Last year was a pretty murky year for the advertising industry. Throughout 2016, it seemed to lurch from one salacious scandal to the next – accusations of racist and sexist behaviour by JWT global chief Gustavo Martinez one month, Saatchis’ executive chairman Kevin Roberts forced to resign over ill-advised remarks on gender the next. In an attempt to buffer the distaste that arose, agencies globally embarked on a mission to prove how diverse and morally upstanding they are. But, as so often the case with these kinds of crusades, it mostly felt a lot like hot air, with little real change at the upper echelons of the industry, particularly in the creative departments, which continue to be dominated by white, middle-aged males.
Yet here we are in 2017, and perhaps some of the talk is finally beginning to come to fruition. Last week came the announcement that the creative department at Grey, one of London’s most successful agencies of recent years, will be headed up by not one female leader, but two – a move that feels dynamic and appropriate for today. And while the “vagina talk”, as Vicki Maguire and Caroline Pay put it, is impossible to ignore, this is not the only thing that is exciting about the move. It also signals the arrival of a new generation of ad leaders with a different way of thinking about the work, and how it gets made.
British Heart Foundation ad, starring Vinnie Jones, created by Vicki Maguire at Grey London
Maguire and Pay have a creative partnership built on friendship and trust. Having known each other for a decade, they have long been each other’s confidant and source of support. “We just gravitated towards each other,” says Maguire. “We work in a similar way – I don’t mean we write in a similar way but we work with people in a similar way. There’s a respect and honesty in the way we both work, and the more places you go, [you realise] that’s actually quite rare. Free of ego, and the big ‘I am’, but still strong around the work.”
The duo met regularly over the years for a sweary ‘breakfast club’ where they would share their frustrations and struggles. “Sometimes it is really, really good to talk to somebody in an open and honest way who’s going through exactly the same thing as you in a different agency,” continues Maguire. “It really is cathartic. And if you can share your worst experiences with somebody and can open yourself up and share your fears, you know you’re going to be brilliant in the trenches.”
It is likely that both Maguire and Pay would have had plenty to talk about over the past year. Grey London, where Maguire has been for eight years and was until recently ECD, was rocked last summer by what she describes as ‘Grexit’, when three of its senior management – chairman and CCO Nils Leonard, CEO Lucy Jameson and managing director Natalie Graeme – left en masse to start their own business. Meanwhile, across town, Pay became one of a series of senior departures from BBH, where she was deputy ECD.
Tesco Father’s Day ad, created by Caroline Pay at BBH
Reflecting back on the turmoil at Grey now, Maguire comments: “I remember looking round at the teams, looking round at some of the clients, looking round at this place and the new management crew [chief strategy officer Leo Rayman quickly became CEO] and just went, ‘but these are the people I love anyway’. And because you’ve done that amount of time at a place you are invested in the people and the culture, because you’ve seen it grow…. We’ve got something interesting here and culture transcends people so we just kept on.”
Pay saw her break from working as an opportunity to spend time investigating in full the options of where next. “I really wanted to explore and through that process, the only thing that mattered was ‘who’. I know I can do my job and I’m excited to do it for all sorts of brands in all sorts of places but it has to be about the people, about who my partners are, and what they see in me and what I see in them and will we lift each other up. That was what it came down to.”
She says that during the breakfast clubs, she felt that she and Maguire should work together. “It just all started to feel like a really good idea that the next thing that we would do would be together… Sometimes if I’m having a tricky time at work or in life, Vicki reminds me of what I’m good at – that’s really important. So we recognise each other’s value.”
BHF Angina Monologues, created by Vicki Maguire at Grey London
The two share a similar outlook towards leadership too, an approach that Pay explains using the unusual moniker “cuddle and slap”. “Your teams and your peers feel loved, cared for, respected and looked after,” she explains, “but at the same time it’s not soft, loving, warm, cosy, or forgiving. It’s ‘this is absolutely what we need to do, and this is absolutely how we’re going to get there’.”
Both favour an open and honest relationship with their teams. “We are not those creative directors who lead by fear and dread, and have that distance – that’s a very traditional way of leading,” Pay continues. “We’re very close with our people. We are very, very down to earth – you’ve got a Leicester girl and a Croydon girl, we cannot have any airs and graces.
