Amelia Torode On Listening and Eavesdropping

Amelia Torode is Chief Strategy Officer at TBWA\ London where she oversees the strategic direction of the agency as well as leading the esteemed Planning Department. Amelia has worked extensively for some of the most famous brands in the world and has collected her career experiences from the likes of Ogilvy, Naked and VCCP. She is a true marketing “all-rounder” with a strong digital tilt. She writes extensively about technology, culture and creativity for newspapers and magazines such as The FT, The Spectator, The Mail on Sunday and Campaign and has given a TEDx on “brands on the brain”. She is constantly seeking life balance as a mother of two young boys. She works a 4 day week and has twice been on the Part Time Power List, a list of the 50 most powerful people in UK business who choose not to work a 5 day week. 

What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be an actress. I remember being very little and seeing a production of Bugsy Malone and thinking it was the most amazing thing.

Who would you most like to be stuck on a desert island with? Why?
My husband.

What single book has had the greatest impact on you?
Professionally, The Cluetrain Manifesto by Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls and David Weinberger.  

When do you go to bed and when do you get up?
I go to bed as early as I physically can. My work days are so busy. Work is fantastic but exhausting, and two boys are fantastic, but exhausting! I'm usually in bed by 10pm but asleep by 11pm. I wake around 6.30am.

Can you briefly explain your career path to date?
I studied history at university which is a brilliantly open subject about trying to understand, uncover and workout connections, stories and impacts. I wasn't completely sure what I wanted to do so I tried lots of different things. I remember really clearly spending a lot of time in the local supermarket. Cambridge, where I was at university at the time, had one supermarket and it was always full of students so I would spend a lot of time just waiting in line. I remember looking in people's baskets and thinking how incredible it was that you could build up a picture of who these people were, what they might do, where they go on holiday, and what the last film they might have seen was, just by assessing the types of things that they had in their baskets. I ended up spending far too long playing what I called Basket Economics but I found it really interesting to try to think about the psychology behind it, which got me thinking about the world through products, advertising and marketing.

I entered the world of advertising completely by chance when I got my hands on the industry magazine called Campaign. On the front of it, there was an interview with somebody who I had never heard of called Martin Sorrell. He had done a big conference speech about how the best graduates were being persuaded to go to management consultancies and the advertising industry needed to do something to attract them.

I sat down and wrote him a letter. People actually did things like that in the 1990s! I wrote a letter with a pen and paper to Martin and said, “Put your money where your mouth is. I'm one of these graduates. Give me a job.” I got a letter by return of post from him saying, "Thank you so much. I'm amazed that you're in a library reading a magazine while you're at university.” He went on to tell me about The WPP Marketing Fellowship which was a new graduate scheme that he was launching. The only rules of the scheme were that it was three years in three different disciplines, and if you wanted, three different countries. He sent me an application for the following year. I applied and got a place.

What was amazing about the scheme was that it was essentially a pick-your-own-adventure graduate scheme. The first year I was at JWT in London and it was a great foundation. Then, I went to Mindshare Digital, specializing in digital media. And then, I moved to the States and worked at OgilvyInteractive as a planner.

I ended up doing quite a lot of digital, and quite a lot of strategy. At the end of the last year I stayed on in New York and expanded the role to be strategist at OgilvyOne. I spent a number of years at an agency in the States called BerlinCameron and came to realize that I didn't just like advertising planning, what I really wanted to do was to help all the pieces come together.

In 2004 I was headhunted by the founders of Naked (Jon Wilkins, John Harlow and Will Collins) because their company was growing up and they were looking at a new level of strategy directors. It was a really interesting proposition because Naked was where you could tie all the pieces together and develop communication strategies for clients.

After Naked I moved across to VCCP to launch VCCP to integrate digital thinking within the agency. I had two babies quite close together and I will say that having really little babies in an ad agency was really hard, nearing impossible. VCCP are owned by a company called Chime so I spent a year working directly to the CEO of Chime doing special projects across the group. It allowed me to have that little bit of space for a year while things settled down at home.

In January 2015 I joined the team at TBWA\. I'm Chief Strategy Officer, so I'm responsible for the new strategy team running the agency. I work four days a week so I can also be around for my children.

What is the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome, as it relates to your career or industry?
I've always felt professionally that I've never fitted neatly into a box. I remember talking to agencies and coming out of the fellowship trying to get a job as a brand planner, and people saying that I had this amazing experience and done so many different bits butonly short stints on certain specialties.

I remember for a long time wondering how to brand myself and feeling confused about what exactly I was. A brand planner? A communications Strategist? A PR planner? It's only fairly recently that I've come to realize that this wealth of experience is what makes me good at my job. I had to get over that a lot earlier in my career. The anxiety that I had, which probably was more in my head than anything else, made me worry more than I needed to.

What motivates you?
Ultimately, I like doing things well. I think it's an amazing privilege to use creativity and technology to solve business problems.

I get as much satisfaction from building really good teams and departments and I get real satisfaction from younger planners and watching people that I work with, grow. I get huge satisfaction when I look and see how their careers develop, and I know that I've had an impact on that.

What do you wish you’d known at the start of your career?
I wish I had known not to wait for permission. Particularly as girls we often assume that somebody else is thinking about our career. The reality is, you have to forge your own way forward, speak up, ask and make things happen for yourself.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I’m sure every parent says this, but it really is my children.

What do you believe has been the key to your success?
Relentless curiosity. I grew up in a non-digital age and even when I started at JWT in '97 nobody cared about the internet. The only people who did were the IT people and I got them to teach me. I remember Jeremy Bullmore, my mentor and friend saying, "You've got to find something that you do that's different to other people, and then just do it better than anybody else." Finding something different to other people was digital back in '97, so I taught it to myself at JWT. Then, went to Mindshare Digital in '98. Then, went to OgilvyInteractive in New York in '99. I knew it was going to change the world; it was so obvious.

What is your life motto?
Walker Evans, the American documentary photographer, did this wonderful thing called The Subway Series. Essentially, he hacked a camera with a concealed lens so that people had no idea they were being photographed. He's an amazing observer and commentator of culture. He has a quote, “Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.” It sounds quite morbid, but I guess what I love about it is that whole thing about listening and eavesdropping to fully immerse yourself. It’s what you need to do to be an excellent Planner.

Who do you most admire in business? Why?
Caroline McCall, who is the CEO of EasyJet. I admire her enormously. She entered a male-dominated industry having never worked in aviation before. She’s done unbelievable things to EasyJet. The share price is up, loyalty is up, and she’s transformed the brand into one that is modern and aspirational.

What do you believe is the secret to rising up to the top?
Enjoying what you do and hard work.

Are there work ethics and attitudes that you most admire in women?
I know it's a stereotype, but I think we listen harder and I think we take a longer term views of things.

What's next?
I'm really happy where I am, but at some point I'll probably get an itch to start something. Maybe it's because my children are slightly older; I'm not going to have a third child. I've always loved the idea of starting something, of building a culture the way I want to do it and hiring people that share values and commitment to producing the kind of work in the kind of way that you think is the right way to do it.


As told to Caroline Hugall over Skype on Wednesday 13th July 2016. Amelia lives and works in London.