Life & Culture

Interview: Debbie Klein

Branding queen who wants to unite us


A few weeks ago, journalists at the JC received a memo about directory enquiries numbers entitled "The Power of Advertising". Apparently over half of all directory enquiries calls had been made to 118118 - one of the most expensive numbers. We were implored to use an alternative service.

Debbie Klein is very amused by this piece of information. It was her team at the advertising agency WCRS which was responsible for the 2003 campaign to launch 118118, featuring the eponymous and now iconic twin moustachioed runners. Seven years on it remains the only directory enquiries number that is widely remembered.

Since then Klein, still only 41, has gone on to become the chief executive of Engine, the media group which now incorporates WCRS. It boasts blue chip clients including BMW, Sky, Coca Cola, Santander and Weetabix among many others. Klein reckons that one in five of the UK's top marketing spenders work with her group, which now employs 550 people.

As one of the media world's rising stars (The Sunday Times featured her in its "40 under 40" list of those to watch in 2008), she has plenty to keep her busy. However, Klein does have one major extra curricular project to apply her creative and organisational skills to over the next few years.

She has just been appointed chairman of the board at the Jewish Community Centre for London (JCC) as the organisation embarks on the construction of its ambitious headquarters on the Finchley Road in Hampstead, in north-west London. The project is expected to take three years.

I'm a believer in the old saying, If you need a job done, ask a busy person

So how will the job of promoting a multi-million pound new centre compare with marketing high-end vehicles, financial services and breakfast cereal?

Klein, over a cup of mint tea on the top floor of Engine's funky West End offices, with spectacular views over London, thinks that the quality of the product will make her job relatively straightforward.

She says: "I don't think this will be hard to sell. The JCC has a very exciting programme so all we need to do is engage with the community - we want everyone to be as excited as we are. I have some experience of getting the benefits of a product across to people but at the end of the day this is something that everyone will benefit from. What's not to like?"

Perhaps a trickier question for Klein, given her heavy commitments - she is the mother of two small children and juggles family life with her hectic career - is how she will fit in the extra work. "I have only just taken up the post so time will tell. I don't have a set time put aside for the JCC - I imagine I'll be answering emails at 10 o' clock at night or whenever I have a moment. You get things done in the time you have. I'm a great believer in that old saying, if you need a job done, ask a busy person."

Klein thinks that, despite the fact that the institutions of the Jewish community and the world of advertising and media may seem poles apart, the skills she will be using to bring the JCC headquarters to fruition are actually fairly similar to those she employs in her work.

"I'm a good organiser. In my professional life my work involves getting disparate teams to work together for a common purpose. At Engine we need to tap into our clients' needs and get in specialists to achieve the right results. This is also what we are doing at the JCC."

Born in Zimbabwe, Klein grew up in South Africa and came to the UK 20 years ago. She decided to hang around and work here for a while without any thought that she would end up marrying and settling in this country. A major attraction for her was the vibrant world of advertising. Within a short time she decided her future lay in branding and she cut her teeth in the competitive and creative environment of Saatchi and Saatchi. Later, she moved over to WCRS where she was involved in the management buy-out of the agency.

She never expected to rise to the top of the pile. "My background is as a strategist and strategists don't usually become leaders, but there came a point when I felt able to lead from the front. The CEO thing just happened. I got lucky."

The powers that be at the JCC have not been diverted by Klein's unassuming modesty. And Klein is happy to do whatever she can to push the organisation forward. In fact, she thinks it is her duty. "I think the time has come for my generation to take over the leadership of the community. Until now, the older generation has been running things but there are some fortysomethings who are willing to step up and take some responsibility."

Clearly, she is not scared to take on new challenges, a fact reflected in her company's guiding philosophy which can be summed up in two words, "love change". Klein explains: "Our role is to help clients to embrace ongoing changes and not to be scared of them."

It is this go-ahead, positive approach which has helped Engine to weather the recession. "Last year, while others made big losses, our business was a little flat. This year we have started to grow again. Our model is about efficiency. This is equally applicable to the JCC. Resources are not infinite and there needs to be a business plan."

Clearly, having a permanent home will revolutionise the programme of events that the JCC can offer. Klein believes it will "fundamentally change the Jewish landscape" just as the Jewish Community Centre in Manhattan has altered life for New York Jews.

Her greatest hope is that the centre will be able to do what many have tried and few have succeeded - unite the community.

"I've been working with the JCC for two years now. I got involved because I could see that there was huge need for a community centre to bring the entire community together.

"We want young and old, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, Orthodox and Reform all to have a place here, as well as people who are culturally Jewish but not practising," says Klein, who is a member of Brondesbury United Synagogue.

A major part of her job will be to raise awareness of the new centre. As those who pay the phone bills at the JC will agree, this is a role for which few are better suited.

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