Karina Wilsher on finding the people you love working with

Karina Wilsher is CEO and Partner at Anomaly New York. Prior to her move there five years ago, she spent a decade at the multi-award winning agency Fallon London, which she helped grow from the ground up. She never had a "path" planned out, but discovering her passion for exceptional creativity early on in her career meant she gravitated to world-class talent and grew with the industry. I had the pleasure of sitting down with this mother of two to discuss her ambitions and was captivated by her clear moral boundaries and strong family values.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
Embarrassingly I remember when I was about 6 or 7, I wanted to be either an actress or a kennel maid.  I was obsessed with dogs and knew absolutely every breed.  It makes me laugh that I would’ve been equally happy with being a Hollywood actress or someone who cleans up dog poo all day. Extraordinary.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
I've got a slight obsession with John Lennon, thanks to my father.  So John Lennon and Yoko Ono.  And my Dad, if we’re playing this game.

What single book had the greatest impact on you?
I grew up as an avid reader and read English literature at university, but I actually don't have one favorite book.  I have books I love that simply reflect the phases of my life, so childhood favorites, stuff I was into at uni, or books that remind me of a particular time or experience in my life.  Sadly, I don't read as much as I'd like to anymore.

When do you go to bed and when do you get up?
At about midnight or 1am, and I wake up whatever time my youngest jumps on top of me - normally anytime between 6:15am and 6:45am. It's the loveliest moment because he's six so still wants to climb into bed and snuggle up. It's a pretty special way to start the day.

What is your favorite time of the working week?
I don't have a particular favorite. When I reflect back on the great moments, it's more about whom I’m with and what I'm doing versus a particular time of day.   My favorite times tend to be when I'm actually "in it".  We often say that the Partners at Anomaly are as much practitioners as they are leaders, and it’s true - I love being in a room with smart people figuring stuff out.

Can you briefly explain your career path to date?
I wasn't one of those clever kids who mapped everything out and knew what I was going to be when I grew up. The only thing I was obsessed with was traveling. So I took a year off before, and after, going to university.  After backpacking around the world, I came home to find all my mates had jobs and I panicked that I was ‘”behind”. I thought I wanted to be ‘in media’, but really had no idea what that meant.  Fortunately I landed in advertising because it was definitely the right thing for me.

I’d taught myself to type and I was really fast.  Sounds so archaic now!  So I interviewed as the assistant for the Head of Account Management at an agency that doesn’t even exist now.  I guess I was pretty front-footed as I explained in the interview that I didn’t really want the job, unless it could get me another job, as what I really wanted was to get into account management.  Luckily they didn’t think I was too obnoxious; so I got the job, and was promoted after about 6 weeks into account management.

It was a small shop where you did everything, which was awesome because in places like that you learn really quickly.  I stayed there for about 18 months but was desperate to work in a ‘proper’, creative agency, so I wrote to the Head of Account Management at Lowe Howard-Spink (now Lowe and Partners) and somehow ended up getting an interview. He had his feet up on the table, swore loads and I thought it was the most exciting thing ever!  I got the job and loved it.

I learnt real craft and got a taste for award-winning work there, and worked with some amazing people.  Then just before Lowes merged with Lintas, I left to join what was a small start-up at the time, Fallon London.

I joined as the third ever account person and the whole agency, all fifteen of us, sat around one long table. It was the best thing I could have done.  Lowes had taught me what great work was, McBains had taught me how to make shit happen, so in many ways I had the perfect foundation to thrive in a start-up.  Those moments in a company’s life-stage are magical. You learn an incredible amount, not just about skill set but also values, culture, vibe, what you like and don't like. Everything is magnified so folks were either in or out.   And I was 100% in.

I both grew, and grew up in, the agency.  I accelerated through the ranks to Head of Account Management, then to Partner and Managing Director.  I worked with some of the very best, made friends for life, and we were all ‘in the zone’ - Agency of the Year consecutively and most awarded agency in the world, so we had a ton of success and a fair amount of swagger.  We had a proper laugh!

I didn’t imagine any other agency, other than my own, ever being especially interesting to me.  So it’s testament to Carl and Anomaly, that after 10 years, pretty much to the day, I left Fallon to join Anomaly New York.

