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5 minutes with...

5 Minutes with… Amanda Farmer

The managing director of the newly-minted VMLY&R London on the radical change, the future of agency brands and why health and wellness is so important

5 Minutes with… Amanda Farmer

A couple of weeks ago, Amanda Farmer found herself swept up in a huge industry story that had tongues wagging across the world. WPP agencies VML and Y&R were to be merged – and Amanda went from heading up rising star VML’s London offering to becoming MD of the newly combined super-agency.

But Amanda isn’t the sort of person to let anything phase her for long. She’s motivated, proactive and fizzing with energy – let’s just say you won’t need any extra caffeine to wake you up during a breakfast meeting with her. There’s an inner dynamo driving Amanda, and that hand-up, lean-in attitude has informed her career ever since she was an impatient schoolgirl desperate to get into the big wide world and follow her passions.

LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Amanda for her first interview following the merger to find out how she’s approaching this new challenge and to get to know what really drives her.

LBB> So let’s get to the big news - what was your initial reaction when you found out about the creation of VMLY&R and your expanded role?

Amanda> I suppose my initial reaction was excitement. I’m a very glass half full, positive person. I always jump in.  It made a lot of sense – for the past 20 years we’ve been close as agencies and have collaborated on clients. There’s lots of warmth in that.

From a personal point of view, you think, ‘what does this mean for me’. There’s been lots of change. But I think I’m quite adaptable to change and I always have been. It’s one of my key strengths – I roll with things and drive things forward and that’s been a constant throughout my whole career.  

That’s from the basics of being an account director working on a client and getting a phone call from the CEO saying things have moved up three months. I’m used to being on the end of many different changes. So, I’m excited and I’m just focused on our clients, the agency and the work. 

LBB> And how’s the rest of the team bearing up?
 
Amanda> It’s been awesome to partner with Harsh [Kapadia, executive creative director], a creative superstar, and to be part of the team that Jon [Sharpe, European CEO] has assembled – including the fab Sophie Lewis who joined this week [as chief strategy officer]. I am super excited for what’s to come.

LBB> On a practical level, what were the initial steps to bring the two teams together?

Amanda> The first thing we did was to initiate an office move. We brought the whole company together on the Wednesday and [chairman] Mark Roalfe addressed the company, [Europe chief executive] Jon Sharpe addressed the company. We talked about the coming together and what it meant – and celebrated both of our amazing agencies. 

That night we did an office move. We’ve always been in the same building but on different floors. We all moved onto the same floor and every single person moved desks. It signified a new start. And we pulled off the seemingly impossible – most people take months to plan an office move and we did it in one night. So now I’m like: “oh well if we can do an office move in one night, nothing’s impossible”. 

You cannot make everything happen, but you can give it a damned good go – and within our network I think you can do the impossible. We’re the most networked network I’ve ever been part of – not just in terms of VML but Y&R and the reach we’ve now got. I’ve never worked somewhere where I’ve been able to pull it off quite so easily quite so frequently.

LBB> The coming together of VML and Y&R is part of a trend we’re seeing across the industry. At holding companies, do you think these agency brands are still valuable and what do you think the future is for them?

Amanda> That’s a really interesting question and very topical. I like to look at these things by standing in different shoes. If I think about it from a client’s perspective – in my game I stand in my client’s shoes more than my own! – I want access to the best talent to drive the best creative solutions ultimately. When you’re engaged at a holding company level as a client, agency brands can become less important. You want your own team that you’ve cherry picked from across agencies to solve your biggest problems. 

From an agency brand point of view, and as someone who works in an agency, I think it’s a difficult question to be honest. Things are changing rapidly at the moment. I think there is a huge value. There's fact that we don’t have a new name. I think it’s actually important that we keep our identity and our history. Y&R is one of the most iconic advertising agencies – it’s over 90 years old. VML has a newness and ability to take on clients’ problems and solve them. The journey that we’ve been on – I wouldn’t want to lose that.

LBB> We’ve been seeing the rise of VML in terms of its creative reputation recently, on top of that digital background. What do you think is behind that momentum?

Amanda> There are three things. First of all, there’s the people and the culture. Jon Cook has been with VML for 24 years and if you look at our global leadership team most of them have been around for so many years. You’ve got this incredible team that’s grown through the agency together and they’ve got this tight-knit bond. They’ve set the culture and the Missouri thing of being nice people to do business with absolutely permeates the entire network. 

The second thing is around is being our clients’ most important partner, whether we’re the digital agency or the lead agency or social media agency. Whatever seat we sit at, we want to be that partner to our clients that whenever they’ve got a problem they know they can turn to us and we’ll help them through it.

And I guess the third thing is that we really own our clients’ problems. We have that tenacity and love for what we do to make a different. 

LBB> And I’ve heard from a couple of long term VML-ers that they’ve managed to foster quite a community between the offices. That’s quite unusual – how do you manage that?

Amanda> One of the reasons that we have a lot of people from other offices isn’t just that London is the central point between Sydney and America. One we have this visa passport initiative and that means if you’re going on holiday and you happen to be going to Japan for two weeks, you can apply for a VMLY&R passport to extend your stay for a week either before or after, you work in the office and we pay your hotel and per diems for that week. So, we have a lot of people coming and going. People who have moved from London but they’re coming back to visit family; someone just came from Singapore to go travelling in Europe. We celebrate that, we make it no quiet fact that anyone can apply for it and we take care of each other, so no one feels like a stranger.

LBB> VML was one of the first to be certified by the 3% movement – how did the agency achieve that and what difference does it make day-to-day?

