Why I quit Coca-Cola... and why I came back

Coke's recently promoted top marketer for Western Europe reflects on the big moments in her personal life that led her to seek a new professional experience.

The choice to leave Coca-Cola Ireland in 2011 was probably the most challenging decision of my career to date. Between Coca-Cola Hellenic and The Coca-Cola Company, I’d worked at Coke for 16 years and, at this time, was running our business in Ireland.

Being a country general manager is an amazing job in which I was able to build on my career in sales, marketing, innovation and commercial strategy. I loved every minute of it but having driven change in the business, the time was right for me to take a leaf out of my own book and make a change.   

The sudden death of my mum and the imminent arrival of my fourth child were the catalysts to seal the decision to challenge myself outside of the familiar world of Coke. I am curious and wanted to discover new ways of operating from different businesses that I admired, where my experience of driving change at Coke could be of benefit to them.

So, I left Coke, took the opportunity to spend a few months with my family, and set up my own innovation and commercial strategy consultancy. I led projects for inspiring businesses and brilliant brands, including Telefonica, Kellogg’s and Heineken. I am very proud of the work I did in that time and I learned a lot in the process, particularly about myself. It was an important part of my personal and career development.  

It was a great experience and one central theme prevailed: what I love the most about what I do is leading a team and being part of a leadership team working together to inspire growth. Working for myself was incredibly empowering and versatile but I missed being a leader within a global business.   

I was given the opportunity to return to Coca-Cola in 2015 to lead the Irish business through a period of change on a consultancy basis. It felt like coming home but I wanted to grow my career at Coke outside of the local business.

The company was just beginning to undergo a significant transformation led by James Quincey, our president and chief executive, evolving to become a total beverage company through the rapid expansion of our portfolio.

Within a few months, I took on the role of marketing director for GB&I and had the opportunity to lead portfolio transformation in one of our critical markets. The Coca-Cola Company today is so much bigger than the iconic drink that made us a household name; we are reshaping our growth strategy and operating model in line with changing consumer tastes and buying habits and it’s an exciting and dynamic place to be.

James Quincey has also set out a clear vision for responsible, sustainable growth and has set global targets towards a "world without waste". This includes the 2030 goal to collect and recycle the equivalent of every bottle or can that we sell globally. Working with our bottling partner, Coca-Cola European Partners, we have also set out our own sustainability action plan in Western Europe, "This is forward", in support of these global goals.  

There is a sharp sense of motivation behind this, not just for me but for my team and colleagues across the business. It’s a fresh reason to bring our best to work each day and ensure we deliver for generations to come. As a marketer, at Coke we are in an enviable position to be able to use the power of our brands to influence behaviour change for a better world.

If I consider the decision to leave Coca-Cola as the most challenging of my career to date, there have been challenges in returning too. But they are the kind that I relish. Introducing new brands with speed and scale, delivering cutting-edge brand and sustainability campaigns and working with resolute commitment to ensure we grow our business in a responsible way.

I have recently taken on the role of marketing director, Western Europe to broaden the scope of the change and growth I can lead. The decision to return to Coca-Cola was easy and – working as part of a brave leadership team and leading a stellar team of world-class marketers – is not one I am likely to regret.

Aedamar Howlett is marketing director, Western Europe at The Coca-Cola Company and a member of Campaign’s Power 100

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