I loved the entrepreneurial nature of the company, and the more innovative proposition.  The type of questions that we partner with clients on – big, fat, open ended business problems – are just what I like.  When I started, we were still somewhat in start-up mode, but were more than ready to grow. So I’ve enjoyed being able to work with super talented people and help take the company to the next level.

I've been here five years and we've had an extraordinary amount of growth and success.  I’m proud not only of what we’ve become, but also of all of our people.  And the best bit is, I still feel like we’ve only just started.

What is the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome, as it relates to your industry?
I’m lucky, as I can’t actually think of a big obstacle.  Doing what you enjoy, I think, helps alleviate some of the challenges or obstacles that inevitably lie in your way. Working with people I like and respect has always been a really basic requirement of mine and it’s served me well.  It's not a walk in the park by any means, it's always challenging, but that's also what makes it awesome.  If you love it, then you thrive even when there’s tricky stuff to navigate, as opposed to seeing obstacles.  To be honest, I’ve never ever thought about obstacles.

What motivates you?
Doing exceptional stuff with exceptional people.

What drew me to Anomaly specifically was both the business model and people that are wickedly smart, ambitious and a good laugh.  Nothing more motivating than that!

What advice would you give to someone at the start of their career?
That it’s much better to focus on who you are, not what you want.  Know what's important to you and use that as your guiding principle. I was never one of those people who knew what I wanted or had a "life plan", but I hope I’ve always been true to who I am and therefore choiceful about what I do.

And never accept stuff at work that you wouldn't accept in life. I remember being a young account director and dealing with a very senior, older male client who just didn’t like the fact that he was expected to deal with a young woman like me.  One day on a call, he started shouting at me and hung up.  I was so shocked. I genuinely didn't know what I was supposed to do and then I just thought: This is not acceptable. So I called him and told him that.  It sounds like a really small thing, but I was young and unsure about ‘the rules’ of work.  Then I just realized, rightly, that they had to be the same as the rules of life.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Having an amazing, wonderful husband; two beautiful, ‘high-energy’ boys; and a career that I love. I've lucked out.

How has having a family and a career worked for you?
It's been made possible through sheer hard work and being lucky enough to have an amazing husband who’s really supportive.  I think ‘balance’ is a bit of a misnomer, but knowing what your own personal parameters are and what's important to you will help you navigate the inevitable tricky path of having both a career and a family.  It’s something I learnt along the way and funnily enough I learnt it from men.

My previous Partners at Fallon, and now at Anomaly, are all men. And they all had their thing - whether it’s going to the gym at lunch, never getting into the office early, kids holidays, not working late... each one established their own parameters.  And it’s different for everyone, but you have to have some otherwise you’ll go crazy trying to ‘have it all’!  I do think it can be harder for women to do this.  Whether that's because women are always keen to please, or whether candidly, sometimes people react to women differently when they say they need to leave for a kid’s appointment. vs a male counterpart.

Saying all that, I also think you need the right level of flexibility for it to work. I don't think you can have a thriving career and a happy family without being flexible on both sides. That’s true for men and women.

What do you believe has been the key to your success?
Finding something I genuinely love doing, so if I’ve had any success so far, it’s simply because I still have a ton of heart and energy for what I do.  It kind of tips into a cliché but it's the truth.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
Do what you really want to do versus what you think you should do.

What do you believe are the personality traits of great leaders?
Drive, energy and optimism, decisiveness, honesty and always feeling personally accountable - not just for the success of the company but also for the individuals that work for you.

What do you believe to be the secret to rising up to the top?
To the top of what? Rather than chasing titles or milestones, I think knowing what the ‘top’ is for you, on your terms, means you've got a better chance of getting there.

Who do you turn to when the going gets tough?
My husband. I've actually never had a mentor, but I have a great family and awesome mates.

What's next?
Anomaly is on a great path forward, so without sounding glib, more of the same.  Continuing to deliver and stretch Anomaly, continuing to grow our people and be good and useful to clients.  Oh, and a vacation on the beach would be nice.


As told to Caroline Hugall at Anomaly New York on Wednesday 18th March 2015.