Welcome to So You Want My Job? where, each week, we ask the people working in some of the industry’s coolest jobs about how they got where they are. And, along the way, we dig into their philosophies, inspirations, processes and experiences. Hopefully, our interviewees can help inspire you to pursue (or create) a job that’s just as exciting.
This week we speak to Rania Robinson, chief executive and partner of ad agency Quiet Storm. Before we jump in, a quick reminder that you can subscribe to our a bi-monthly newsletter (Working it Out), which maps the trends in the wider jobs market.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I remember telling my mum that I wanted to be a hairdresser. She was absolutely horrified. My parents are Egyptian and in Egypt, if you’ve had a certain level of education or come from a certain background, for many parents the only real professions are doctors, teachers, lawyers – more ‘classic’ career paths. My mum is a strict Muslim and my siblings were all very academic, so my hairdressing dreams were shut down pretty quickly. It wasn’t perceived as a profession that could make me money or earn respectable status.
So I just wanted to do something creative. I used to love watching commercials. I could recite them off by heart. My mum would say to me: “If only you could learn your lessons as well as the commercials.” When I moved to the UK, I grew up in Wiltshire, so wasn’t close to the media hub of London. That felt like another world – another universe that wasn’t something I could be a part of. If I’d lived in London and had more creative influences, I probably would’ve had a clearer sense of wanting to be in media and communications.
Does your job now resemble those early dreams in any way?
The creativity aspect and the people aspect, yes. I’m fascinated by people, psychology and behavioural economics – why we do the things we do. Good hairdressers always get you talking and gain a real insight into your life. So in that respect, there are similarities.
How did you get your job?
It wasn’t a conventional path into the industry. I couldn’t wait to leave school. It wasn’t the right environment for me as it didn’t support any of the arts. It was all about women in science and advancing into traditionally ’male’ subjects. Some girls really coveted this opportunity, which is great. It just wasn’t for me. So I spent my school years feeling inadequate and frustrated. It probably didn’t help that my headteacher modelled herself on Margaret Thatcher... These were the only female role models I had any exposure to, which was a bit disastrous really.
After school, I realised that as a secretary you could get into almost any profession – all professions had secretaries. I had moved to London by this point to be in the centre of adland – that was where it was all happening. I knew I wanted to get into music, media or broadcasting, so it was just about getting a foot in the door, networking and grafting hard.
My secretary job was at a music publishing company. I was the worst secretary ever. A lot of Tipp-Ex was used. But I kept the job and six months later got a sales admin role at Virgin Vision, a video distribution company. I liked it fine but was always looking at the marketing department thinking they seemed to be having more fun and doing work that’s much more creative.
I went to a recruitment agency and said I wanted to work in marketing. So I got a job in an agency, my first proper marketing role. At the time, the business was owned by two ex-brand guys. I realised when I got into this agency that this was it – a brilliant creative environment where people come up with vivid, exciting ideas. I would type up the presentations and be so animated and fascinated by the creative and strategy. The problem was the business owners were quite traditional about their hiring strategy – they wanted you to have a degree and three years’ experience in the industry to become an account manager. Therefore, to progress would be challenging. Luckily for me there was a director there who also hadn’t been to university; he gave me lots of opportunities because he could see how hungry I was.
I moved on in order to be taken seriously, as there was always resistance that I hadn’t followed the conventional path. But if it hadn’t been for that open-minded director, I wouldn’t have got those opportunities. I was always good at identifying opportunities. I could see the people who could help me so I made myself invaluable to them. They became mentors and advocates.
I struggled to find an agency I really liked. I hadn’t realised the extent to which the culture and the opportunities and exposure I was getting in fledgeling, independent businesses, was not universal. I was working with directors and owners with few people in between.
Having my children was a big factor in the direction I took. I decided to freelance in order to balance work and motherhood. It gave me an opportunity to experience different workplace cultures. That made me realise how hard it is to find a really good agency – and that bigger isn’t always better. You’re a little cog in a big machine. I was not designed for these more corporate organisations. That set an imprint for me about what agencies I like and what I don’t. That’s when I knew I didn’t want to be part of big global agency.
