My Creative Career: Jo Wallace, the new global ECD at Jellyfish
As she departs Media.Monks after a year and a half to join Jellyfish, Jo Wallace shares the story of her life and career so far.
As a kid, Jo Wallace had a real love of logos. By her own admission, it was a strange obsession and she would sit at school and doodle them over and over – that and she would draw pictures of the popular cartoon character Garfield. Then, she remembers, as she went on to excel in art class, other pupils would claim her parents must have drawn her still-life homework for her as she handed it in on a Monday morning.
Then, throughout her teenage years, she found a love of books and reading; going to the library was something of a real treat for the literary-loving youngster. Christmas presents would also be some sort of novel that she could get lost in.
Having enjoyed psychology at A Level (“I think it was quite useful to have done it for advertising”), she briefly considered studying at university but instead headed off for an art foundation course. “In my head, I was kind of thinking, ‘Am I going to be an interior designer? Maybe I’ll be a graphic designer,’ but I didn’t really know what that entailed.”
During her time studying art, she began writing a lot of poetry that she mixed with collages. “I was kind of making the words and images work together. And then, gradually, I would use fewer and fewer words. I was effectively making posters, but I didn’t really know. Then my tutor said to me, ’Have you ever thought about advertising?’”
Even though advertising is all around us all of the time, she had never truly considered that it could be a career. It was merely a thing that existed. A course in graphic design and advertising at Buckinghamshire New University was put on her radar and the rest, as they say, is history. She’s forever grateful to that teacher. “He changed my life.”
Three years on the course was a real eye-opener for the creative. There was a tutor there called Dave Morris who was getting them ready for the competitive world of advertising. “He would be quite harsh with us, but it was purposeful. He would say to us, ‘If you’re not going to phone up teams who have got a job in advertising and ask them to look at your portfolio, you’re not going to get anywhere fast.’”
This was in the late 90s, email was barely in existence, and you had to have the nerve to cold call agencies. Half the time, you would get through to a secretary and have to fight to get a critique of your work.
By this point, Wallace had teamed up with a creative partner called Cat Campbell. The duo would go on to work together for over 10 years. “We were both very ambitious and at the time we loved Mother, HHCL & Partners, BBH and St Luke’s. We would find out who had done the work that we liked and we’d call them up.”
Their first taste of agency life came during their second year at college when they won a placement at one of those coveted agencies, BBH. As she started out in her career, Wallace remembers absolutely loving the buzz of agency life, but her dream was to get a place at HHCL & Partners once she had her degree under her belt.
At the time, the London shop was producing groundbreaking work that was exciting for the young creative. Tango’s ‘Orangeman’ advert, also known as the ‘slap’ ad, is one that stood out to Wallace. As fate would have it, the agency was looking for a junior creative team at that time.
Founders Steve Henry and Axel Chaldecott asked to see them, eventually offering the duo a job. “We literally couldn’t believe it. We hadn’t finished university at this point and this was our dream agency. I remember us both sitting there and kind of trying to style it out. Like, ‘Oh, yeah, thanks. That would be great.’ And then it was only when we got in the lift that we were both like, ‘Ahhhhhhh!’”
Even their tutor couldn’t quite believe it and she admits that the other classmates hated them; it was the agency to go to.
“Interestingly, that same book that got us that job, we had shown one other person and they had ripped it apart. It was actually a creative at BBH, who, looking back, I can tell they were just a bit bitter. But if we’d listened to them and we had started again, we would never have got that job. Luckily, by then, we knew our own style and we ignored him.”
It’s a lesson she takes with her today and tells all her teams: go and show your book to people, but don’t always believe what they say.
During her almost four-year stint at her dream agency, it was the work of Alan Young and Trevor Robinson that excited the young creative. After leaving HHCL & Partners in 2003, Wallace would go on to follow Robinson at the agency he started, Quiet Storm. At that point, the agency was quite small; there was Robinson and his creative partner, plus Wallace and Campbell, but it was also a production company. This meant there was scope for the creatives to try their hand at directing.
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Her directorial debut was for a Mazda ad. Even though it was the first time Wallace had ever done anything like it, Robinson said it didn’t matter as the client didn’t know that.
“It pushed my more visual aesthetic. I got so into directing that I wrote and directed a couple of short films that were shown at international festivals. But it was very difficult to make it as a female director back then.”
Five years passed at Quiet Storm. Wallace would then go on to work at the likes of Saatchi & Saatchi, Tribal, Publicis Groupe and JWT London. During that time, some of her standout work was for the National Centre for Domestic Violence. A poster campaign launched in 2018 before the World Cup showed a woman’s bloody face in the style of an England flag, with the words: ‘If England get beaten, so will she.’
During the Covid-19 lockdowns, there was the ‘Abusers Always Work From Home’ shocking film for the same charity, which is a very difficult watch. It’s the type of work she’s most proud of. It makes a difference.
Creating positive change and advocating for equality and diversity within the advertising industry is something Wallace has always fought for. During her time at J Walter Thompson London (now Wunderman Thompson) she became the focus of a Daily Mail article. It linked her to the sex discrimination case brought forward, and won, by two male colleagues from the agency. The publication plastered pictures of her in a bikini, posted about her sexual orientation and images of her wife. She sued them.
“I had been inaccurately blamed for something that I had nothing to do with. I had so little to do with it that I wasn’t even called to the tribunal that the guys took against JWT. The Daily Mail completely picked on me because I was an ‘other’ then went to town and dehumanized me.”
Wallace wanted the truth to come out but she was terrified by the whole ordeal. Maybe, naively, she assumed that after the tribunal was over, the facts would come to light, but that never really happened. She took to Twitter and Channel 4 News to tell her side of the story. “That’s when the industry kind of shifted, saw the truth and got behind me. But it had been a very, very lonely and strange time for me, those few years.”
The case eventually went to court. Only the Daily Mail’s barrister attended to read out an apology. It was the first time Wallace had ever been offered any sort of regrets from the paper. Initially, when her lawyer had written to them to highlight inaccuracies in their story, she had been told to essentially ‘fuck off,’ as she puts it.
The story had gone all over the world. As she was getting messages of support from people as far-flung as Australia, she was also receiving death threats. The latter mostly came from men. “They were ridiculous and scary. It was a crazy time.”
It’s a huge part of her story but not one she dwells on too much these days. “Find your voice and don’t stand for things that are so obviously inaccurate,” she advises. “Have your allies, have your people that have your back and don’t let people shut you down.”
Wallace left JWT in 2022 and went on to spend a year at Media.Monks. She has now just accepted the role of global executive creative director at Jellyfish. She recognizes that neither is an obvious choice for her.
“I’ve always wanted to push the edges of where I can go with my career. The traditional agencies that I came up through taught me so much, but I do think the times are changing. Clients’ needs aren’t always delivered by traditional agencies.”
At Jellyfish, her remit is to improve and evolve its creative reputation. There’s a great team there already, but Wallace is excited to get her teeth sunk into supporting them to achieve even better work. “If you’re joining somewhere that’s already revered, that’s fantastic. But I’ve always enjoyed working on brands that don’t necessarily have a great creative portfolio of past campaigns because then you’ve got a chance to pivot the way that people see them. I find that exciting and I feel like I can bring a lot of value.”