Mad men passed their sell-by date

The advertising industry has come a long way from the smoke-filled, Martini-fuelled days depicted in US drama Mad Men, with men swaggering in their sharp suits and even sharper sexism. My own personal journey – and the journey of countless women before me who’ve risen to senior positions in the advertising sector – is testament to all the ways in which that world is long past its sell-by date.

That’s not to say that women in advertising inhabit some perfect egalitarian utopia. There are still some deeply engrained and archaic institutional practices that make life unnecessarily challenging, particularly in senior creative roles where there are woefully few women.

I believe that it is exactly the things that make advertising such a thrill as a career that also make it especially challenging to stay in for the long haul – and we’re not just talking about women here. To fully embrace the unpredictability of the business, the adrenalin of a tight team working to an intense goal and the rollercoaster ride that each day brings, means that it’s hard to also be a hands-on mum, run a household or be active in the community.

The opportunities are absolutely there for those with the will and determination to pursue them

But, and it is a very big but, the opportunities are absolutely there for those with the will and determination to pursue them.

It’s not about ceiling, glass or otherwise. It’s about the choices you make and the people around you who support you in those choices.

I have a beautiful family and a killer job running the UK business of a great advertising agency network, but I simply couldn’t contemplate that without a supportive husband; someone who was able to make that choice with me and someone who could make that choice possible. He is able to work more sensible hours, do the drop-off and put up with a wife for whom there is no “work-life” balance.

People talk about the personal and professional as if they are two separate things, but I never did buy that distinction, perhaps because advertising has never really felt like a job to me, especially as the people you work with tirelessly, often long into the night, start to feel like a family. In this industry, it is always personal.

Or perhaps the lines blur in my attempts to master the art of juggling. I shall never forget the day a 6-month-old Grace vomited down the front of a chief-executive client’s suave Armani suit and, even as I write this piece, I have one small child tugging at my arm asking me to put Gangnam Style on the computer and another “starving” for a banana.

Perhaps it is just who I am.

In short, you absolutely can have it all, but it is a tough balancing act; an act fraught with choices you make every day.

But these rules – and choices – apply whether you’re a man or a woman. The point is not to let the rules write your story. Let your choices do that.

Take, for instance, my start-up. It’s not uncommon for advertising executives to have a stab at their own business and that’s exactly what I did in 2008. What I didn’t know when I resigned on a high from my well-paid job, fearless and full of ambition, was that I was pregnant – with twins.

We should be telling the young women of today: if you want it, go for it

Like any other start-up, our biggest challenge was always going to be our first client, the one that would become a foundation on which to build our agency. In a pitch that seemed to last a lifetime, we came out on top and I can genuinely say that I sweated for success, no doubt much more intensely than my two business partners given that I was carrying an extra 13 pounds. Heavily pregnant with twins and there I was, in the room with senior clients extolling the virtues of the agency. In fact, it was two days before I gave birth to Jack and Frankie that I signed on the dotted line, welcoming Virgin Money into the new agency’s fold.

Looking back at such a landmark moment, a couple of thoughts do pop into my mind. The first, a rather fleeting question: was I irresponsible? Probably, although I never did have much time (or patience) for pregnancy self-help textbooks. Much more illuminating was my adoption of a mindset, an ostensibly blinkered belief that anything was possible and a subsequent realisation that it is, just as long as you’re surrounded with the right people who will let you go for it. That is, the right partner, clients, friends and colleagues. Thankfully, I had all four and their support came in abundance, propping up a fulfilling career that’s taken me to New York, Sydney and London.

It is this that we should be telling the young women of today: if you want it, go for it. And surround yourself with the people who will let you do it. It’ll be hard, but it will be worth it.

For me, the biggest problem facing advertising at the moment is not a gender imbalance, but rather a need to attract the very best creative and strategic minds into our industry from an array of different circumstances, and keep them there. So, that’s not just diversity determined on men and women (although a good balance is important) but a diversity of minds, skills, experiences and backgrounds.

At TBWA this means that we not only try to make it as flexible as possible for working mums (and dads), but also support many people working a four-day week or taking time off to pursue other ventures. We have a strategist with a shoe company, a radically entrepreneurial creative team who are launching a sports brand, a creative director writing a film with Scarlett Johansson, and our chairman Peter, who is currently at rehearsals, for a play he’s written, at the Hampstead Theatre.

It makes for a richer more eclectic talent mix and a more stimulating culture; critical components for the kind of disruptive, creative ideas that will deliver growth for our clients. Both creative and non-creative companies have to abandon archaic organisational structures and employment practices, embrace non-traditional and far more flexible ways of working, and encourage employees to express themselves, whether that be through the creation of their own businesses or the creation of their own children.

I can imagine it’s difficult to look at statistics in advertising and conclude that a glass ceiling doesn’t exist, but I really don’t think it does. The opportunity is there for those who choose it; to survive and to flourish in this industry, you have to embrace creativity and make seriously tough choices – thankfully, these are attributes that will forever remain gender-neutral.


The youngest of three girls, I proved to be the most rebellious. Blew the chance of a place at a stellar university to study journalism and become Kate Adie when I went spectacularly off the rails as a teenager. Came good in my own time and on my own terms, and graduated with an award for best-performing student and a first-class degree in psychology and marketing in 1993. Discovered the advertising industry during my studies and never looked back.

Earned a place on the graduate recruitment scheme at the then top creative agency Cogent, where I cut my teeth working on some great brands.

Moved to London in 1995 where I worked hard and fast at big agencies with some big hitters and big brands – highlights were Jaffa Cakes and Penguin biscuits.

In search of adventure, and with the help of legendary career-maker Gay Haines, I moved to the land of opportunity in 1999. I spent the best part of five years in New York at independent agency Weiss Stagliano Partners, working with brands like The Economist and Guinness, and later as its managing director where I oversaw the sale of the company to Omnicom’s TBWA.

In 2003 met an Aussie and threw caution to the wind by heading down under to Sydney, where I couldn’t resist resuming working for TBWA. Highlights include working on brand Australia with Tourism Australia and the Australian Government.

Spent a short while running Nestlé’s advertising before being tapped on the shoulder to lead the re-juvination of iconic Aussie agency The Campaign Palace in 2005. During my tenure, the agency tripled in size winning brands like Panasonic and 3 mobile, the agency’s offering was modernised, culture revitalised and I became mum to Grace.

Left on a high in 2009 to set up an independent agency with two business partners thinking how hard could this be? Two years later, having won Hotshop of the Year, Campaign of the Year, the Grand Prix Effectiveness award, held a position on the board of national industry body The Communications Council. After giving birth to twins Jack and Frankie, I realised just how hard it could be and decided to close the doors.

In late-2011, I was scooped up by long-term brilliant client to spend some time on the “other side” as marketing director for a portfolio of six or so brands, including a top-ten brand in Australia, iconic underwear and the national costume, Bonds.

The opportunity to return both to London and to TBWA – ad network of the decade with people I love and respect, not to mention an amazing roster of brands, including Adidas, Nissan, Four Seasons and GSK – with my children young enough for an adventure and husband willing to substitute a paddle on the harbour for a paddle on the Thames. No-brainer, here I am.