnson & Johnson, all my roles have primarily required nothing more extravagant than a smart suit and tie.

But joking aside, your career path so far seems to be highly technical. Is there a particular reason for that?

Interestingly, I never consciously set out to pursue highly technical roles. However, I must admit that I tend to lean towards the geekier side of things. I seem to have a natural aptitude for understanding complex and technical information and translating it into more accessible terms for others. Perhaps that's what shines through during interviews?

Medical devices for minimal invasive heart surgery

After your time at Johnson & Johnson, you predominantly worked in the B2B professional services sector. How did that transition come about?

Once again, it was a result of serendipity. I never could have imagined that I would end up doing marketing for legal or accountancy firms, especially after my experiences in motor shows and heart surgery. Many people often find it perplexing how my career path transitioned from the glitz and glamour to the sombre office environments of accountants and lawyers!

The truth is, the legal, accountancy, and corporate finance sectors present significant challenges. The cultural norms within these disciplines, the partnership models, and the intricate dynamics driven by egos make them inherently demanding to work in. It takes resilience and a thick skin to thrive in these environments.

However, that's precisely what makes professional services such an exhilarating space for marketing. Despite the numerous challenges, there is immense potential for transformation within these "dinosaur" sectors. I still recall the panic among lawyers when the Legal Services Act was introduced in 2007. Now, fifteen years later, not much has changed, although artificial intelligence poses a new threat.

You often mention the word "transformation." Could you explain why this concept holds such importance for you?

I've always possessed a mindset that enables me to identify problems and swiftly generate creative solutions. Early in my career, this characteristic held me back, as some of my managers perceived my suggestions for improvement as excessive negativity. It was a frustrating experience because I genuinely felt I could make a difference. However, I quickly learned to adapt my approach and refine how I presented my suggestions. It was during this process that I discovered my 'superpower'.

It only took three decades to refine, but I have come to realise that my greatest value as a marketer lies in situations where companies face imminent jeopardy and require rapid transformation to improve performance. I possess the ability to utilise my 'superpower', identifying the root causes of problems and proposing practical solutions. This realisation is what prompted me to establish VCMO.

VCMO poster on billboard

Speaking of VCMO, leaving a secure salaried C-suite role to embark on your own venture—is it a daring move or a calculated risk?

I would describe it as a daring and calculated move—both bold and considered. Deep down, I have always known that something special is within me, but I hadn't quite figured out how to extract it or what form it would take. The pandemic became a pivotal moment, putting business models under intense scrutiny and rapidly accelerating the virtualisation of the business world. It was during this time that I recognised a significant gap in how owner-managers and business leaders perceive strategic marketing. Many of them undervalue, fail to understand, or simply lack the time to prioritise it. Yet, strategic marketing is often the key driver for building a sustainable competitive advantage.

This realisation was my lightbulb moment. I connected the dots, leveraged my superpower and embraced the opportunities presented by the virtualised landscape. With that, VCMO was born.

So what’s your mission for VCMO?

The mission is crystal clear. My purpose in life is to educate owner-managers and business leaders on the true value of strategic marketing and how it can be the most powerful driver for growth and success. But it doesn’t stop there. I am fuelled by ambition, and I want to build VCMO into the world's most trusted marketing brand.

That’s a bold statement to make. What’s the sentiment behind it?

You might think it's a bold statement, and it is. But it stems from a deep conviction that standards in marketing have slipped over the years. I constantly hear stories of owner-managers who have been burned by agencies that overpromise and underdeliver, or encountered marketing consultants and in-house marketing directors who have caused damage to their brands. Throughout my career, I have been fixing the marketing mistakes made by others.

Everyone knows that marketing has undergone massive growth as a discipline, mostly fuelled by internet and digital innovation. However, over the past 10 years, I believe two simultaneous trends have been eroding the capability of marketers. Firstly, many marketers over the age of 45-50 struggle to keep up with the rapid advancements in marketing. Not all CMOs and Marketing Directors possess equal depth of strategic and operational knowledge across the full marketing mix.

Secondly, marketing graduates today face a wider range of disciplines within the field and are choosing to specialise in specific niches. While this specialisation has its merits, it can lead to a lack of holistic understanding and mastery of the broader marketing landscape.

This is what fuels my ambition for VCMO. I am determined to improve how marketing is perceived and valued by business leaders. To achieve this, I will blend the most talented marketers with cutting-edge delivery partners, catering to ambitious businesses seeking transformative growth.

So, what types of businesses are the right fit for VCMO?

Any business that recognises its marketing limitations, values independent and unbiased advice, and has the ambition and commitment to invest in transforming its marketing capability. VCMO is here to guide and empower these businesses, helping them achieve their growth aspirations and build sustainable success.

Is VCMO a consultancy?

No – we don’t use the ‘C’ word around VCMO. I really believe that the word ‘consultancy’ has negative connotations in our industry. I’m positioning VCMO as a strategic advisory business and we focus on the near and long-term growth of our clients. And to make it clear, we’re definitely not an agency either!

So concluding this interview, what do you feel has shaped you in your marketing career?

As I reflect on my journey from lab coats, medical scrubs to marketing leadership and now as a business owner, I am grateful for the diverse experiences and challenges that have shaped me. Each role has contributed to my growth, enabling me to develop a unique perspective and set of skills that I now bring to the table.

With VCMO, I am on a mission to elevate the practice of strategic marketing, drive transformational change, and empower businesses to thrive in an ever-evolving business landscape. It's an exciting and fulfilling path ahead, and I am passionately ready to make my new mission happen. What could possibly go wrong?

If you'd like to book our Founder for participating in keynotes, podcasts, webinars or press commentary, simply get in touch.

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