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Deirdre McGlashan

Girl Guides: MediaCom’s Deirdre McGlashan on dropping 'digital' and why young women shouldn't be scared of the tech industry

Deirdre McGlashan

MediaCom’s global chief digital officer Deirdre McGlashan is on a mission to eliminate her job title. As part of The Drum’s ongoing Girl Guides series she talks to Jessica Davies about why, and shares her thoughts on why young women shouldn’t be intimidated when it comes to entering the tech industry.

“My job is to eliminate my job.” That’s both the personal and professional goal of MediaCom’s global chief digital officer Deirdre McGlashan, and she won’t rest until she has nailed it.

Sitting comfortably at the London headquarters of the Group M agency in a pair of killer Dutch-designer heels, McGlashan speaks heatedly about one of her biggest pet hates – the word “digital”.

“My biggest bugbear is when people use digital as a catch-all, either as a catch-all for ‘they don’t do it’ or because they think ‘you’re digital, therefore you must do everything’.

“When people say they need a digital person in their team, I ask them to explain what they mean, but without using that word – then I can figure out what they need, and it might be that they need a strategist, or a media planner or trading person, or an account manager with digital skills – but I won’t know that if they keep telling me they need a digital person,” she says.

After speaking fervently about this our conversation naturally turns to the seemingly sticky issue of her own job title. But she immediately reveals that culling her own job title is her number one priority at the agency and stresses that digital should be defined as a mindset – not a medium.

“When people ask me what my goal is I tell them I’ve come here [MediaCom] to eliminate my title. Then I can fix the next problem. It won’t necessarily happen quickly but it’s the goal everyone has in mind because that’s when digital will truly be powerful – when it’s not still being seen as an add-on; when interactivity, use of data and technology is pervasive in the whole communications system.”

Although much of her career has been spent media and creative agency side, McGlashan cut her teeth in the technology arena, where she project-managed multimillion dollar online projects at a time when broadband didn’t yet exist. She describes how she “fell in” to technology when jobs were scarce, temping as a receptionist for a multimedia software firm in San Francisco, at a time when CD-Roms were still regarded as cutting edge. It was here that her interest in technology was kindled, and it is this earlier part of her career that she turns to when recounting some of her biggest career challenges.

Agencies are no strangers to pulling all-nighters when faced with quick client brief turnarounds, and it was no different in 2000. McGlashan laughingly recalls a particularly high-pressured project which needed urgent attention, and prompted her to courier toothbrushes, toothpaste and vitamin C tablets to the office for her team at 2am.

For some projects she was required to be ‘on-call’ – willing to drop everything at the drop of a hat if a system went down and she had to fix it.

“My husband had to live with me sleeping with my phone under the pillow for a year. It may have been the toughest year of my life – but we got there. It was ultimately a great success, but there was a time when it felt like we were holding it all together with spit, tape and hope,” she laughs.

Having a husband who also has a technology background and therefore “also speaks geek” helps, she quips. However, she adds that companies should be more flexible when it comes to helping men and women maintain work-life balance, especially if they have families.

International travel is a big part of her role – in the three weeks prior to our meeting she has travelled to four continents, though she stresses this is unusual. “I was in Beijing for two days, Mexico City for two days, London for 30 hours, and New York for 18 hours, then Düsseldorf and also Cologne for three days, before heading back to New York.”

“It’s important to find healthy outlets for frustrations and so I try and ensure I train every day. I always take my running shoes with me when I travel, which means I can get up early and see the city, and it frees up time to think, which is often when the best ideas come.”

More could be done to encourage young girls to move into tech roles, and the toy industry will play a major part in this, according to McGlashan.

She cites research which shows girls lose interest in maths and science around the age of 12, and that toys designed to teach coding and draw in both genders must become prevalent for this to be rectified. “Coding is a language and everyone should be bilingual… my nieces have a dolls house which is all circuits – you build the house but all the components are mechanical and electrical. Toys are really important as it can start them along those roads from a younger age.”

Budding young females shouldn’t be intimidated by the world of tech, she says. “My personal motto is ‘how hard can it be?’ The answer is really frickin’ hard,” she laughs, “but the main thing I’d advise is to not be scared”.

And this is a philosophy McGlashan evidently follows. She references a time when she was with her former team in a minivan in China on their way to a big pitch where they would have to present in their second language. She could tell they were nervous.

“I know how hard it can be to present in your second language, and so I said ‘Look, here’s the deal. I know how unconfident you feel and that you feel you’re memorising everything rather than simply being able to express it, so just forget about that, because I’m not going to fire you, and they can’t physically hurt you, so how bad can it be?’”

This feature was first published in the 18 February issue of The Drum.