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Opinion and Insight

Vicki Maguire’s Highly-Functioning Donkey Sanctuary

Grey London’s CCO tells LBB’s Alex Reeves how she’s protecting her creatives so they can help their clients change the world

Vicki Maguire’s Highly-Functioning Donkey Sanctuary

This year was Vicki Maguire’s first at Kinsale Sharks, but its reputation for good craic preceded it. She didn’t think anyone would turn up for her talk at 10:30 on Saturday morning - the last day of the festival. “I passed them all last night, the casualties, falling out of bars. Then I’m thinking, ‘Oh shit, I’m showing Viva La Vulva and it’s full of oysters. Everyone’s been eating oysters for three days - they’re gonna razz!”

Thankfully, nobody vomited in the ballroom of the Actons Hotel ballroom when the Grey London CCO showed AMV BBDO’s joyful proclamation of genital pride and acceptance. Instead, the audience were invigorated right out of their hangovers as Vicki celebrated the good work that other ad agencies are doing to address the world’s most pressing issues (as well as one piece of work from her own agency). Topics ranged from the climate crisis to racism to fake news.

“I’m in my 50s and I’m really surprised that I’m still having to protest this shit,” she says afterwards, profane as always. She reflects on how in the ‘80s she thoroughly enjoyed trying to change the things about the world that she thought were wrong. “You don’t realise how bad things are when you’re in it. I had that wonderful naivety of youth where I could look at something and say ‘that needs to change, what can I do?’” 

Growing up in Leicester as the daughter of market stall traders, Vicki didn’t have a lot of resources available to fight the injustices she saw, but she saw a lot of people around her who felt the same. “On Friday I was rocking against racism, on Saturday I was at some of the first Pride marches, on Sunday we were fighting something else. On Monday I was back to college doing fashion, designing garments I thought l’d never be able to afford.”

It was an all-round environment of indignation that shaped Vicki’s values. She made it work for her. And she attributes a lot of it to the people she worked worked with when she ended up in fashion, including Paul Smith and Vivienne Westwood. “Vivienne’s an amazing woman. She never keeps still. And she doesn’t give a shit. She can say something tomorrow and her empire will fall around her ears and she won’t care because the day after she’ll build another one. A lot of that rubbed off on me.”

She later took that spirit into advertising, but didn’t expect to still feel so outraged this far down the line. “30 odd years later we’re in 2019 and the world is batshit crazy,” she says. And she finds it disappointing how so many brands are reacting. “Big brands are trying to find their way in the world. They think they can hijack purpose. But if consumers don’t feel it they won’t engage with it and they won’t buy it. Some of the worst purpose work comes from people that just don’t get it.”

Vicki sees it as her job to try and ensure her clients do ‘get it’. She likes to understand what the “cultural ambition” of a brand is: “Why should you exist? Why should I buy you over someone else when it’s not necessarily on price? When you start talking to clients about their cultural ambition they reframe how they start to see their brand in a totally different light. They’re under immense pressure because everything they know about their sectors is changing on a daily basis.”

She’s aware that this applies to one of Grey’s clients more sharply than many. With the retailer Marks & Spencer dropping out of the FTSE 100 for the first time this month, the brand is in the process of some soul searching to make it relevant to consumers again. “They’re getting new designers in, looking at everything from their supply chain to the ethics surrounding the suppliers that they use. That is going to take a very long time.”

Many advertising agencies would love to get stuck into this process of a client reevaluating its place in culture, but Vicki suggests they look at their own businesses before they even think about that.

“Sometimes it’s a really good idea, but what right have we? Because we can’t our shit together. We’re not paying our women properly. We haven’t got our gender balance right. We’re one of the least diverse industries in the world. Why should we roll into clients and tell them we’ve got the answers? How can four white men in Saville Row suits walk into a client and tell them that they’ve got their finger on the pulse of culture?”

To be in touch with what people are thinking, an agency needs to hire the people who can legitimately represent consumers. “We’re hiring talent from diverse backgrounds, but there are very few agencies that can accommodate, welcome and understand why bringing people from diverse backgrounds will work,” she says.

Not being a white man in a Saville Row suit, Vicki knows how it feels to feel excluded from an environment. When she first became a creative, she remembers having to travel two or three floors to find another woman to borrow a tampon from. She sat in the office while the posh men played golf. “I didn’t smoke, I didn’t drive, I wasn’t part of the big chats. That can either be really intimidating or you use it and go, ‘fuck you. You go on your golf day. I’m staying back at the agency and I’m going to write something amazing.’”

She remembers one particularly excruciating episode from her early years in advertising: “I did a really cool piece of work and one of my creative directors, who was extremely well-to-do, took me for a very posh meal that probably cost more than I was earning in a month. He handed me the wine list and asked me to choose the wine. It was horrific. The waiter came over and I was like, ‘I’m not too sure.’ He said ‘I’ll bring the sommelier’ and I said ‘yeah, we’ll have two bottles of that!’ I’d have been really happy with the money and a Nando’s.”

If Vicki does her job of creative leadership the way she wants to, nobody at her agency will feel like she did at that restaurant. It’s important to her. “Grey, when it’s good, is a highly-functioning donkey sanctuary. I hire people that probably nobody else would hire, give them space that nobody else would and allow for their quirks and idiosyncrasies.

“I’m very protective of their talents because they are more talented than I am. Everyone says ‘surround yourself with people that are better than you’. Serious. There’s some immense talent. I’ll go to battle to protect them, their talent and their ideas.”

In practice that means giving her creatives respect and dignity. She promises not to count heads in the morning or schedule reviews of work too early in the day. “I don’t mind where they do their work, how they do their work, as long as they bring it when I need to see it. I’ve got a deal with the creative department. You bring it and I’ll hopefully allow you to make the best work of your lives.”

The world needs some changing and Vicki is doing her best to the talents of her creatives with the cultural ambitions of her clients to make progress on that. “I want my creatives to hold onto that wonderful feeling of robustness and confidence in their talent -  that when they point themselves at anything they can make a difference.

“I want my clients to feel that they have a role to play in culture, not standing around the sides waiting for culture to come into advertising.”

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