Fiona Gordon, the new chief executive officer of ad agency Ogilvy UK, shares her plan to make the London studio a ”beacon” of creativity, while making the agency a fairer and more attractive place to work.
Fiona Gordon has got her feet under the table. Three months after her promotion to the top of one of London’s most storied ad agencies, the Glaswegian is determined to lead Ogilvy UK through a time of ”huge opportunity” as it navigates a post-pandemic and post-Brexit economy, competition for new talent and one of the biggest legacies in advertising.
The industry has changed since Gordon joined Ogilvy as a University of Edinburgh graduate in 1992, before shipping out for stints in New York, Hong Kong and Singapore. And while the agency has adapted, she’s certain its soul is intact.
”So many things have changed in terms of the kind of work we make and the skills needed. But a lot of the culture, that spirit from David Ogilvy, is still there. That’s what kept me at Ogilvy.”
Gordon takes the reins after Michael Frohlich, chief executive for three years, left for a position at Weber Shandwick in March. Inheriting the thankless task of consolidating Ogilvy's myriad sub-brands into a cohesive single entity, Frohlich's tenure as CEO was dogged by high-profile staff departures which saw the agency become a wellspring of at times unflattering industry gossip. Reflecting on the agency’s recent past, Gordon suggests its reputation could do with a polish.
”I think we are really strong ... but sometimes we need to make our story be told more overtly. In our industry you have to stay relevant, you have to stay fresh. So we have to keep making sure for our clients that we’re helping them meet different business challenges in fresh ways.”
Now she’s set on making the London office a jewel in the Ogilvy network, and WPP’s crown. ”I’d love to make Ogilvy a real beacon in London as part of our global network. For Ogilvy to thrive globally, London has to shine. I’d like us to be an agency where clients love you, competitors hate you and people want to work with you.”
Recovery and recruitment
Gordon takes the position at an interesting time for the agency and for London. ”There’s momentum again,” she says. ”Clients are definitely starting to go in toward more planned annual planning processes again, whereas last year we were literally just planning every week. We are having a lot more conversations with clients about plans for 2022 and 2023.”
But while the capital’s economy recovers from the impact of Covid, the continuing fallout of Britain‘s exit from the EU is haunting businesses that previously enjoyed strong links to the continent. Supermarket shortages may be the least of British businesses‘ worries if the UK government follows through on its proposal to make the UK a regulatory free port for data rules. Gordon says the Ogilvy team is already planning for negative contingencies.
”I think [Brexit] will come back to the fore for businesses. For us, it‘s really about making sure that we‘re proactive with our clients with contingency plans. The last year has taught us all that you‘ve got to be super flexible, you‘ve got to be super agile, and you‘ve got to be willing to pivot to opportunities. Because of the dramatic changes of the last year ... I feel actually that we‘re ready to have to adapt if we have to.”
She‘s also confident Brexit won‘t dent the agency‘s attractiveness to international brands working within the UK market. Clients have refused “pretty emphatically“ to prioritize European markets over Britain, Gordon says. “The UK is such an important market. It often is a trendsetter for categories; it’s an educated population, it’s a very diverse population ... so that was reassuring.“
In the meantime, Ogilvy is looking to grow through recruitment. ”We’re hiring for skills we want to add, data and tech skills, e-commerce and social commerce. We’re always looking to bring in fresh creative talent – it’s nice to have people who have grown up at Ogilvy but it’s also nice to have fresh perspectives.
”The market for hiring is quite hot right now. It’s been a year when nobody could really move, but now some people feel like a change, or after lockdown they have a different perspective.”
Ensuring those new recruits are being brought into a fair environment at Sea Containers House is another of Gordon’s priorities. At last count, Ogilvy had a median gender pay gap of over 24% – down 6% on the previous year, but still one of the largest around (and compared to its 2017 figures, the gap has actually widened 0.7% over the last four years).
”Obviously being a senior woman it is quite important to me. It is something we’re super conscious of,” she says. Having worked to standardize salary bands across the business, she says the agency is currently overhauling its approach to cutting the gap. Measures include participating in a ’30 for 30’ development program, which offers candidates coaching and personal sponsorship to help more women into senior roles (one of the biggest variables in firms’ pay gaps). Maternity returnees are offered coaching and training opportunities to make re-entry to corporate life smoother, while the business reviews its pay gap on a quarterly, not just annual, basis.
”It is about to be one of my focuses over the next few months,” she says.
Gordon is keen to help others follow her path from grad trainee to the chief executive officer’s chair, and highlights internal promotions including Victoria Day as head of advertising and Nicola Dodd as managing director of PR. ”I’m always keen to promote people who are doing a great job internally; that’s how you retain talent. You show them they can grow their career.”
Advertising the agency
Even amid a cross-industry hiring spree, Gordon does have to confront the fading prestige of advertising as a career destination. Furthermore, following the formation of VMLY&R, Wunderman Thompson and the Grey-AKQA merger, Ogilvy is the last of WPP’s flagship brands to primarily bill itself as an advertising agency.
”We sit in the WPP family ... as an agency that can make ideas, that can really help to grow and impact a client’s business.” Advertising is just one of the tools in its inventory, Gordon says, and she’s eager to point to Ogilvy’s growing PR and health practices – the agency is really ”five different businesses” despite its ’One Ogilvy’ reorganization in recent years.
”I began in advertising, so I’m proud of advertising. I think advertising is something that we should be proud of,” she says. ”Advertising is really critical for us, it’s still growing. The type of advertising we do is now very different – there’s a lot more content, a lot more social. But I do think it has a big role to play.”
But as the agency competes with alternate career paths for recruits – London‘s still-growing tech scene or the increasingly attractive freelance environment – can she persuade twentysomethings to come around to that view?
”In 10 years’ time there will be careers we can’t even envisage now. So there is competitiveness ... how do we make ourselves an interesting industry to join? Part of that is looking for talent from more diverse places.”
Gordon says that finding a permanent hybrid working set-up may be one answer, despite the difficulty of finding a settlement that works for everyone. “As we start to come back, how do we make it that the work you do is interesting and meaningful? There has to be a reason you‘re coming in to the office – to participate with people with different skills, or to learn from people, because when you‘re a junior you often learn a lot by osmosis.
“I don‘t think it‘s going to be easy ... getting everyone in and still maintaining hybrid working. But I think there‘s a lot of potential because we can define a different version of the future of work.“
Another solution might be The Pipe, Ogilvy‘s non-graduate recruitment scheme (named for its namesake founder‘s tobacco habit), which has ran for four years, funneling new talent from outside its traditional recruiting grounds into Ogilvy‘s creative, strategy and production teams.
This year’s cohort is 25 strong – and it could well produce a future UK chief exec. And by emphasizing the ”super cool” aspects of working in the industry, she hopes to restore its shine for young talent. ”We actually have quite a lot of different things to offer and talk about,” she says. ”Maybe it‘s about how we get that story out.”