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VCCP’s Marie Oldham on her media journey and why women hide chocolate

VCCP’s Marie Oldham's shares her journey from nun-run school to strategist

Welcome to So You Want My Job? Each week we ask the people working in some of the industry’s coolest roles about how they got where they are. Along the way, we dig into their philosophies, inspirations, processes and experiences. Hopefully our interviewees can inspire you to pursue (or create) a job that’s just as exciting. This week we’ve got Marie Oldham, strategist and exec chair of VCCP Media in the hot seat.

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

My dad was a taxi driver in Dublin and he knew everyone – from the editor of The Irish Times to the head brewer at Guinness. He worked nights ferrying home people who worked unusual hours or attended lots of business dinners.

I was good at art and maths so I chatted with dad about jobs that involve creativity and we decided that architecture and advertising seemed worth investigating. I deferred to him as my careers advisor because the nuns at my all-girls school seemed to want me to be a teacher or a dressmaker.

My dad asked two of his customers if they would give me an hour of their time to talk to me about their industries and, amazingly, they both said yes.

The architect told the 16-year-old me that it would take seven to nine years to qualify and four of those years would be at university. No one in my family had ever been to university and no one suggested how we might make that happen so I’m afraid I didn’t consider that option for very long.

The art director, on the other hand, invited me to lunch and then showed me around the creative department where people were drawing real ads, laying out copy with Letraset and taking their work to client meetings in large black leather portfolios. He mentioned that there was a one-year course in advertising available and it was funded by the European Social Fund so I would get paid £27 per week to study.

Guess which career path I chose?

(To be fair to the nuns, I did retain my passion for textiles and I now have a shop where we sell hand-made and decorated fabrics from around the world. Like many media people, my side-hustle satisfies the wheeler-dealer in me.)

How did you get your job? Tell us the full long story?

While I was doing the one-year course I applied to advertising agencies and landed a job as media secretary at Wilson Hartnell in Dublin. I discovered that the (all male) media buyers were fêted by media owners, got to negotiate big deals, and attended lots of awards ceremonies. They asked me every morning for my opinion on that day’s Sun page three girl and I did have to make the tea but they also threw lots of work my way once they realized that I was willing to book last-minute radio campaigns, buy short term press ads and that I absolutely loved the cat-and-mouse nature of negotiating hard with media owners.

Luckily, I also discovered the research ’department’– one clever lady who held all of the readership data, TV and radio audience figures and client sales data. She seemed to me to have the best job, wallowing in information about human beings and what they get up to. I never actually worked in creative but I loved the way the creative teams, TV producers, account directors and media people were all housed in the same building and worked really closely with each other to develop campaigns. After six months I was chuffed to be promoted to media assistant (although I still had to do all of the typing).

Two years later I decided to try my luck in the big smoke – I got the ferry to Holyhead, train to London and slept on a sofa in Neasden – the glamour.

I was 19 and brazenly persuaded Bob Queminet to let me in the door at Burton Wisgard in West Street, only four doors from The Ivy. I improved my press buying skills before hopping across to FCB in Baker Street to work for the incredible John Taylor (thanks JT). I thought I had found my calling, planning and buying TV, radio and press on Cadburys and The Daily Mail before moving to Leo Burnett to plan and buy on Kraft and McDonalds. We were living the life; working with great clients, cutting-edge creative teams, smart research people such as Lynne Robinson, Simon Broadbent on econometrics, much drinking at the agency bar (yes, it was a thing), and partnering with ever more innovative media owners.

But our industry was changing. Christine Walker led the way in separating buying from planning (at scale) and Mel Varley told me to “ditch the buying stuff and focus on being a strategist”. My ’job’ didn’t really start until I had been in the business for 10 years.

Neil Cassie told me it was my role to bring the consumer to life for our clients and I have stuck closely to that rule. As media strategists, we need to understand the customer journey and the role media plays in the life of our audiences. I see that as permission to root around in the human condition, trying to understand why women hide their chocolate when a partner enters the room (avoid sharing), why City bankers play the lottery every week (spread betting), why we still sit together on our sofas to watch big moment TV when we could in fact be in different rooms (shared experiences) and how low-level processing actually works. There is so much more to our business than placing ads.

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

At the end of the day, all clients need us to generate a response to communications - be that a feeling or an action. I think it is the role of the strategist to write the roadmap for maximizing campaign impact. We lead the team in gaining insight into the audience, understanding where and when we should be making contact with that audience and how we should be using the media channels available to us to make an impact for our clients. For example, when launching Nickelodeon into the UK (1993) we identified bus shelters near schools as hubs where our audience gathered for an after-school chat. We worked with JC Decaux to build talking posters and introduced UK kids to Ren and Stimpy. In a pre-digital world, we created word of mouth around the launch and generated huge PR.

For a chocolate campaign I worked on, we identified the top 20 TV programs women choose to watch alone, creating moments of peace and quiet and moments to enjoy an everyday treat without risk of sharing. We spent 70% of our budget on those and the rest on radio, focussing our airtime pre grocery shopping.

When I went back home I described my job to my taxi-driving dad as “helping clients understand people and how to reach them so that we can deliver business results”. He said it sounded a lot more like lunching and drinking to him.

What do you love most about your job?

The diversity of what we get to do is my favorite thing about this industry – moving from travel to biscuits to finance, all in one day. I love it when we can really learn about a client’s business and I’m very happy when drowning in data and research. What we hope we bring to the table as strategists is audience understanding, behavioral insight, and a view beyond the numbers delivered by communication channels to the nature of the human beings at the receiving end of our messages.

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

I can only speak from my experience but it is important to stay close to the reality of everyday life across the UK, to understand the values of your audiences and the culture of communities. I think Covid was fascinating for people working in our business, it really shone a light on the power of community, the importance of family, and how, below the patina of technology and progress, our human need states and values are what really drive us.

It is ridiculously hard for people to see a way into our industry and as the world of media becomes more complex we are in danger of using university degrees as a benchmark of intelligence, we don't have time to take risks on quirky characters and we fish in our own small pond for expediency. My plea to agency leaders is to reach out to schools, youth organizations, charities and work with them to allow people into our business, to uncover the rough diamonds, and make sure we stay close to the audiences we are in fact trying to reach.

At VCCP we have recently partnered with local creative businesses in Stoke on Trent to educate sixth-form students and those in further education about advertising as a business. Building on the success of early workshops we have now taken the formal step of opening VCCP Stoke as an office where we can employ talented people without the need for them to relocate to London.

I like to believe that agencies have always made space for the kid from the block and allowed them to grow through hard work, a creative spark, and a challenger mentality.

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

I’m nosey. I love to watch what is in everyone’s shopping trolley and I ask everyone why they like TikTok, why they shop at Lidl and why they pay a premium for designer labels.

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

My favorite industry book is Nudge and it is a must-read, but I think it’s more important to read widely, from the FT to The Sun, via Hello (thank you for that Marc Mendoza). I’d recommend reading Charles Duhigg on habit building and Dave Eggers (fiction) keeps us all alert to the danger of drinking the Kool-Aid.

Read what your audience reads, read what your clients read, and try something new every week (it is really important to understand why Squid Game is so popular).

My favorite magazine is Monocle (hankering to be an architect after all these years) and of course, I listen to The Economist Intelligence podcast, but my guilty pleasures are True Crime and Bake Off – there, I said it.

Last week we spoke to Doremus’ Paul Hirsch.

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