My Creative Career: Vicki Maguire, chief creative officer at Havas London
From running stalls at Leicester Market to being sacked by Vivienne Westwood and saving lives with Vinnie Jones, Havas London CCO Vicki Maguire tells the story of how she became an advertising legend.
Vicki Maguire / Havas
Vicki Maguire has always been a storyteller – a trait she credits to her Irish parents, a bricklayer father and a mother who ran a stall in Leicester selling second-hand clothes and other everyday items. “They could talk anything up. If it cost £3, they would talk you into spending £5,” she tells us.
The hustle and bustle of her childhood was the perfect proving ground for the young creative and her own gift of the gab came from necessity, there being no money around. “I still consider myself working class because I don’t believe it’s about money, it’s an attitude.”
Another great gift that came from her parents was that they never burdened her with too many expectations. “If I fucked anything up – and I frequently did – or if I had lost my job, my mum would say to just come back and get on the market. I always knew I didn’t have a lot to lose.” Three generations later, the family still proudly runs stalls at Leicester Market.
Maguire didn’t have the best time at school, but it wasn’t until the age of 56 that she was diagnosed with dyspraxia. “It was like somebody putting the lights on,” she says, explaining that, like many creative thinkers, her mind is at times “untidy, clumsy and badly coordinated”.
But while academia never suited her, she found herself drawn to the eccentric styles of the art school kids at the local college, with their 70s and 80s punk aesthetic. Soon she had her own stall up and running, selling vintage clothing, and while she loved it she knew deep down that what she really wanted was to pursue fashion design. “I can’t sew, but I had great ideas,” she laughs. “There was an artist, Jamie Reed, who used to do all the Sex Pistols album covers and he did everything through the photocopier. It was collagey and I knew I could do that.”
Full of charm and charisma, Maguire talked her way on to a course at the University of Northumberland and eventually, through a lot of hard work, got her degree, leading her dad to joke: “You’re the only Maguire to get a degree and you’ve bloody got it in sewing!”
Next she made her way to London but found quite quickly that she didn’t fit in with mainstream design. ”I could talk my way into anything or any place, but I just wasn’t very good. I’ve worked with a lot of top designers, but I’ve basically been sacked by most of them.”
One of those dismissals came from Vivienne Westwood, the queen of punk. “When I went to go work with Viv I was a baby, but that was probably the first place I realized that you can make money by having an alternative voice. She was batshit and from Derby and could make serious money by not giving a fuck, which I was really impressed by.”
An unfortunate incident where she ruined a wedding dress that was on order led to Maguire being told to get her coat and leave, but an encounter with another fashion great left an even bigger mark on the young creative’s life. “Paul Smith told me to stop trying to draw my ideas and to write them down instead.” When she met the English designer again in later life he told her doesn’t remember the conversation, but she says: “He turned my life around.”
Her stepping stone into advertising came while working for Ted Baker. Established in the 80s by Ray Kalvin, the brand’s namesake is actually a made-up character, an alter ego of the founder. “I was really good at writing those backstories and helping fulfill the myth,” says Maguire. “I was a designer and did window display, and because it was a small company we did everything. It was great. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was branding.”
As chance would have it, the retailer had an office on the same floor as the ad agency Howell Henry. Trevor Robinson and David Buonaguidi were there at the time, putting out amazing work including the infamous Tango ‘slap’ ad that caused controversy in the 90s. Maguire, 27 by then, says she had a light bulb moment when she realized that in their office they were “surrounded by really cool books and toys,” getting paid to think up ideas. She wanted in.
“David and Trevor gave me D&AD books. I would read them and then I would work out what the strategy was then give them back.” That went on for a few months before she realized that what she needed was a partner. She met someone who was super talented but was from Israel, so struggled to get a job. As a team, they were a bit of an unlikely duo.
“There were very few women in creative departments. It was still a proper boys’ club. I knew nothing about advertising, everything was done by intuition for me, but when we met we just got on so well and he was like, ‘Look, I will teach you, just sit opposite me and we’ll position ourselves as the as the odd couple and maybe we’ll get a job’. Then we got one.”
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The first six months provided a steep learning curve. “I remember my first client meeting. I was super excited that I was going to present my work and I rocked up wearing Vivienne Westwood – not the wild Westwood, but a really nice white blouse and black trousers.
“My creative director said ‘You’re not wearing that’ and gave me £30 to go to the shop at the bottom of the road and buy a dress, heels and tights. Then the miserable bugger made me return them and get the money back!”
Such concessions became a theme throughout her early career. There was even a time working on a brief for a car brand when she had to change her name on the script to Mickey Maguire because the agency didn’t believe the client would want a woman working on the project. Once she began to prove herself, however, she says it got a little better, but it wasn’t an easy journey.
This is partly why Maguire has gone on to establish the Creative Foundation, part of Creative Circle, alongside other women in the industry. “Diversity of thought and background is so important,” she says. Together, they have developed an unofficial network of professional women who are on the same level. The key is that there is no pressure with the meet-ups. “You do feel a lot of pressure when you get to the level that a lot of us are at. Not only have you got to build successful departments and agencies, but you’ve also got to fly the flag.”
Maguire now flies the flag at Havas London, which she joined from Grey London. She’s won countless awards for her work and created brilliant ads, the one that stands out most to her being the British Heart Foundation ad starring Vinnie Jones. “I’ve met people that are walking around today because somebody watched that ad and knew what to do in an emergency.”
With such a wealth of experience from a long career, Maguire confesses that the excitement and fear never go away. Even today she still gets nervous pitching. “You need to get comfortable with it because it never leaves you – and if it does leave you, it’s time to do something else.”
Her advice for a fulfilling career is: “Choose your moves based on your gut and on the people, not by the name on the door because that means fuck all, which is brilliant.
“In the back of my mind, I can always hear my mum going ‘You can always come back to the market’ and I love that.”