Amanda> In terms of achieving it, it was an awful lot of work. Ronnie Felder who leads our global HR practice led the charge. There was a lot input from our offices in America and Debbi Vandeven [global CCO] and our global CMO Beth Wade stewarded that process. Just like an application for agency of the year, it took a lot of work.

In terms of how we achieved it, I think VML have always considered ourselves at the beginning of things. We don’t jump on at the tail end of trends. We signed up for Free the Bid. We like to be at the forefront in terms of leading the way. In terms of the difference it makes in our day-to-day, being the first-to is a talking point. 

Diversity and Inclusion is not something that we overlay on projects. It is part of the fabric of our organisation, how we work, how we are structured. I also completely agree with what Jon wrote for LBB, about commitments versus initiatives. I believe in commitments as a constant effort to do better and cultivate an environment of understanding and acceptance.

LBB> Let’s head back a bit. How did you end up in advertising in the first place?

Amanda> It was very deliberate. I count myself very lucky that I never worked a day in my life… I do the thing that I worked out at 16 I was deeply passionate about. 

I left school at 16 to go to college because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I knew I didn’t want to do A-Levels and that I wanted to leave school. I did a GNVQ in business studies. The side bar was that I almost did a midwifery course because my best friend was doing it. My father sat me down and said, “I think you should think this thing through”. And he was right, thank God, because I would not have been here. 

The last section of that course was advertising and the brief was to take a car in the marketplace and pick and audience and rebrand it... I knew I had found the thing that I wanted to do because we had six weeks and we nailed it in two. We were all over it. I was so excited, and it didn’t feel like work. We even created our own radio ad, on my dad’s stereo with a microphone. I loved it. 

At 19, I got my first job. It was at a blue chip IT company. I started as a marketing assistant client side for two years. It was a lot of brochures. I had to proofread translated leaflets about disaster recovery… and I loved it. A brand manager was hired from our team from Ogilvy. He said, ‘are you sure you don’t want to work for an agency?’ – which was probably not what my boss would have wanted him to say! 

LBB> You strike me as quite a motivated kind of person – was that something you had to learn, or have you always been quite driven?

Amanda> I was constantly putting my hand up. I’ve always been like that but there are points in my career when I can see that was perhaps overwhelmed and I hadn’t quite grasped the fullness of the opportunity that was in front of me. When you’re 23, you’re 23 and even though I had been working a long time you can’t always see the wood for the trees. The advice that I give to people freely is that you get out what you put in. I fundamentally believe that. 

LBB> When you’re working with people who are coming into the industry for the first time, what do you look for – how do you spot the people who are going to shine?

Amanda> First of all, I love when new people come into the industry. My favourite day is new starter day. I love it. If they’re green and it’s their first job, I feel a real sense of responsibility towards them and their career. I want to make sure that they’re getting everything they can out of the opportunities that I would have liked to have had at their age. 

It’s 50-50. When I was young, my career was my responsibility to manage. I asked for six-week check-ins and quarterly objective reviews. I’m just that kind of person. A lot of people are like: “I’ll see you in a year at my annual appraisal”. I believe it’s a partnership. It’s my responsibility to give you the opportunity to learn the skills to get that experience, to help you set your objectives and then check in with you. And then what I’m looking for is the entrepreneurialism. That spirit. People who know there’s a process and a flow, but they know it’s a guideline. [I look for people who] pay attention to the world and their clients’ business and are able to pre-empt what’s happening in their clients’ world and how we can adapt quickly to a problem and surround it. 

I think drive and hunger is important. People who really want it stand out really quickly. And the last thing is courage. To show bravery – not in terms of not being afraid to push work but not being afraid to challenge internally and challenge the status quo of the agency. Someone who’s not afraid to raise their hand if they feel there’s something we can do better or something that’s not right. 

LBB> Another interesting pattern in our career is the fact that you’ve been involved in the more techy, digital side of the industry. How did that happen?

Amanda> Technology and digital has always been part of my career. I was lucky, even at Elvis, way back at the beginning of my career they set up a digital agency to handle digital briefs. I was one of the first account handlers to be put on digital briefs and I remember thinking this is an amazing opportunity – I don’t know what this is going to take but I will work it out on the journey. And I absolutely loved it. I never saw digital as a channel, it’s just another medium for communicating a message and just and other format to produce. As an account person it’s just another tool in the armoury. 

LBB> Out of the industry – obviously you’re really passionate about what you do as job. What else drives you? In life, what are your passions?

Amanda> I’m passionate about coffee. Monmouth do the most amazing roasted Colombian beans – I would travel across town for that!

The other thing would be work-life balance and health and wellness. I worked this out a long time ago – but having a child brought it home – but oxygen masks go on first for a reason. If you’re not taking care of yourself in terms of eating right and exercising and doing what you need, then it’s harder to put your best self forward. 

You need to lead by example. From a benefits and perks point of view, we have a holistic package that offers things like massages. I think you need to practise what you preach. In our industry you work hard and, yes, there are late nights - but where someone is sitting at their desk and it’s not really urgent, I will kick them out the office. You need to go home and see your friends, family, watch Netflix. 

LBB> And how do you apply that to your own life?

Amanda> I’m cognisant that I was made an MD when I was pregnant, and I came back. I’m the mother of a toddler and I’ve got a big job. I don’t overly think about it but I’m conscious of the fact that I have a responsibility to set a good example to other women who either don’t have children or want children or don’t know how to have children and work full time. The answer is that it’s not easy, but nothing’s impossible and if it’s worth doing you’ll get it done. On two days a week I get in at 8am and leave at 4pm - and I work like a demon on the train those two days. My daughter doesn’t care how many meetings I’ve had, she just cares where her hot milk is and what story or three we’re going to have tonight. And it’s properly grounding in a good way.
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