From agency CEO to Facebook intern: what starting again taught me about creativity

Lucy Jameson, former chief executive of Grey London

One year ago, I resigned from my job as chief executive of Grey London. After six months of gardening leave, I still had another six months of restrictions to serve before my partners and I could set up our company. I decided to use this adult gap year to learn more about different businesses.

Coffee with an old colleague, Ian Crocombe who's now regional head of Facebook’s Creative Shop, led to an ‘expert internship’ at Facebook. Neither of us were quite sure what it meant. But it seemed like a good experiment. So, in I went, channeling Robert de Niro in ‘The Intern’.

I was never a CEO from the school of daily blowdries before work, fresh flowers at my desk and lunches at The Ivy, so personally I didn’t find making the shift to an intern that challenging.

I’ve always been more motivated by learning new stuff than by status, so having none didn’t bother me. I found it fascinating to observe the difference between how people react to you when they think you’re just a random intern vs when they know you’re CEO of a 500 person company. You can get a far better feel for what’s really going on, when no one’s bothering to impress you. And, if you want to make a mark, you just have to find a different source of authority – like having a useful point of view, instead of having a big title.

Anyway, many creatives in our industry belittle Facebook for its limitations - no sound, no time, no space. But, getting immersed in their products I realised there are more opportunities for creativity - from live to chat to 360 video and Instagram.

I know more about what makes thumb-stopping, feed-worthy advertising. I have a better understanding of the intricacies of targeting, exactly how the auction works and I can even tell you what deferred deep linking is.

It was a booming wake up call that big agencies – even the most progressive like Grey - aren’t keeping up. They don’t know enough about the latest developments on the big platforms, let alone keep abreast of the thousands of small adtech/martech startups out there.

Agencies claim they have different cultures but actually most of them feel largely the same. Facebook felt genuinely different. Engineers, not creatives, drive the culture. Creatives at Facebook have to fend for themselves, deal with clients directly, manage their time efficiently – no suits, no producers, no bag carriers. It’s incredibly lean. They get in, do their work and get out again.

I found it fascinating that at Facebook, creatives and engineers bonded over a ‘hack for good’ for a brilliant charity called refugeesathome.org rather than over a pint in the pub. While the culture felt a little mechanical, it’s clearly a haven for people who still want to do good work, but aren’t interested in building their entire life around agency life. It was a salutary reminder that there are many more ways to build a powerful culture than our industry thinks about.

Finally, I couldn’t help but look jealously at their dominant role in the startup world. Along with Google, they have taken on the mantle of educating a new generation of entrepreneurs and marketers about advertising and marketing. I think they may be overstating their role in driving growth and over-reaching in terms of their ability to drive brand as well as performance marketing, but they are preaching where agencies are largely absent.

They’ve also created a whole ecosystem of other companies - again largely startups - around their platform who can crowdsource imagery, design, branding and so on, allowing small businesses to entirely bypass the ad industry. Surely, the IPA or The Ad Association should be doing more outreach like this?

Anyway, Facebook was just one of several different experiences I’ve had this year which have forced me to learn completely new stuff and re-examine our industry. Although I’d never have asked for it, my gap year has been brilliant. Our industry would be far better if more people could take time out from it.

Lucy Jameson is the former chief executive officer of Grey London.

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