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Ad Spotlight: Kelly Parker, Wavemaker UK CEO

Welcome to the Ad Spotlight series where we hear from a different guest from the industry each month to get an insight into the landscape of advertising as well as their own personal experiences.

Our guest this month is Kelly Parker. Kelly has an impressive and eclectic media career, working with global brands such as PepsiCo, Google, Levi’s and McDonald’s during stints at MPG, Havas and OMD. She is currently CEO at Wavemaker UK, part of the top five global media network reshaping consumer decision-making and experiences through media, content and technology.

Kelly has experience taking clients and businesses to new heights, so we sat down to discover some of her biggest takeaways and thoughts on the future…

Q: Why did you choose a career in advertising?

A: Back when I was still at school, I was obsessed with asking all of my family’s friends about their careers in order to find the right industry for me.

Advertising stood out from the get go for the fun, the creativity (and I’ll be honest, the salary!). My first ever work experience was at an agency, and every summer holiday following that, I did work experience in the media department of what we now know as RAPP. The rest, as they say, is history…

Q: What are the biggest challenges facing the industry right now?

A: Helping our people and our clients navigate the coming recession should be front of mind for every leader right now.

Many of us have weathered a crisis or two over the years, but we’ve never had to deal with multiple crises of this scale all at once. It’s a challenge because we can’t predict the future – we’ve been doing lots of research into the cost-of-living crisis and what it means for the industry, but no one can say for sure what it’s going to look like in the next 6-12 months.

What’s important is that as leaders, we don’t underestimate the impact that the coming recession will have on the day-to-day lives of our people. And it is difficult to deliver your best work – driving growth for your clients – when you are facing such challenging circumstances behind the scenes.

The recession will collide with everyone’s home and work-lives, and it can sometimes feel impossible to keep the two separate. So for our people, we must support them in any way that we can, and for our clients, we should act as strategic partners, challenging what’s gone before and imagining a better way to grow. It will be tough, but we should look at this time as an opportunity to work together and use our power to change behaviour and build a world that we all want to live in.

Q: Sum up the future of advertising in three words.

A: Progressive, positive, and inspiring.

Q: What is your biggest career highlight – and biggest regret?

A: It’s got to be the time I went to the French Open with JCDecaux and met David Ginola!

In terms of regrets, to be honest, there are probably too many to count. But in the early stages of my career, I know that I let imposter syndrome get the better of me, which no doubt held me back in certain situations where I wish it hadn’t.

Q: Your favourite ad (current or all-time)

A: Remember the Trio biscuit ad from 1985? I really identify with the girl in it that has a super loud voice… and it takes me straight back to my childhood.

Q: Wavemaker talks about a “Positive provocation” attitude – what does that mean in practice?

A: Positive provocation means challenging what’s gone before and imagining a better way to deliver exceptional growth for our clients and our people. It’s knowing that the growth models of today will not serve the future – that what got our clients there today won’t work tomorrow. It means thinking deeply, caring enough to want to do better and refusing to take the easy route.

There are many fantastic examples of our ‘positive provocation’ attitude in play, which also demonstrate why it works. To touch on just one of many, we worked with RNIB and The&Partnership to create a campaign – Design for Everyone – which brought the issue of inaccessible packaging to life in a bold and provocative way while applying pressure to UK businesses to help solve a major barrier to independence for blind and partially sighted people. To activate this, we literally built a corner shop stocked with deliberately inaccessible packaging, which both members of the public and senior decision makers experienced for themselves.

We pushed boundaries and from this, RNIB secured 17 new corporate relationships, 340k+ views on LinkedIn and 3k social comments on the campaign. This piece of unrivalled work has gone on to get shortlisted in, and win, industry awards, and no doubt will continue to do so.

That’s why ‘positive provocation’ underpins everything we do at Wavemaker.

Q: If you had to pick the three most important things for achieving client growth, what would they be?

A: Listening to the client and truly understanding what the problem is;

Having the confidence to challenge the client on what might solve the problem;

And maintaining a real understanding of the audiences that will help them grow, which includes baking inclusivity into everything you do.

Q: You’ve spoken about retaining talent being a top priority as CEO – What must media agencies do to attract, retain, and nurture talent in a competitive market?

A: I think above all, we need to remind people why we’re here – the work. We’ve all been through so much in the last couple of years and there’s been so much change that it’s possible we’ve lost sight of why we’re in this industry.

The bottom line is that the work we produce helps to shape the outside world. Our work can be instrumental in influencing positive behaviour change and spreading powerful messages to those that need to see them. We certainly demonstrated that during the pandemic.

I personally find it incredibly inspiring to think about the fact that we can be a part of something genuinely positive. So reminding people why we do what we do is key. If you show up to work every day knowing that you’re contributing to something good, you are sure to feel happier and more content.

Of course, culture plays a big role in attracting, retaining and nurturing talent. And I think it’s time to bring back the fun. We’ve had great feedback from the times that we’ve brought everyone together in the office to take part in activities that aren’t necessarily about work, and you can sense that everyone feels a little bit lighter as a result. We’re all humans, and humans like fun, right?

Realistically, high talent churn is here to stay. But rather than simply plugging the gaps, I say we focus on actively hiring outside of our comfort zones, not just opening our doors to new talent from all backgrounds but going out of our way to invite them in, with open arms. Why not turn our attention to building new service models that are less reliant on volume of people and more focused on diversity of thought and skillset?

It goes without saying though that on top of all of this, we are facing incredibly difficult times as a society. If we are to retain talent, now is the time to roll up our sleeves, show genuine understanding and offer support wherever we can.

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