At Grey, she worked closely with former CCO and Chairman Nils Leonard, who, in his nine years there, in many ways revolutionized the agency before deciding to move on at the end of the current year. Vicki is also the new President of Creative Circle, the oldest advertising and marketing awards body in Europe and one that focuses exclusively on UK advertising. In this capacity, she penned an extraordinary Call for Entries that made Michael Weinzettl really sit up and take notice. In the interview that follows, Vicki responds to Michael’s questions about her new position and her career to date.
Can you tell us a bit how that came about? What’s the story behind that Call for Entries (“My cry for help”)? Why did you choose that particular form, and can you elaborate a little on the specific issues you addressed in it?
It’s funny. When I got into advertising, I was very aware I was “different.” Not that I was a woman … God, that’s a whole other story. No, I wasn’t from London, my dad wasn’t in advertising, I wasn’t from a moneyed background, and I didn’t have a flat in London already paid for.
I was different, and my skills – rough as they were – set me apart: I was eager, I was cheeky, I pushed, I asked questions, I didn’t think I knew it all … I also had an ear for how people conversed. I could tap into tones of voice and I had an interest in popular culture. Years later, when I was in a position to hire, to mentor other students, I was struck how nothing had changed. Our industry is still very middle-class-white-boys. We still hire like for like. I know from experience that there is a wealth of untapped talent who cannot break into this industry. They are funny, they are smart, they are talented but they can’t get a break. We owe it to our industry, and to our clients and consumers, to find and nurture this talent. If we don’t, we’ll just churn out the same old shit. It’s just not good enough. That’s why I got involved with Creative Circle.
Not only is it the only awards show that champions British talent. It also promotes creativity outside London, supporting students who wouldn’t ordinarily have the chance to study in London. Also, I’m the first woman president. About fucking time.
I’ve had the pleasure of observing a couple of discussions at the Creative Circle Jury and found it a very special award scheme – not least because it admits UK work only and the judges are all from the UK at a time when just about every awards show, including the D&AD, have been seeking to broaden their target, i.e. trying hard to become as international in scope as possible. What are some of the pros and cons of that?
I love a global jury, honestly. I do so on heart, I’m not getting all Brexit or small-minded but I genuinely believe we breed a unique kind of creativity here! Music, design, architecture, advertising, art … we have what can only be described as “swagger.”
There is a lot of work coming out of the UK that is so nuanced, or taps into British culture, that international juries seem to miss. Creative Circle champions this work. A lot of our most well-respected creatives have said it was the first award they ever won. It has a special place in the hearts of the UK ad industry.
What do you hope to achieve during your presidency there?
I want to break the pale, male, stale mold.
I want to attract emerging talent from all over the country. And I want to drive a diverse agenda. I love my job but I look around and I worry we’re being left behind. And it’s our own fault. We’re protecting the status quo and that’s got to stop. I want diversity – and I want us to get our swagger back.
Do you have a take on what Brexit might mean to the ad industry in the UK? It hasn’t really happened yet but do you see it as a challenge to advertising and, perhaps, view it with some trepidation?
I was shocked at the Brexit vote. It scared the shit out of me ... not in terms of work but in terms of global talent looking at the UK and thinking we’re not an open and welcoming country. I’m embarrassed and ashamed at some of the things our country is doing. But I can do something about my own backyard. Grey London is open to anyone who wants to come.
You arrived in advertising via the world of fashion. I read that designer Paul Smith was your mentor. Can you tell us about the time you spent in the fashion industry, how you got there, and what prompted you to switch to advertising some 15 years ago?
Fashion was my big love. But in all honesty I was rubbish. I’ve been sacked from practically every major designer in the UK. Westwood, Farhi … I’ve worked for them all. It was Paul Smith who told me to stop trying to draw and write my ideas down instead.
Which agencies have you worked at? And what have been some of the key experiences during your career in the ad business?
I’ve worked in the UK, Amsterdam, and Australia. I’ve worked in some wonderfully inspirational places. W&K is special – I think anyone who has worked there will say that – but I’ve got to admit I’ve worked for some assholes too … and in all honesty I’ve learned more from them. I’ve sat in many a review or meeting and said to myself: “I will never say/do/treat people like that!”
Is there a campaign you created that you’re most proud of?
It’s got to be the Vinnie Jones BHF campaign. Not because it won a shitload of awards. That’s nice, but to date this one has saved over 50 lives. There are 50 people who are alive today because they watched that ad, remembered it when it mattered, and saved a life! I’ve met some of these people. They’ve shook my hand, they’ve invited me to their weddings, and I’ve met their wives and kids. You have no idea how humbling that is.
Who were some of the people in the ad business that you admired when you first started out?
I grew up in Leicester in the 70s. We watched loads of TV. Without knowing it, I loved the work of one man, John Webster. We sang the jingles, repeated the lines, and fell in love with the characters. We’d say now he played in popular culture. And that’s the kind of creative I love. Culture is everything.
Can you tell us a bit about your co-operation with Nils Leonard, who you’ve worked with closely over quite a number of years. How has Nils’ resignation this year affected Grey?
Ha, I fucking LOVE that man. I’ve spent the last eight years having a ball. I’ve never done the same year twice – hell, I’ve never done the same day twice! We share the same drive and the same “fuck-them-all” spirit. We both had something to prove.
In all honesty, it was always “when,” not “will,” he go. So it wasn’t a surprise. But, one thing we’ve all worked hard to cultivate is a love and respect for the open culture of Grey. It’s bigger than any one person.
We’ve just held his leaving party. We got him battered!
Where do you get the inspiration for your work?
The thing that inspires me most is the chance to make a difference. To be useful or to entertain. Popular culture, whether it be film, design, drama, politics, informs everything we do at Grey. It’s what gets me up in the morning and keeps me awake at night.
You were voted by Business Insider to be one of the ten most influential women in advertising and are active in both WACL and She Says. Can you tell us a bit about your involvement in these organizations? How is the UK doing these days in terms of women in top positions?
It’s funny as I always thought of myself as a lazy feminist. I have always been against inequality and discrimination in any form, but in all honesty I thought we’d have had this sorted by now.
Sexism and discrimination were rife when I started out. I’d been passed over, underpaid, and overlooked. I’ve been asked to wear a dress and heels, I’ve even been asked to change my name on a script from Vicki to Mickey because: “The client will never buy an idea from a woman.”
I just thought, sod it. I’ll let my work talk for me. But, 17 or so years later, I can’t believe we’re still having the same conversations. So, a few years ago, I thought, “Fuck it, you have to see it to be it.” So I got involved and got vocal. I call it as I see it and I won’t stop until we’ve sorted our industry out.