Updated: Jun 15
You can feel the energy coming off Anna – even over a Facetime call in Lockdown 3. Generously responding over LinkedIn to the request to share her career journey and advice with our present students, she swiftly affirms that she ‘has a lot to thank Hurtwood for’. This is a girl who sounds both wise and worldly, having negotiated her way with astonishing speed and success in that most glamorous and elusive of worlds, advertising. ‘I’ve travelled quite a different path,’ she tells me, ‘and ended in quite a different place than intended.’ Prepare to be impressed by her unconventional approach, the boldness of her route, the sheer range of accounts that she has handled from banking to beauty to biscuits, but most of all, by the obvious fun that she has had along the way. Take it away, Anna!
So having been dismissed by her previous school as ‘not good enough for A Levels’, she and her mother clandestinely booked a visit to Hurtwood on the recommendation of family friend (and Hurtwood royalty) Sheila Cheshire. Instantly convinced the moment she set foot on campus, she took ‘Mr J’s advice’ to add Media and Law to her one clear choice, Theatre. The advice, it turns out, was serendipitous: a particularly beguiling module in her Media Studies A Level that revealed the appealing world of advertising to her. She remembers, however, with generous praise all her subject teachers and what they gave her in terms of advice, self-belief and confidence. Sue Maddox, Hugo, Miles, Luke and Will: all drew her out, pushed her to her limits and she came away with ‘three stunning A grades’ and plenty of career options. University was tried but rapidly rejected and thus, as Anna observes, Hurtwood turned out to be her ‘very own higher education experience’. She cites the maturity and confidence in her own decision-making that these two years had given her to make bold choices. Wise parents supported her with funding for a six-month executive diploma assistant course, including touch typing and shorthand, and the ‘clear advice that I would have to work my way up … it would be up to me.’ She cites this step as putting her ahead of the curve in the field that she ultimately chose.
Remember that energy? With ‘assistant’ skills under her belt and flicking through the ads at the back of that iconic freebie ‘Girl About Town’, she responded to an ad for an assistant in top advertising agencies Ogilvy and Mather and DDB London. Meet ‘Girl in a Hurry.’ She drew on all her Theatre training to sell herself and her skills. ‘And I got a job at DDB London – famous then, and now the celebrated Adam and Eve DDB’ which she proudly boasts has won more awards than any other agency world-wide. Her job as Team Secretary meant that she was involved across the board, immediately working on both Budweiser and Volvic accounts. This was her world, her ‘tribe’, Anna felt. She knew, however, that she needed to refine her role, and consolidate her talents. With support and input from Hurtwood, she updated her CV and reapplied to uni, securing a place at Durham to read Sociology, with a view to re-entering the advertising field at graduate level. With a savviness that has clearly shaped her success, she informed her then boss of her intention. They had a choice, she told her: they could either progress her job/role at once, or she could be back in four years' time with a degree. Her power-play had the desired effect: she had clearly proved her mettle and was promoted immediately into the prestigious world of account management. This, she helpfully explains, ‘has nothing to do with either money or accounts’, and everything to do with how to get ahead in advertising, if you will excuse the cliché. With extraordinary speed she found herself in control of the whole process of delivering against the client’s brief across the board, and the whole glamorous world of advertising opened up for her. She worked on Unilever, the British Tourism Authority, and Deloitte, to name a few. ‘I was put on every pitch going,’ she tells me, her tone more surprised that self-satisfied. What I sense is satisfaction in having found her way into her natural world and, clearly, using her considerable energy and talent.
Her next move (I don’t think Anna hangs around for long) followed a request to build on her knowledge of more UK businesses and ‘tick a few more production boxes.’ There were gaps, she felt, in her CV: like shooting a TV ad, for instance. The answer from her bosses was in the negative, and Anna’s response was swift. She resigned (in spite of their appeals up the line to stay) and took on the challenge of a ‘much smaller set-up' in a company called Karmarama (now part of Accenture.)
