Girl Guides: OgilvyOne’s EMEA chief, Annette King, on the highs and lows of a job at the top

X Factor star Annette King, CEO of EMEA for WPP’s OgilvyOne tells Jessica Davies about the highs and lows of a job at the top as part of our Girl Guides series – where leading women in digital talk about their careers as a way of inspiring younger women to follow in their footsteps.

It probably comes as a big surprise to learn that award-winning agency OgilvyOne’s chief for Europe, the Middle East and Africa – Annette King – is an X Factor star. But she is.

Just not perhaps in the most widely-known sense of the term. She is not a star of Simon Cowell’s music competition TV franchise X Factor that seems to secure endless reboots on ITV. Better than that, she is a star of WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell’s X Factor senior management mentoring and development scheme for female executives, led by former WPP-owned Ogilvy & Mather global chief Charlotte Beers.

This programme, which has been running since 2008, selects a dozen senior women at a time from across the WPP group, and for two three-day stints they thrash out how to become better, more efficient and more confident leaders.

King completed the course five years ago when she was first appointed London CEO of OgilvyOne, and what she learned has since helped shape her approach, leading to her promotion four years later to CEO for EMEA. She describes Beers as a “great leader and icon” – a successful businesswoman at a time when the male-to-female split was far vaster in the advertising world.

“The aim of the programme was to understand our inner X factor and what made us tick as people, enabling us to be decisive about the kind of leaders we wanted and could be. It was a very closed, private environment,” says King.

At the end of the course each had a one-to-one talk with Beers, who doled out her advice on how they could improve or what they needed to do to fulfil their potential, even if it meant moving to another job.

“She said to me in her Texan accent: ‘darling you’re going to be fine, all you need to do is to learn to move like honey’. I knew exactly what she meant and that – call it a guiding principle – has played in my head every day since,” she says.

Taking the helm of a massive agency like OgilvyOne at a time when the global economy had just collapsed was a challenging feat, and one which King feels she weathered well because of the support and guidance of both the X Factor course and the coach that was assigned to her when she became CEO, both of which helped shape the leader she is today, making her both “more effective and confident”.

Under King’s smart, dynamic leadership OgilvyOne has won numerous awards at Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity and picked up a host of new clients. Yet it was an existing client that set King and the agency the most challenging task it has faced to date, and one which has set the bar high for the future.

Pitching and of course repitching for clients is bread and butter for agencies, but it’s less common for one to literally reinvent itself to meet a brief – for an existing client at that. But this is what OgilvyOne did for British Airways last year, the outcome of which changed the face of the agency and established it as a major digital contender in a space dominated by hugely successful agencies such as AKQA and SapientNitro.

At the time BA was undergoing its own internal changes, the result of which saw it consolidate two sides of its business and assign one agency to handle its ‘creative technology’ strategy across the lot. OgilvyOne already managed its loyalty business globally, but the winner of the new brief would need to cover a much broader gamut of skills and capabilities, which King believes no existing agency could demonstrate.

Its solution was to create an entirely new, virtual agency, which it named the 12th Floor. “We had worked with BA for years and they knew us, but to choose us as their creative tech partner we had to show them another side of OgilvyOne and that was the whole theme of our pitch.

“They knew we didn’t actually have a 12th floor in the building and that we were inventing a new agency model called the 12th floor for them. It was a way of showing that no agency in town could do everything they needed in the standard they wanted it done at the time,” she says.

The concept was therefore centred on collaborating with and harnessing the talents of external digital start-ups to meet the ever-changing needs of clients like BA.

“That was probably the most important part of the pitch process – when we realised we needed to collaborate with partners to create the best possible team. That was quite a radical change,” she adds.

The team “poured its heart and soul” into the pitch for four months, even creating a bespoke avatar version of King, which appeared in both the initial and final pitches – the latter in real time. “I had to stand in a very hot, velcro suit and a wired hat for three hours straight while the final meeting took place. At the end they invited me into the room, and when I padded in in bare feet and this costume all 12 BA clients in the room laughed their heads off, which is a great way to end a pitch even if you have to make a bit of a fool of yourself in the process.”

King cites winning this particular pitch as a “truly magical” moment and one of her proudest achievements. “When we got that call saying we had won the pitch there was a single moment where I didn’t know what to do with myself. It was a mix of joy, relief, a sense of achievement, pride and pure, utter jubilation, we had just put so much into it.”

She believes it is “critical” for agencies to look outside themselves to the talents of digital start-ups and collaborate if they are to stay ahead of the curve, inspire their clients and help them stay current.

“If you don’t look outside your agency for inspiration, knowledge and help you’re missing a trick, because there is a new business starting in Silicon Roundabout every day that we don’t even know about yet. No company can do it alone and expect to reap the opportunities that are out there, and they are really limitless,” she adds.

And finally, what advice would King give young women following in her footsteps? “If you’re starting out in your career make sure you choose where you work, not the other way around,” she advises.

“Think of the values you want the company you work for to have and its reputation. If you go somewhere you don’t like and that doesn’t fit your personality or your aspirations it’s your job to go and find another job. You choose where you work, it doesn’t choose you.”

This interview featured in the 13 September issue of The Drum, continuing the Girl Guides series that aims to highlight the lack of female recruits in the digital market and the fact that the industry is only getting access to half the talent base.

In a previous issue, The Drum spoke to Martha Lane Fox about her vision for the future of the digital economy and the advice she would give to young women who may be considering following in her footsteps. Read her interview here.

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