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Girl Guides: ‘Everyone in advertising needs to be braver and rock the boat’ – DigitasLBi group creative director Abi Ellis

“If you went on a date with a guy wearing Google Glass, one thing that you can be sure of is that there wouldn’t be a second date.” So says DigitasLBi group creative director Abi Ellis, who catches up with The Drum’s Jessica Davies as we continue our Girl Guides series championing the industry’s female role models. Here, she shares her thoughts on the importance of bravery when it comes to keeping things fresh, and why it's a good thing that advertising is now less about 'wankery' and more about collaboration.

Pineapple on pizza, awkward lift conversations, headphones that aren’t sound-proofed, East London hipsters and women who overplay the gender issue – just a few of the things that get under the skin of digital agency DigitasLBi’s group creative director Abi Ellis. The biggest sin of all however is to be boring – that’s something no one, least of all marketers, can afford to be.

And yet the marketing industry as a whole is increasingly exhibiting this kind of ennui when it comes to advertising – too often replicating previous successes rather than testing new, bold territories, says Ellis.

This doesn’t necessarily mean jumping on the latest bandwagon, such as wearable tech – which she considers far from socially acceptable: “If you went on a date with a guy wearing Google Glass, one thing you can be sure of is that there wouldn’t be a second date.”

She continues: “But there is a lot of imitation rather than innovation. Of course we are clearly driven by our work being successful, so there are times when we may want to borrow attributes of things that have been a success, and yes we have to be accountable, but there has to be magic involved. You can’t just use pseudoscience – you’ll end up making a monster.

“Everyone in the industry needs to be a bit braver in how we approach projects, clients, everything – to rock the boat a bit more. Of course you can’t be like that all the time, but it’s important to be like that some of the time, and I think everything has got a little bit safe.”

The fact that in the US an average three per cent of creative directors are female is now widely known, yet Ellis dismisses the notion that women can be held back from commanding senior positions in the industry.

“What’s really important for girls and women is not to walk into a situation gender first, but to walk into it talent first, human first – being a kind, gentle and noble person first. If we carry on covering the same old same old, I don’t think that is going to help a girl who is 12 now.

“I’m not blasé to the whole issue of females being under-represented, and I’m not saying I’ve never seen or felt sexism, but the measurement of someone comes down to how they choose to react. My mum used to say to me ‘life’s not fair Abi but it’s what you do to better things for yourself’, so I haven’t felt that being a woman has crippled or hurt me. In fact at times it can be an advantage as it helps you stand out,” she adds.

One reason Ellis feels so passionately about the issue, and has achieved so much in her career, stems from her own family’s experiences. Born the second of two girls, she recounts how her father let slip at her birth that he had hoped for a boy, which was swiftly met with the reply from her mother “you can fuck right off” – a point from which the family has never looked back.

“He transformed into really wanting a son to realising that as girls we could achieve amazing things too and from then on he was like ‘go for it’ and that’s always been his way. My mum was just as bold – she wasn’t your typical stereotype and didn’t wear cardigans and make jam, she dyed her hair blue and wore a cape when she picked me up from school.”

However, Ellis also concedes that the reputation of the traditional advertising industry has not necessarily leant itself to female aspirations, and a lot of that is due to the ever-changing demands of today’s clients. “It takes a lot of bluffer and bravado, and sometimes being a bit of a wanker. I’ve been around creative directors like that who will scrabble and fight to get there. Maybe until now women haven’t had the appetite to be part of it.

“Our clients expect more now, they expect things to be built from data – things that aren’t grounded in bullshit. They want rigour, commercial and business aspects, they want to really be partners. It’s no longer about swanning into a room and saying ‘wait there I’ve got this on the back of a fag packet, it’s nothing really but just imagine the colour red…’ then walking out, reeking of gin and cigars. That won’t cut it.

“Everything now is driven by performance. It takes more work and application and less wankery – and that’s important. To be a creative director now you’re not sat in a closed-off office, feet up, allowing teams to come in and throwing their work off the table with a tick in their ear until they come back with something better. It’s more collaborative.”

Now Ellis represents 50 per cent of one of the most successful creative partnerships in the industry. Although she has been at the agency for four years, her partnership with fellow group creative director Simon Attwater goes back 14 years.

They remain the best of friends despite having, at times, opposing or even conflicting methods and approaches to their work. Ellis admits there have been times when the pair has argued to the extent that “you can imagine the floor covered in blood” but that these battles only produce better work.

“My greatest achievement is to have found my best friend, and someone whose opinion I trust enormously, in this fickle industry. I’m proud of the partnership. His brain is wired so that he can see things with new eyes. He’ll hate this but it’s almost childlike how he looks at things. He doesn’t look at the political landscape and the bullshit around it – he will look at the product, he aims for perfection in a way where he won’t be swayed, which isn’t always popular, but you need that kind of bravery.

“In contrast, I obviously think I listen more – which is a lie, because I can run away with myself – but I can see the nuances more and love the strategic side of things. We consult each other on all our projects now.”

It is Attwater she refers to when asked what her favourite piece of work looks like. She picks the Northern Lights campaign he led for Sony as a piece of creative which, despite seeing it countless times, will induce her to “ride the lift” at work in order to watch it one more time. “I love that – the whole notion was about capturing the sound of the northern lights – and I remember he had been thinking about it over the weekend and had talked about it with his son. And he brought a picture in with highlighter pen all over it. And from that scrap of paper grew this beautiful piece of work that went live and was a big success – all from such a simple idea. And I ride the lift for it.”

This feature was first published in The Drum's 6 August issue.

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