The vibes were decidedly wacky, ‘more wacky’ she calls it, as she found herself sitting at her desk on a Swiss Ball and involved on a whole new range of accounts, from Ikea and Amnesty International to MTV , VH1, Living TV and Emap. This was one 21-year-old talent in a hurry, and already making waves in the industry. Head-hunted next to Publicis London, she found herself working on more massive accounts from UBS to Yeo Valley Organic to United Biscuits, all big beasts in very different worlds. ‘I had the most amazing time,’ she recalls. ‘Flying first-class around the world... in Switzerland for a day or so every week, off to Tokyo, Connecticut, New York – all over.' There is real excitement in her voice as she recalls the challenges of the world of advertising at this level, as well as the rewards, including Swiss Spa resort get-togethers. ‘My Theatre and Media training had led me to this,’ she clarifies; 'I ended up in a very creative career, but I wasn’t necessarily the "creative".' It is this clear overview that is her repeated mantra: that there are many more career possibilities that grow out of the creative disciplines than she had imagined. For some, like her, the most effective route is straight into the workplace rather than further study. She found herself ‘having the privilege of working with some of the most amazing artists’ including Ridley Scott’s brother, the Aardman team, who are the talented production company behind Wallace and Gromit. She made the youngest ever Account Director at Publicis at the tender age of 25, and then came another critical step-change. Finding herself ‘unexpectedly pregnant’ she and her partner, who was from Barbados, took the decision to move there, leaving Wimbledon and her current working world behind. Out there, Anna diverted into the world of events, working with a Sussex-based company Marcus Evans. This was 2008; the switch was ‘an absolute disaster,’ the relationship was not working and so she ‘came home’ to Sussex, a single mum and in need of an appropriate working lifestyle.
Downplaying the challenge, which I suspect is one of Anna’s great strengths, she reinvented herself in the world of consultancy. For the next few years she ‘took everything that (she) had learned’, and started applying it on behalf of other businesses. When her son started school in 2012 she lost no time in joining a comms (communications) agency working again on advertising based in nearby Brighton, in the role of Client Services Director. This kept her busy for a year or so, until ill-health meant a return to the greater flexibility of consultancy, leading this time onto a partnership with another mum with BBC experience, and with a whole new set of clients and briefs and outcomes. The work has proved varied and interesting and involves ‘a lot of writing and creating content’ as it happens. Another roll-call of big names follows, working this time for Nestle, Birds Eye/Findus, Ocean Spray, and Avon as well as a new growth market in SE Asian foods. Right now it seems that she is now on the verge of rejoining another big agency as partner and successor, following consultancy involvement with them. The focus here is on FMCG. No, I didn’t know either. ‘Fast Moving Consumer Goods: basically anything that sells in supermarkets’. Oh, and another iron in the fire is dog-breeding and ‘developing a protein snackbar for children’.
Impressed? I am almost speechless, not least because Anna has bubbled throughout with optimism and energy in spite of some considerable challenges. What I have sensed is self-knowledge and a confidence in her ability to change and develop. Recognising her strengths early on she has acted accordingly. Told on a number of occasions that she is ‘uniquely unqualified’, has she been downhearted? Clearly not. Any advice? ‘The advertising world sets its own agenda. The trick is to 'somehow get through the door,’ especially ‘as they only recruit from red-brick universities for their grad schemes’. Ironically having served on a number of grad recruitment committees, she observes that those selected are more likely to have traditional degrees than more specific marketing or media ones as they are ‘looking for cognitive diversity.’
So... Hurtwood? ‘So much to be grateful for,’ she reiterates. ‘So many good friends. It taught me independence’ and ‘gave me the confidence to decide that university was not for me.’ It also gave her the courage ‘to breeze into almost any situation.’ Phew, Anna. What a journey, and what destinations still lie ahead? Ask a busy woman and all that: Thanks so much for your breezy energy, your generous praise for us all on the hill and for taking time to share you grounded wisdom. You sum up for us all why we are celebrating the first 50 years of Hurtwood. Thank you.