Lindsey Clay on speaking up

Lindsey Clay is CEO of Thinkbox, the marketing body for commercial television in the UK. Only last month she took over as President of WACL (Women in Advertising and Communications London) where she champions women in the industry and nurtures rising female talent. Lindsey started her career in a sales promotions agency before getting into advertising and hitting her stride. Eight years ago she was approached to join the team at Thinkbox and has successfully transformed industry opinions of television. She has two daughters and believes the key to her success is lots of practice and a good sense of humor.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to either ride horses or be a TV presenter. Basically I have always been a massive show off and I imagined myself absolutely in the spot light. We had a chat show here in the UK starring a presenter called Terry Wogan and I assumed I would have his job at some point. I have to say that I was slightly disappointed when I grew up and thought maybe that wasn't going to happen as easily as I had imagined.

Who would you most like to be stuck on a desert island with? Why?
It depends on what sort of Desert Island it is. I go on a trip to the south of France once a year with the most wonderful group of girlfriends and it's the most brilliant trip. We go to the airport and get completely sorted with magazines and chocolates. We get in vat- loads of Rosé and then we lie by the pool gossiping, laughing and drinking, having the most hilarious time for an entire weekend. If it's that sort of Desert Island, then I'd love to go with those girls. If it's a real desert island I would be a bit hopeless because I'm slightly squeamish about stuff, so I would probably have to go with Bear Grylls. 

What single book has had the greatest impact on you? Why?
The book that has inspired me the most from a business context is Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. It's a book about geniuses in their different fields and in short, explains that the main differentiator between the very good and the utterly brilliant is 10,000 hours of practice. That concept made me realize that if you're pretty average at something you can be way more than competent if you just put the time and effort in. It's the inspirational tome for average people everywhere!

When do you go to bed and when do you get up?
I don't need a lot of sleep. My husband often grumbles at me in the morning and asks why I always wake up so early! I try to be asleep by midnight and my alarm is set for 6am. I can very happily survive on 6 hours. It means I can pack more into life.

Can you briefly explain your career path to date?
I had loads of interests at school. I played sport; I sang in the choir, I was in the debating group. I was involved in everything and continued in that vein when I studied at Cambridge University. So coming out of university and thinking I might actually have to get a job, was something of a trauma for me. I ended up stumbling into a career at a sales promotion agency, which seemed at least like a lot of fun.

I worked my way around to advertising by a process of elimination. I remember sitting in a meeting with a client, as the sales promotion agency, and him referring to this mysterious body called The Agency. He kept on referring to The Agency and he didn’t mean us. He meant the advertising agency. He seemed to hold them in such high esteem and I thought that sounded a lot more interesting.

I eventually landed a job in advertising and absolutely found my niche. I liked the fantastic, inspiring, funny, creative people, the variety of the challenges, the intellectual stimulus and the commercial edge. I spent most of my career in advertising, which I thoroughly enjoyed but after a 10-year stint at JWT, I didn't want my options to be narrowed down and get too stuck on that path.

At that point I got a call about this organization called Thinkbox, which I'd never heard of as it was very new. People always say, go and work for an inspiring individual or a company whose values you buy into. I knew the person running Thinkbox was a talented, inspiring woman called Tess Alps, so that was the reason I went along for the interview and I've been here very happily for the last 8 years.

Looking back, there is a pattern emerging, I tend to stay places for a longish period of time but have always progressed and done something interesting and new within my time there, often in different roles. In the last 8 years here I’ve spent three years as Marketing Director, three years as Managing Director and then more recently have become CEO. So whenever you take on a new role like that there are a whole different set of challenges for you to test yourself. It certainly hasn't felt like 8 years of doing the same thing.

I’ve also just taken over as President of WACL (Women in Advertising and Communications London) so there is a whole different set of challenges with that too.  

What is the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome, as it relates to your career or industry?
People who know me might be slightly surprised to hear me say this but I think fear of failure is the biggest obstacle I've learnt to overcome. After I left school, where I was a big fish in a small pool and pretty good at everything, I was suddenly surrounded by people at university who were completely brilliant at everything. All the things I'd prided myself on being good at, there were 15 other people there that were much better than me. In every field, I was eclipsed. I found that quite hard to deal with at the time and it made me stop trying for a while. What I’ve come to realize is that there will always be people better than you but that doesn’t matter and actually sometimes it just takes you a bit longer to get to where you want to go.  I think that's why Outliers was such a brilliant book for me because it just made me think, it's ridiculous to not do something because you're scared of failing at it.

I've got a different attitude now and I certainly would advise younger people to just go for it. You don't always get everything you want but even if you don’t, you usually have a good experience and learn something in making the attempt.

What motivates you?
I love the TV advertising business and I love the people I get to work with. I’m inspired by organizations and projects that I think could work even better.

I am motivated by the joy of doing a good thing well. It's really important to have a job that you enjoy and that is a positive force in your life, rather than a negative force. I've almost always thought that way. The times when I haven't felt that way about my career or the position I'm in, is the time when I’ve thought about doing something else.

