WPP 0319 International Womens Day Karen Blackett OBE and Ann Wixley

In conversation: Karen Blackett OBE and Ann Wixley

In praise of unconventional career paths

To coincide with International Women’s Day, WPP brings together 12 brilliant women from across its global network, in six conversations about the industry, equality and a whole lot more. 

In the first conversation, WPP’s UK Country Manager and the UK Government’s race equality business champion, Karen Blackett OBE, talks to ex-principal ballet dancer and now Wavemaker UK’s Executive Creative Director, Ann Wixley, about unconventional career paths, learning to be comfortable standing out and getting your work/life blend right.

Ann Wixley, Executive Creative Director, Wavemaker: 

Did you always know what you wanted to do? I think so many people know about your progression, your history, but I’m interested in whether you knew what you wanted to do when you first started out? 

Karen Blackett OBE, WPP UK Country Manager and Chairwoman of MediaCom UK & Ireland:

As a second-generation immigrant from Barbados, my parents wanted my sisters and I to be doctors, lawyers or accountants. My elder sister took the brunt of all of my parents’ hopes and ambitions while I was allowed to look at this strange thing called advertising.

I was always fascinated by it. I loved the ads as much as I loved the programmes on television but had no idea that it was an industry or how to get into it. I would come up with what I thought were better ideas and better jingles than in the ad campaigns.  

I studied what I loved at school and did a degree that had nothing to do with advertising and when I graduated it was then that I started thinking about how I might get my foot in the door. I subscribed to all the industry publications and applied to all sorts of different jobs – ad agencies, media agencies. I got a foot in the door by applying for a job as a media auditor at what is now Wavemaker. 

What about you? What was your route into the industry? 

AW: Since I was six or seven years old I had always known what I had wanted to do – be a ballet dancer. That was my first career and it felt like more of a calling than a career. 

But by the time I stopped dancing in my late twenties, I suddenly found myself forging a new career; something my friends had been doing when they were 18 or 19 years old.  

I expected to be able to love whatever I did. My job at Wavemaker has now shaped into the thing I love most. 

Being a dancer you’re Juliet for a couple of months and this job is similar. I like putting myself in someone else’s shoes. You put yourself into the shoes of a 45-year-old man one day, a 25-year-old female the next. 

Talking of age, what is the one thing you would tell your younger self to start – or stop – doing?

Get comfortable standing out, get comfortable being memorable and use it to your advantage

KB: I was very fortunate to have very switched-on parents. Bringing up two girls in an environment where we were definitely a minority they gave us so much good advice. My dad told me at a very early age to get comfortable with being memorable because he knew we would be one of few in any room we walked in to. He knew we’d be either one of the only women in the room or one of the only people of colour in the room. Get comfortable standing out, get comfortable being memorable and use it to your advantage. When you’re younger sometimes you worry about being different but I was always taught to celebrate difference. 

Also, work abroad sooner. An international or global role gives you a steeper learning curve as it provides different stimulus. 

I’ve learned as I’ve gone along is to make sure you always have a network which reaches wide. Both industry and beyond – magic can happen when you bring different networks together. Whether that’s about government and politics, the entertainment industry, the music industry, whether it’s sport – you should always try and have your network outside of your day job. 

I like putting myself in someone else’s shoes. You put yourself into the shoes of a 45-year-old man one day, a 25-year-old female the next

AW: Completely agree. I wanted to ask whether there is anything you struggle with now?   

KB: I find it difficult to blend everything. I hate the phrase work/life balance – I talk more about work/life blend because work is life and life is work. I struggle to get my blend right because there is so much that I want to do and so much that I’m asked to do. There are some days I feel like I fail at every level because I’m not getting that blend right. 

There’s bigger picture stuff that I’m doing with government I don’t want to say no to because it’s really important to give back. My dad taught me – learn your craft, earn your money and then give back. I struggle to make sure I’m not giving too much of my self and that I have something for me. 

AW: I’d be curious to hear how you define success and has that changed over the past few years? My view is that it’s not all about going up and up because I think you have to be careful what you wish for in some ways. Success isn’t always up but rather it could be getting deeper or broadening yourself and taking a more holistic view on life. 

KB: I totally agree about success not being a linear path to the most senior role but rather being able to influence and having a voice that is heard. 

That doesn’t mean being in the top seat but rather about being able to make change, and that your voice is heard and welcomed. That’s what I’ve seen over the past five to ten years – being invited in more. It all goes back to the conversations we’re having in our industry about diversity and inclusion. Diversity is having a lot more people in the room, inclusion is having a seat at the table, belonging is having a voice that people want to hear and a voice which people welcome. For me that’s what success looks like. The idea of belonging. 

published on

08 March 2019

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