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So You Want My Job? Camilla Kemp on her road to the M&C C-suite

Camilla Kemp, CEO of M&C Saatchi, discusses her career to date

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 Camilla Kemp, chief executive officer of M&C Saatchi. Also remember to subscribe to our bi-monthly newsletter, Working it Out, which gathers up the best new marketing vacancies and helps you get interview-sharp.

What did you want to be when you growing up? Does your job now resemble that in any way?

The ardent feminist in me, aged nine, declared I wanted to be a big-shot barrister and to succeed in a traditionally male-dominated role. The fantasist in me dreamed of becoming a popstar, an ambition I clung on to for an awkwardly long time. One I finally let go when I realised I'd rather date the wonderful man who is my now husband than traipse off to an X-Factor audition.

In some ways, perhaps my job now is a bizarre mix of both barrister and singer; part persuader, part performer.

How did you get your job?

There was brutal rejection – first by M&C Saatchi, in the form of a simple “thanks but no thanks” when I applied for their graduate scheme.

I didn't know anyone in the industry, I had no one to give me advice and had no idea how to answer the impossibly clever application forms. I’d tried to sound impossibly clever and funny. And failed.

Lesson number one – don’t try to be something you aren’t.

I had zero relevant work experience to speak of from a random collection of jobs. Corner shop shelf-stacker, pub kitchen food prepper, wedding singer, data entry computer cruncher.

That brings us to lesson number two – don’t under-estimate the value of your life experiences – work out how to sell them.

I was surprised when I landed a place on the JWT graduate scheme. Six of us chosen from about 1,000 applicants. Jammy! That got me a pretty conventional start to my career, using my brain, surrounded by smart, funny, creative, often audacious people. Our work was seen by friends and family saw on the actual telly. There were highs and the lows – like the insanely early starts to catch the 06:55 train to Nottingham each week, carrying giant art bags stuffed with status reports and irresponsible amounts of polyboard to see my first ever client, Boots.

Lesson number three – perseverance matters.

After an intense but wonderful seven years working at then-start-up CHI gave me the chance to learn from some of the very best in the industry. This year’s my tenth year at M&C Saatchi. This makes me feel pretty ancient.

I’m lucky to have worked a whole host of different roles over the years but above all, it’s taught me the importance of putting your hand up when you have a good idea and put your hat in the ring when you see an opportunity to make something better.

Ok, so what do you actually do? How would you explain your job to a taxi driver?

I’m almost a year into my current job and my goal is to create a culture where brilliant people can do their best work, have some fun doing it and be proud of the changes that the work makes in the world.

We listen to people to understand every aspect of their lives, client and consumer. We could be motivating them to stop smoking today or buy another cup of coffee tomorrow. Sounds a bit hocus-pocus-ey, but the transformative power of what we do can feel magical at times.

But what would I say to a taxi driver? Well. Recently a nurse in the hospital asked if we made anything she’d seen. I explained that we sometimes do advertising for the NHS and she spontaneously said – “oh – l love those ’just’ ads. They’re spot on because too many people just dismiss symptoms or put off coming to see us.”

I couldn’t have been prouder to tell her my team were behind that campaign. A happy moment indeed.

Do your parents understand what it is that you do?

Not really, but like most parents they think I’m a genius. They’ve always thought that regardless of the job – even when I was a graduate trainee.

What do you love most about your job?

It’s a cliché, but every day I get to work with really clever, interesting people who challenge and inspire me. And even more importantly, they are kind and genuine.

We’re all about making positive change and we have a fantastic group of people thinking about and solving really complex societal issues like childhood obesity, cancer and gambling regret.

There’s also something incredibly satisfying about applying creativity to a business problem, bringing in different brains and ideas to get to the answer, and then seeing it come to fruition. Whenever a project goes out in the world, everyone feels like it’s a bit of them. It doesn’t matter what role you’ve played – everyone has a sense of shared responsibility for making it as good as it can be.

There’s nothing like that moment when the thing you’ve strategized and agonised over launches, especially when you know that it has the potential to have an impact on people at an individual and community level and even become part of culture. There is real power and responsibility in marketing and advertising. When it’s good, it actually works.

How would someone entering the industry go about getting your job now? What would be their route?

I would advise people to take advantage of the many programmes and activities that agencies have launched to help support talent. For instance, last year we launched Open House which is a free virtual training programme open to anyone and everyone with an interest in breaking into the communications industry.

There aren’t fixed routes in the way that there were 20 years. Increasingly, agencies recognise they need to attract more diverse talent in new ways and anyone who wants to get into the industry should take advantage of as many of these initiatives as possible.

I don’t think it’s essential to have relevant work experience – rather it’s about merchandising your own life experience or jobs you’ve done in other industries. For example, roles in sectors such as retail or hospitality can give you valuable experience in customer service and working as part of a team.

What advice would you offer to others entering the advertising industry, especially at this weird time?

Stay positive, hone your skills and keep an ear to the ground. Read about the industry and understand what types of roles there are and what skills are required.

Speak to recruiters and those who run grad schemes to understand what they look for in candidates and where they are at in the hiring process. Familiarise yourself with some industry leaders to track their progress and have a look at some of the leading agencies in the industry to see which brands they work with, their culture and their capabilities. A lot of this information is easy to find and free to access, and being knowledgeable about where the industry is headed will give you a competitive advantage.

To really elevate yourself have a point of view. Go about your day with childlike wonder and absorb everything. When you’re watching ads on TV or scrolling through Instagram, think about and critique the ideas advertisers are deploying. Ask yourself: “What would I do if I was the marketing director for this brand?” You should constantly be in “receive” mode and displaying curiosity.

What would you say is the trait that best suits you for your role?

I don’t think there’s one trait that defines a good leader, I never thought of myself as a CEO type before I got into the industry. I’m not a natural extrovert.

But I think it’s important to leverage your own strengths and make it work – for me that’s being about being calm and considered, as well as open and transparent whenever possible.

I always aim to be direct and honest when dealing with clients or people in the agency and to be open to hearing feedback from people. Having a leadership role means I need to make big, sometimes tough decisions, every day. I’ve learned that it’s so important to bring people along on the journey with me. The only way to do that is by listening to people and being as transparent as possible about the choices I’m making.

Who should those who want your job read or listen to?

It’s essential not to limit yourself to reading or listening to one particular thing. Look at multiple news sources, and gather different perspectives from different places, whether that’s documentaries, podcasts, or exhibitions. It’s also good to consume things that aren’t usually your thing or that don’t naturally interest you.

Last week we spoke with Nicole Wolff, brand director at cannabis company the Flowr Corp.

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