MullenLowe London’s chief strategy officer on her curious disposition, passion for purpose and favourite planners
Planners are the nerds of the advertising industry - the ones with the graphs and statistics that stoke the engines of the creative department. They also tend to have a lot to say about the sector’s the bigger picture issues. MullenLowe London’s Jo Arden is a great example. As chief strategy officer, it’s essentially her job to be curious about anything and everything that could be of use to the agency’s clients. She’s particularly fascinated by human behaviour, social change and the ways brands can improve our lives. If you look at MullenLowe’s recent campaigns, you can definitely feel her strategic influence.
LBB’s Alex Reeves sat down with Jo to find out what fuels this curiosity and how she applies it to MullenLowe’s clients.
LBB> What were you like when you were growing up? Were there any clues back then about what you would end up doing for a job? When did you first consider going into advertising as a career?
JA> Growing up, I was always doing more. I loved learning and always took new opportunities as they were presented. There wasn’t a subject that I couldn’t find something interesting in, that’s quite handy in this job. In terms of going into advertising - I remember watching a TV ad about giving up smoking when I was in my early teens and being hugely affected by it. I think the die was cast then.
LBB> At 23red your focus was on social purpose-based strategy, on issues from smoking to voting. How has that experience affected the way you've approached your first year at MullenLowe?
JA> I believe communications of all kinds play an important role in society. They affect, at least in part, how we feel about the world around us. It doesn’t have to be explicitly led by a social purpose to have a positive social effect. At MullenLowe, we work with both brands and non-profits that look for a deeper connection, to serve a purpose beyond the transaction. It’s really a more expansive application of the same approach.
LBB> What are your thoughts on the responsibility brands have to encourage social good through their advertising?
JA> I think brands should be responsible. There’s a broad spectrum ranging from having their own house in order, to actively championing a social cause. It’s for each business to decide where they sit on that spectrum and they need to be guided by what they can do with integrity and conviction, and what their customers are looking to them to do. Let’s not forget that simply entertaining people and making them smile has value in the world too.
LBB> You're on both the Effectiveness Leadership and the Professional Development groups at the IPA and a NABS Fast Forward mentor. How do you feel about the industry's approach to nurturing talent?
JA> There are people in our industry who care deeply about talent and we have some excellent programmes to support people – NABS Fast Forward being a particularly good example. However, I think we need to do more, to recognise the biases that we all have in hiring, promoting and building inclusive work environments. Advertising and marketing can be a needlessly exclusive club and it would be far richer for opening up the doors.
LBB> What's the 101 acquisition been like? I’ve heard Executive Partner Laurence Green is a planner's planner. How closely are you working with those guys?
JA> We’re one team, so very closely. I’ve been very fortunate in the 101 deal because I have gained not only Laurence, but two 101 planners who are extremely talented. There’s a lot to do at MullenLowe, we have big ambitions and we’re already seeing them being realised – so having Laurence as a partner is perfect, I can’t imagine now what it was like before.
LBB> What lesson or piece of advice do you wish you'd had earlier in your career?
JA> To prioritise more. It’s advice I give myself every week. We all do too much stuff that doesn’t matter. I dread to think how much life I’ve compromised by not saying no to the stuff of no consequence.
LBB> Which recent projects are you most proud of?
JA> The work we have done for The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse and ‘The Truth Project.’ It’s the most difficult subject I have worked on and I am proud of the work we have done. The sensitivity and respect with which our whole team have developed a campaign which will help people make a life-changing choice is humbling. It’s testament to both the creativity and humanity of both our agency and the foresightedness of the client team.
LBB> Which aspects of your job are most enjoyable for you?
JA> All of it. I have the best job in the industry.
LBB> We often ask people who their creative heroes are. Do you have strategic heroes?
JA> Of course! And I am very lucky to work with 21 of them. Outside of the agency I am a big fan of Kate Waters at NOW, of Pete Buckley at MEC and of Dan Metcalfe from Wellcome.
LBB> What are your main aims and ambitions for MullenLowe in the year ahead?
JA> To make some great work that has a significant, measurable impact on the people who touch it. For my team, it’s about us all raising our generalist skills. We have an unparalleled combination of media, brand, PR, activation, data and digital transformation strategists in our building working side by side. If we can all learn just 10% of each other’s skills we will be unstoppable.
LBB> What do you like to do in your spare time? Any current obsessions?
JA> I go figure-skating once a week – it’s not possible to think about work when trying to stay upright. And I’m planting a garden from scratch, which is brilliantly daunting.