'Often a bridesmaid, never a bride': celebrating adland's unsung heroes

Ironically popularised for an ad campaign in the 1920s, ‘Often a bridesmaid, never a bride’ still rings true in many agencies today. In an industry where the creative director has long been the centre of attention, who are the people in the shadows propping them up?

From production and project management who ‘oil the wheels’ to human resources and talent management who offer ‘invaluable advice,’ the makeup of a successful creative agency is much like a game of Jenga where, without just one component, the whole thing can come crashing down.

Rapp executive creative director Jason Andrews is happy to admit that his role rests on the hard work of others. “They lay all the groundwork for people like me to come in and do all the ta-da stuff,” he laughs, adding that it is their unseen work behind the scenes that enables the business (“and, let’s be honest, people like me”) to take all the glory.

Here we cast an unfamiliar spotlight upon some of the industry’s unsung heroes, finding out about the role they play in keeping our agencies going.

The Production Manager

Glen McLeod, senior creative producer, Grey London 

Always varied, production managers ‘keep the agency blood pumping’ from organising photography shoots to overseeing design, artwork and retouching processes. The crux of the role, according to Grey London’s Glen McLeod, is coming up with production solutions that help creatives realise their vision on time and on budget.

And then there’s project managers, and WCRS executive creative director Ross Neil recalls a brief period the agency was forced to function without one – “and boy did we feel it”.

“Without project management the agency machine seized up and it became enormously apparent just how integral they are.”

With a career spanning both project and production management roles at Mother, Grey and Anomaly before landing at WCRS, operations director Fey Daly (main image), knows first-hand the difference good project management can make, with “energy and enthusiasm” key to surviving the hectic day-to-day. “The role is both pro-active and reactive and therefore so is my day,” she says.

“One mark of a good project manager is that they are rarely at their desk,” adds Mark Coldham, managing partner at Krow. “The heartbeat of the agency,” Coldham jokes, the role may sound relatively simple but there is so much more to it.

“The real challenge, and much more of a necessity these days, is how can we produce better work, quicker and cheaper. This shouldn’t be seen as an obstacle, but as a stepping-stone to change the way we think and the way in which we produce work,” he explains. “It’s about finding a way round a problem and never saying no.”

And with over 10 years at FCB Inferno, operations director Trudy Hardingham has seen her fair share of challenges, likening project management at times to “herding cats, pushing water uphill and putting the moon on a stick”.

“We’ve always had the challenge of not having enough hours in the day, constantly juggling several clients, projects and numerous deadlines and sometimes this can be overlooked.”

The Finance Officer

At any creative agency it’s often the role of the finance department to strike a balance between creativity and commerciality. When the rest of the team are swept up in an idea, the finance team has their eyes firmly on the price tag negotiating fees and contracts as well as preparing detailed reports, budgets and forecasts.

Trained for a career in finance from the tender age of 14 when she received 98 per cent for her first accounting exam, CP+B chief financial officer Mez Corfield comments: “If the account people are the ‘yes men’, I am the ‘no man’.

“But I’m not a penny pincher who enjoys saying ‘no’. I’m here to do everything I can to make the agency the best it can be. My goal is to make the business a financial success so that we can all reap the rewards… We all want bigger and better opportunities, and we need a good plan to achieve that – and sometimes that means saying no now, so that we can say ‘yes’ in the future.”

From working directly with clients and suppliers to other departments within CP+B, Corfield believes building a rapport with others has been key to ensuring her opinion is valued and respected and it seems the agency’s chief executive officer, Richard Pinder, agrees.

“From partnering with clients, and particularly procurement, asking important questions on key projects to make sure we focus on the right things, Mez does all this and more.”

The Creative Producer

Gary Wallis, head of creative production, MullenLowe London 

Celebrating 25 years at MullenLowe London is another unsung hero of the business, head of creative production Gary Wallis, whose extensive knowledge of illustrators, photographers and designers plays a vital role in supporting the agency’s creative team from brief to finished product.

Rising up through the ranks of print production, Wallis sees himself as a frustrated art director. “I don’t have the strong ideas to be a creative,” he says, “but I do know how to make them and add another dimension.” Working closely with MullenLowe’s creative talent Wallis’ work has helped bring countless ideas to life over the years for clients including Stella Artois, Olympus and Coca-Cola to name but a few.

“Art buying is a 20th century title. It’s only about 50 per cent of what a creative producer does in the 21st century,” he adds. “We work across all channels producing still and moving content, inspiring creatives with new talent in all fields of production.”

Wallis is the “third creative,” according to Rich Denney, the agency’s executive creative director. “He ‘gets’ ideas and how to execute them. He’s passionate about the product, both for clients and agency, and cares deeply about the end product. He knows a diamond when he sees one and certainly knows how to make it sparkle.”

Over at Grey London, the agency replaced the role of project manager with that of creative producer – a move managing director Natalie Graeme says has made the department “integral to the quality and diversity of our output”.

“While ideas and creativity are the lifeblood of our industry, actually making these ideas happen often goes unsung and it’s the skill and vision of our creative producers that makes what we do possible.”

The HR Manager

Cathy Little, management partner and director of talent, J. Walter Thompson London 

Talent acquisition and human resources both play a vitally important role in the workings of an agency. As the industry increasingly competes for the best people it’s up to human resources to create positive cultures and retain staff.

Treading a fine line between representing staff and being a key part of management, HR personnel’s daily trails include covering learning and development, hiring and all people issues such as coaching, mentoring and advising line managers on the running of their departments.

Russell Ramsey, executive creative director at J Walter Thompson London, champions his HR department for providing invaluable advice on all things from “recruitment and training to how to handle tricky situations.”

At JWT, Cathy Little, co-director of talent, is that voice of reason, managing a team of six. “Much of what we do is hidden from view and because HR can be seen as ‘unsexy’ it is often glossed over,” explains Little. “Adland is full of people who love creativity and a bit of glamour and fun. What we do is by necessity; the trick is to keep the boring stuff away from senior management but show them that you have it all under control.”

The New Business Director

As clients come and go, new business plays a major role in keeping agencies afloat, with Chris Freeland, chief executive of Rapp, warning that any company without a “keen eye” on new business is simply “resting on their laurels.”

Being the face of new business is no easy task, from picking up the phone to clients to building presentations for pitches to responding to requests for information. At Rapp it’s vice president of business development Alison Clark who thrives on the “short term pressured nature” of the role.

“One of the biggest challenges is working out which clients are really serious about wanting a new agency and then whether those clients are the right fit. Agencies can find themselves chasing anything and everything and not completing anything well.

“We have to be really selective and rigorous about how we commit to new business, because it can be a big drain on resources for no benefit.”

When it comes to new business, a new lead can be invaluable to everyone in an agency. “The excitement and energy it can bring to a pitch is a necessity,” says Freeland, “and when you notice that behaviour mirrored throughout the agency, that’s when you realise the unsung hero in new business.”

This summer The Drum is looking to uncover some of other Unsung Heroes within the marketing community - but this time it will be looking for businesses that the industry has yet to truly discover and celebrate. To put forward your Hidden Gems within the marketing community contact hiddengems@thedrum.com and explain why the proposed company deserves more recognition than it currently receives.

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