What do you wish you’d known at the start of your career?
I wish I’d realized earlier that everybody has impostor syndrome. Once somebody came up with that phrase it was a revelation for me. Knowing that everybody feels that way was very strengthening.

What would you tell your children at the start of their career?
You have to put yourself out there. If you commit to something, then you commit to it whole-heartedly and you do it to the very best of your ability. It’s the only way to get the best out of anything in life.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I feel like that's always a very hard question for a woman to answer because we get deeply uncomfortable thinking that anything we've done is a great achievement! I would say in my career I’m extremely proud of the work we do at Thinkbox in getting TV the respect it deserves in the UK. When I started doing this job there were all sorts of stories about the death of TV. We've helped to transform the view of television as an advertising medium in the UK, which is very satisfying.

From a personal perspective I'm proud of the partnership I have with my husband in doing our best to be great joint role models for our daughters. We both have careers that we enjoy enormously and I want my daughters to see that work can be a really positive part of your life. It's not just something that you do because you have to live. It's something that can be fun, inspiring, enjoyable, stressful, difficult, challenging but ultimately an extremely positive force.

What do you believe has been the key to your success?
Practice and a sense of humor.

The theme for my WACL Presidency is Speak Up. It's one of the topics that I feel passionately about. Women are amazing communicators. They are famous for talking and it's often impossible to shut us up, except when it comes to the public sphere, when suddenly they go eerily silent and their voices aren't heard. There is quite often a fear associated with public speaking and I was thinking last night, as I had to give my speech at the WACL membership and talk about my theme for the year. I'm so much more comfortable doing that now than I was eight years ago but what has made the difference is just doing it a lot. Having to do lots of speeches and talks and presentations makes you get better at it. I think I'm able to talk about that now from a position of some authority because I genuinely used to be adequate at best and now I feel comfortable and competent. That's what you get with a bit of practice.

What is your life motto?
Join in. I'm a joiner-inner by nature. I say yes and throw myself into things. I join groups. I play in a netball team, I'm in a book club, I do lots of socializing at work and I'm a big believer that the more you put in, the more you get out. 

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
I'm incredibly proud of being a member of WACL because I think the advice I've been given along the way from the members has been phenomenal. I can remember all sorts of different bits and pieces that have stayed with me. Whether it's Speak Up or Confidence is a product of our experience or Be the best you you can be, rather than a worse somebody else or the difference between try and triumph is a little oomph. They have all stayed with me. There are a million of these little aphorisms and I've learnt so much from WACL members over the years.

Who do you most admire in business? Why?
I hugely admire Carolyn McCall who is the CEO of EasyJet (a budget airline in the UK). She was previously the Chief Executive of The Guardian Media Group and moved into a completely different sector. Lots of people questioned her move at the time but she has completely transformed the airline in her own way and managed to create an incredible service ethic within a budget organization. She's hugely generous about her team, very ready to give the credit to other people, a leader of real integrity and very successful. She’s also a member of WACL and we are all very proud of her.

What do you believe is the secret to rising up to the top?
I don't think there's a specific path you can follow. It has to be about doing it your own way and finding the best leader within you. You can't do it by faking it and pretending to be something that you're not. It has to be authentic. It goes without saying that you also have to work incredibly hard.

What are your favorite traits about women in the workplace?
My favorite traits about women are generosity, supportiveness, fantastic sense of humor and collaboration. There are so many strengths that women have. Every year we organize an inspirational training event for young women in the industry called Gather. We bring together 400 young women to be inspired by women who have already achieved some level of success. The thing that is very striking is how ready those senior women are to share their mistakes. They don't want to airbrush their career to create a perfect track of what has happened. They are always very ready to reveal their greatest weaknesses and their biggest mistakes in order to give other women a helping hand. It strikes me that that honesty is an attribute that I've seen more in women and I love it.

Who do you turn to when the going gets tough?
I have a small network of people that I know in the industry and I always turn to my husband who is an incredible support, friend and partner. My mentor, Tess Alps, is also an amazing support. She hired me at Thinkbox and she's now our Chair working two days a week. When I stepped into the CEO position, the knowledge that she was there for me when I needed her, made all the difference in the world. She's the most fantastic sounding board, conscience and champion and I feel very privileged to have her in my life.

What's next?
I'm in day one of my WACL Presidency. This next year of being President I will strive to do a fantastic job by our members and by women in the industry. One of the things I'm keen to do is build out my theme of Speak Up. That works on three levels:

- Speak Up to Inspire Others: As Cindy Gallop says "You can't be it, if you can't see it." As women who've achieved something we need to be vocal and out there as an inspiration to younger women.

- Speak Up to Challenge and Change Things: We've all got to a position of influence in the industry and I'm really keen that we use that influence for good. The aim is to change things for the better on issues to do with gender and diversity.

- Speak Up to Celebrate and Praise: That comes quite naturally to women but public praise is such a powerful tool and we could be using it much more effectively to celebrate our own success and also to praise the men in organizations who are doing great work in the areas of gender and diversity.

That's my agenda. Between that and making sure I get people excited about television and getting it the credit it deserves, I've got my hands full for the next year.

As told to Caroline Hugall on the phone on Wednesday 8th July 2015. Lindsey is based in London.