“We’re not afraid to have a very, very difficult emotional conversations with people but at the same time we can hold the client relationship, we can hold the vision of the brand in our heads so there is absolutely no deviation from why we’re here, which is to direct and develop the best possible work we can.”
In Pay’s experience, this approach has reaped benefits with her teams. “I think they appreciated being able to talk openly about stuff,” she says. “It’s a big relief when you’re feeling stuck or when you don’t know where quite you’re going or what you’re doing wrong and what you’re doing right, it’s just lovely to have a really honest conversation. My best reviews are when teams argue with me – I love it when they challenge me, I love it when they convince me. Because it’s all about that dialogue and fighting for the best work. I think you can only have those conversations if you’ve got that open relationship.”
Refuge Loose Women campaign, created by Caroline Pay at BBH
Grey has also fostered a similarly open atmosphere during Maguire and Leonard’s rein, one that she aims to continue. “If you’ve got five or six teams queuing outside your office because you’re going to see them in 15-minute chunks, and you’re sitting across a desk with a load of awards on your shelves, and you are working in a culture of fear and boys’ club, then you can’t have those conversations,” she says.
“Everybody shares their ideas [at Grey] and other teams help make them better by being very open and not caring whose champagne you drink, for want of a better term,” she continues. “That can only do well. That’s the culture we’ve fostered and hired for over the last eight years – open, empowered crews that aren’t afraid to come in and have a proper chat.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the duo have a similarly upfront approach to embracing flexible working, in order to allow the elusive diversity that the industry has been desperate for a real chance to make it into the agency.
“It’s our job to create the environment where everybody feels they have got the chance to get ideas through,” says Maguire. “Whether or not they’re working mums coming back, whether or not they’re young kids who can’t afford to live in London, who’ve had to move out to Croydon or Reading. We’ll make it as embracing and as welcoming and as engaging and as exciting a place we can, where ideas can thrive and be nurtured until they can walk on their own. Now that isn’t about astroturfing the reception, that isn’t about pool tables and god knows what, it’s about honest, open relationships where people are not going to get judged, shot down or ridiculed because they’re not part of the boys’ club clique.
“Some agencies look at diversity as a problem that they need to fix,” she continues. “Other agencies look at is as the solution to creativity. Which is exactly what it is – the more diverse people you have, the different brains, the different experiences, whether it be race, class, gender, the better your work is going to be. It stands to reason. The more influences and the insights you’re going to pull together.”
Honda: Live Every Litre campaign, created by Vicki Maguire at Grey London
And Pay makes the point that the challenges of having a diverse workforce don’t stop at box-ticking who is coming through the door each day. “It’s also making these kids feel welcome,” she says. “You have to support them and nurture them and develop them. Previously, people in our position would hire people like them because they could go down the pub and talk about football and play darts and everybody just feels safe. Whereas I think our responsibility is to welcome these kids into a whole new world, and make sure that they are looked after properly. That’s another whole part of it. I’ve seen in other agencies young kids come in and they’re like, ‘what the fuck is going on, I see no one like me, no one really understands me’. It’s about the follow through as much as anything.”
In terms of the work that they are planning to make, the duo aim to draw on the variety of projects that they have made during careers that have included time at some of the world’s top creative agencies. While this might take the form of a TV ad, it is more likely to be something less predictable. “We’re very fortunate, we’ve grown up making TV series, making award-winning plays, creating services,” says Pay. “We were just fortunate we got the opportunity to try out different stuff as we were growing up through our careers.”
Plus it is clear that the challenge of breaking with tradition and expectation is something that has proved a useful driving force to both Maguire and Pay throughout their careers.
“There’s nothing more motivating than when someone says, ‘you’re not going to be able to do that’,” says Pay. “And you’re like, ‘I fucking am’.
“We’ve come together because we have a similar approach to work, working culture, leadership, the industry and we just want to have a message of ‘if you’re up for it, you’re welcome’,” she continues. “We’ve spent long careers, both of us, meeting and developing great people and now we’re in the position where we can bring them home, and help them do the kind of work they’ve always wanted to do.”
“I think when you have something to prove, you are extremely dangerous,” agrees Maguire. “And I love that…. You’ve got everything to play for. It’s a massive driver. Especially if we want to take this into places that we’ve never played before: more into entertainment, more experiential, more shared IP, we’ve all got that edgy feel again. And considering we are the size we are, it still feels like a start up. But in slightly better offices.”