Women executives in retail #11: Zia Zareem-Slade, former chief creative officer, Hauser & Wirth.

Zia Zareem-Slade, former chief creative officer, Hauser & Wirth.
Zia Zareem-Slade, former chief creative officer, Hauser & Wirth.

Women who have reached senior positions in the retail world are (all too) rare, not to mention invisible, which is why we decided to get to know them better by inviting them to tell us about their career paths, the challenges of the past and those of the future.

Q&A with Zia Zareem-Slade, former chief creative officer, Hauser & Wirth.


Can you tell us a little about your roles in customer experience and creative?


My passion for customer experience springs from the fusion of data, insight, strategy, capability, and brand – essential components for crafting exceptional experiences. My journey into digital and e-commerce commenced during its early days in the UK. The world of e-commerce was exhilarating – new skills, multidisciplinary teams, and a challenger mind-set revolutionised brand understanding in this evolving landscape.

Founding the Experience Planning team at Conchango / EMC Consulting allowed me to blend ad agency philosophies with digital brand experiences, driving not just creativity but also substantial commercial success. Sitting at the crossroads of brand, commerce, and tech emphasised the importance of prioritising the customer amidst competing objectives. Whether as a Customer Experience Director or Chief Creative Officer, brand stewardship remained my guiding force. It’s about creative thinking and connecting the dots to ensure brands resonate deeply.


What projects did you work on most recently at Hauser & Wirth and prior to that Fortnum & Mason?


At Hauser & Wirth, I contributed to a multitude of remarkable projects, spanning from launching new gallery locations in West Hollywood, Paris, and New York to rejuvenating Ursula Magazine. Yet, the project that truly stands out for me was spearheading ‘Art for Better,’ our pioneering online auction that raised an astounding $4.6 million for the UNHCR. Witnessing the generosity of artists, the team’s determination, and the tangible impact on UNHCR’s initiatives was immensely fulfilling.

During my tenure at Fortnum & Mason, my focus was on enhancing brand relevance to drive commercial sustainability. Projects ranged from spaces like Heathrow Terminal 5, The Royal Exchange, and Hong Kong to revitalising packaging for our beloved handmade English chocolate range, infusing it with a refreshed creative narrative. 

Digitally, optimising the platform for compelling storytelling and improved conversion rates proved influential. A redesigned user experience led to a significant 25% drop in customer service calls on the launch day alone. One of the most delightfully unconventional endeavours was creating a wedding chapel within our Piccadilly shop – a wonderfully quirky project where people exchanged their vows. The sight of customers eagerly waiting in the atrium to celebrate those joyous moments encapsulated the uniqueness of Fortnum & Mason.


What have been your most exciting, impactful projects – how have you mixed digital and physical?


It’s challenging to pinpoint the most exciting project as many have brought both exhilaration and anticipation. However, the Auction and Chapel initiatives stand out in my memory. When considering impact, I focus less on specific projects and more on creating platforms for growth. At Fortnum & Mason, consistently fostering overall business growth, especially through substantial online sales, has been truly rewarding. The fusion of digital and physical realms is best seen in nuanced moments of the customer journey. From QR codes enriching product stories to in-store digital hamper ordering, emphasising clarity and accessibility, these subtle touches unveil immense opportunities for a brand like Fortnum & Mason.


How did working for an art/hospitality business compare with retail?


The joy of Fortnum’s is it is both a retail and hospitality business – with over nine bars and restaurants the hospitality experience is a core to the brand. While the art world differs significantly from retail, I believe the essence of hospitality, holds true for both. I have to say, the absence of a Monday morning trade report and trade meeting each and every week took a bit of getting used to!


What advice would you give a young woman who’s about to enter the world of work?


Be passionate, curious, adaptable, resourceful, and kind. Embrace a love for learning and always remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. You have a lifetime ahead. Make sure you take moments to breathe, learn, adapt, and make sure to laugh along the way.


How do you see the retail industry developing in the future?


It’s not surprising that there’s a prevailing pessimism surrounding the retail landscape, and indeed, there are many challenges. There’s a plethora of subpar retail products and experiences around, and undoubtedly, those businesses will face difficulties. I remain optimistic and I strongly believe that purpose-driven businesses, deeply rooted in their identity, continually innovating, and placing relentless focus on the value exchange between brand and consumer, while acknowledging their people as their greatest asset, will undoubtedly thrive.


What role do you hope to play, and will it be in retail?


The lines between retail, hospitality, culture, and place-making are increasingly blurred, and that’s what excites me. Exploring the impact of AI and the Metaverse on both brands and individuals’ lives, while witnessing the surge in food market halls, highlighting the desire for physical experiences centred on conviviality and escapism. The convergence and divergence of these elements fascinate me deeply, and undoubtedly, I am eager to continue playing a role in shaping this development for businesses.


Do you feel that being a woman boss makes a difference?


To whom? As a leader, I believe individuals’ diverse experiences offer unique perspectives, enriching the tapestry of leadership. Being a British Sri Lankan woman, I hope my background contributes positively to this diversity. However, in my view, what truly defines effective leadership are skills and qualities that transcend gender. I’ve had the privilege of working alongside exceptional leaders, both men and women, while also encountering less inspiring leadership from both too. My aim is to embody the former group, though it’s those I work with who can best attest to that. I do believe that embracing diverse backgrounds fosters innovation and creativity in any leadership environment and is crucial to ensure a thriving business.