And that brings us to my freelancing for Quiet Storm. Trevor Robinson and I had always said we’d never work together. But I said I’d help out on one pitch. We won it so I said I’d stay and bed it in. I never left. It helps that we’re married because we share the same values and a clear vision. Coming here gave me a real rounded knowledge of all aspects of running a successful principled creative agency. It wasn’t how I planned things, which is probably quite fitting in terms of my whole career path. I’ve always been quite instinctive and done what’s felt right in that moment.
Do your parents understand what it is that you do?
Yes. It’s easy to explain what we do because we say: “See that Haribo ad on telly? That’s what we do.” Everyone can relate to advertising and marketing because we all experience it every single day. There’s something so exciting and exhilarating about seeing your work out in the world. That real sense of pride when you’ve worked on something and you go to the supermarket or put your telly on and see what you’ve created. I think my mum appreciates that.
What do you love most about your job?
The people and the creative ideas. I love gaining insight into human behaviour and nature; trying to get to the bottom of a problem and getting answers. I’ve been doing this for 28 years and I still get as excited about waiting to hear a response on a brief, or hearing a brilliant idea, as I did in the early days of my career. I’ve never got bored of that.
I don’t particularly like people management, but I love getting under the skin of what motivates them, and how you can inspire them. It’s really powerful, which is why it’s so important we do positive impactful work with it.
How would someone entering the industry go about getting your job? What would be their route?
These days, there aren’t as many entry-level admin roles, so people use their degree or university’s ranking to try to get shortlisted. Networking and contacts are relied heavily upon.
I’m fine with this as long as it’s not purely nepotistic as that reduces the possibility of choosing from a broad range of candidates from diverse backgrounds with varying perspectives. Because of how competitive the job market is, you need to look at what makes you distinctive as an individual and hone those qualities so that you stand out from the crowd. Don’t be afraid to get in touch with people.
From a chief executive officer perspective, it’s all about seeing the bigger picture. You need vision and to have a strong sense of culture and sense of self. What do you want to stand for? What do you want your organisation to be? Some businesses are all about growth and turnover. I think you’ve got to learn to be comfortable about what your priorities are as a business leader because that permeates through your business. I judge the work we do on whether we’re creating the best work we can, whether our client relationships are a strong as they can be, and whether we have happy, motivated staff.
What advice would you offer to others entering the advertising industry, especially at this weird time?
As a business, it’s really important to stand for something – and then live out those values. When looking to enter the advertising industry, think about what you can bring to a business that is specific to you. That could be your upbringing, life experiences or personality. There are going to be a thousand other people who have excelled academically or share your qualifications. What is so distinctive about you as an individual that’s shaped who you are? I came to the country when I was very young and spoke no English. That’s had a massive impact on my view of how to engage and empathise. It’s those young life experiences that made me so fascinated by communication, which has gone on to be such an important factor in my career.
I’d also advise doing something to get noticed, that is relevant to our industry. Be as creative as you like. It shows drive and initiative and that will impress potential employers.
What would you say is the trait that makes you most suitable for your role?
Resilience is without doubt the single most important trait. It feels like it’s been tough since the day I started running the business. Referendums, Brexit, recession, Covid, technology, change in consumer behaviour – there’s always something that will disrupt business. This industry has gone through so much change and margins continue to be squeezed. It’s massively competitive so you do need to be really resilient. And have faith. You wouldn’t do it otherwise.
Who should those who want your job be reading or listening to?
We’re in the job of persuasion. You can’t persuade people if you don’t understand how they think. It plays into every single aspect of our role. Some of my worst decisions have been because of my impulsive brain – overthinking and being reactive, without taking time to reflect.
I’d recommend work by Daniel Kahneman – he talks about rational versus emotional decision making. Daniel Pink, a behavioural economist. Susan Pinker. Angela Duckworth’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Steve Peters’s The Chimp Paradox – a great book for someone if you’re in your head a lot as he explores how your primitive brain works.