Karmarama executive chairman Nicola Mendelsohn has just been appointed Facebook's vice president for EMEA. As she packs her bags Jason Stone catches up with her to look back over her career and find out which film clips she would take if she was headed for a desert island instead.
If we were to create an American high school yearbook of the Desert Island Clips interviewees then the caption below the photo of Karmarama’s executive chairman Nicola Mendelsohn would surely read ‘Most likely to be running the country one day...’ Her combination of fierce ambition and relaxed charm is precisely what’s needed to make it in politics these days, and if she has any aspirations to step into that realm I suspect she’d be scarily good at it.
And she is someone who likes to keep busy. In addition to her role as executive chairman at Karmarama, she has just finished a two-year stint as president of the IPA and has been chosen to chair the Creative Industries Council. She thrives on having a full plate and is clearly someone who gets itchy whenever she isn’t completely overloaded.
Before we sit down to chat about her favourite pieces of work, Mendelsohn shows me around Karmarama’s impressive Farringdon headquarters. She’s clearly proud and has every right to be. The company’s star is rising and there’s little doubt that Mendelsohn deserves much of the credit for the steepness of its upward curve.
Unlike many people who work in advertising, Mendelsohn had no background in the business before securing her first berth. Her only experience of commercials before joining BBH was as a punter and she feels, at one level, that she still is, explaining: “I can remember all the jingles from my youth – finger of Fudge, Um-Bongo, for mash get Smash, all of those. But I wouldn’t say I was somebody who studied the art and the craft. I wasn’t obsessed with ads. I enjoyed them as a consumer and that’s stayed with me.”
After studying English and Theatre at Leeds University and having secured a place at drama school, Mendelsohn planned to become an actress. On hearing how much fun a friend was having at JWT however, she decided to see if she could win a place on a graduate training scheme at an advertising agency.
Levi’s – Swimmer
BBH was one of a number of agencies to offer Mendelsohn an interview when she was looking for a graduate training scheme, and it was partly because of the agency’s commercials for Levi’s that it became her number one choice. ‘Swimmer’ came along during her time at BBH and she remembers the excitement within the agency when it was first broadcast: “It sums up the magic of what advertising can do. It captured the public’s imagination and it broke new ground. And fundamentally, there was this fantastic product story at the heart of the campaign – whether it was the rivets or the strength or the washability. And I thought it was just wonderful.“I didn’t think advertising could be any better than that, and for me to have worked at the agency that created the Levi’s campaign was just fabulous.”
Aliens – Ripley Kicks Ass
“Alien blew me away. In part it was because I’d never seen a woman portrayed like that in the movies before. Everything that Hollywood had taught me about the way women should be perceived – the home-maker, the beauty – was smashed apart by Sigourney Weaver.“It looked like she had no make-up – of course she did really but it looked like she didn’t. She looked butch, she had short hair, and she was the powerful lead of the film. It was the trailblazer for all the films with strong female leads that came after it.“And it’s interesting that it came from an ex-ad guy, Ridley Scott. He broke new ground with that movie. I think there was a point where it was going to be a man in the lead role but they had the bravery to say ‘no, let’s make this with a woman’.”
Boddingtons – Cornetto
“I grew up in Manchester and I used to pass the Boddingtons brewery every day on the bus to school, but I didn’t really think about it. It didn’t resonate with me. It was something old blokes drank. But then I came to London and worked at BBH and they did the Boddingtons campaign. And I loved the fact that it was a celebration of Manchester. The ‘Cornetto’ execution was actually done on the Manchester Ship Canal – the least glamorous venue you could imagine.”Mendelsohn loves its playfulness: “The consumer is lulled into thinking that they know what it’s about so it’s great fun when you get to the reveal at the end.”
The Godfather – Wedding Scene
“I met my husband because of The Godfather. We were both involved in student politics and he lent me his copy of the book – which I hadn’t read – and I remember re-watching the film with him and since then we’ve become slightly obsessed with it. I must have seen it 30 or 40 times. For me, the thing that’s really interesting is that so much of business and politics can be found in it. And it’s about the importance of family life; it’s about how you treat people. The organisational structures within it are quite extraordinary.”To read the full interview with Nicola Mendelsohn see the print edition of The Drum magazine on Friday 10 May. To subscribe to The Drum go to www.thedrum.com/store
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