Lotte Jeffs: what the bile of an industry veteran taught me about ad land's fear of change

Brendan Freeman

Lotte Jeffs, the former deputy editor of Elle, joined the advertising industry when she was hired as a creative director almost a year ago. Yet she experienced an unexpected amount of vitriol online from an industry she had hoped would embrace change.

The worst thing I could have done when I joined the advertising industry from a career as a magazine editor and journalist at the beginning of last year was bullshit.

From the very start I have been entirely honest about where my skills, experience and particular breed of creativity will intersect with an agency’s and where they won’t. I’ve asked questions, made mistakes and done work I’m really proud of.

I’ve met some formidably talented people who have been welcoming of me as an outsider, and keen to get my different perspective on briefs. Being honest about my lack of previous experience as a creative director leaves me vulnerable and that’s OK, because in this business that can be a disarming power.

I’ve used my platform as a journalist and my column in the Evening Standard to explore the humour and professional nuances of my switching industry. I’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response from readers who have been in touch to tell me that my experience has inspired them to think differently about their next career move.

I’ve also connected with business leaders who are keen to learn from my move and hire ‘outsiders’ into their teams too.

In November, however, I received some rather unpleasant feedback on Twitter from one blue-ticked industry guru who had taken umbrage with a piece I wrote for the paper back in January. This article in the lifestyle section was an amusing, light-hearted take on my first few months as a creative director.

In it I wrote: “The role of a magazine editor and a creative director are remarkably similar: we’re both using words and pictures to turn good ideas into something that resonates and sells a product.

“But I don’t doubt that it took some vision for my new boss to offer me a senior role in an industry that I had no experience of. It was precisely my lack of knowledge that appealed. He wanted me to challenge ingrained ‘ways of doing things’.”

It was the line about my lack of knowledge that was - out of the full context of the piece - used to imply that as I had not followed a traditional trajectory to reach a senior position in an agency did not deserve the job title, and that the whole thing was a bit of a joke.

What was really depressing wasn’t that this highly regarded man stooped so low as to write “I bet her Mum has her ideas stuck to her fridge with little fridge magnets” (at which point I’m afraid I lost any hint of respect for his argument) but that a number of men – and it was mainly men – chimed in with the same unpleasant whiff of misogyny offering such comments as “I bet she’s just been hired to churn out female friendly content”.

Sigh.

The thing about change is, it doesn’t happen by writing about it in books or referencing it in Keynote presentations. It’s not a theory, it’s a real lived experience. It’s messy, hard to contain, unpredictable and that is what makes it so vital.

I am honoured that an agency took a risk in hiring me and were brave enough to allow me to do things differently. The job title of creative director may not have been the right one for me as it meant people had to adjust their expectations of what that role might be. But I was the deputy editor of Elle magazine and I’d spent half a year covering as its editor-in-chief, so I needed my sideways move to reflect the seniority I’d spent the last 15 years working up to.

I can relate to the destabilising feeling that comes with seeing a job you associate with taken by someone with a different skill set. As an editor who comes from a writing background, editing for me is about crafting stories and working with copy - images are key but the story comes first.

I have had to shift my thinking as stylists and fashion directors such as Edward Enninful at Vogue take the helm of iconic magazines. They may not bring a Tina Brown-like journalistic rigour to their publications, but they offer something else. It’s different, but maybe, just maybe, difference is what every industry needs right now if they are to survive.

I invited the ad land veteran who had so taken against me to meet for coffee. I’d love to have a robust, adult debate about what my influence in advertising could be. But alas he ignored my invitation and sent me back an essay in which he quoted The Devil Wears Prada, writing:

“You may remember a line where the secretary, who has been given the job everyone wants, asks why she’s unpopular. She’s told: ‘While others dream of working here, you merely deign to work here’.”

The offer of coffee still stands, by the way.

This month I decided to go freelance. I wanted the opportunity to work with different kinds of agencies and explore the possibilities of a career in advertising that could be more fluid than an in-house role allows.

My colleagues at the agency and the people I have met at industry events are, on the whole, excited by this and the kind of projects it may mean we could work on together.

But it strikes me as sad that some industry veterans remain so resistant to new ways of doing things. My position is not designed to diminish anyone else’s but to enrich the traditional ‘done thing’ in ways maybe none of us expected. And if advertising is to stay relevant, for God’s sake it needs to change – someone make that into a fridge magnet for my mum, quick.

In the words of The Devil Wears Prada’s legendary editor in chief, herself a woman threatened by new talent...

“That’s all.”

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