A view from Clare Coughlan

Lessons from the ladder: It's what you do, not what you say

Clare Coughlan, head of brand guardianship at Telefónica UK, got where she is today by throwing herself out of her comfort zone, over and over...

I’ve always worked hard and continually asked for more responsibility. If it felt scary, I knew I was on to a good thing.

The hardest bit when you’re starting out is getting your first role and making sure it’s relevant. I started out with a couple of internships: one client-side managing direct campaigns and the other agency-side for a PR shop looking after its smaller clients.

By the time I graduated, my CV proved that I was serious and dedicated. It’s important to find out what you’re good at, what you’ve got an eye and an instinct for. Take a few sideways steps early on to get a feel for where you’ve got a natural knack.

I think a lot of people worry about pigeonholing themselves but I’ve always worked on getting better at what I’m good at and growing from there. I’ve got an eye for brand design, crisp copy and bringing brands to life – that’s where my strengths lie. Why would I water that down?

That said, it’s not always about the role. I’ve been in the same role for four years now but I’ve grown my scope in that time and worked on projects way beyond my remit. It keeps me learning.

I’ve recently turned my hand to the strategy side, working to formalise our brand vision and define our strategic framework. After a lot of hard work, not only have I managed to add a new string to my brand bow, I now have a much wider (and more senior) network too.

But careers take time. I once had a graduate on my team who asked me, on day one of his first-ever job, how he could become chief executive of the tech giant we were working at.

While ambition is great and it’s good to have a plan, I’ve always been a fan of doing some actual work. I like to think I’ve got to where I am because of the quality of my work. I let it do the talking. It’s what you do, not what you say.

Results can take time too. After constantly delivering incredible brand experiences for our customers, O2 was finally named The Marketing Society’s Brand of the Year last year. A result that was only possible because everyone here believes in our brand and works hard to deliver more for our customers than ever before.

Here are my top tips for those starting out in marketing.

Hone your eye

You’ll need a strong creative eye and opinion. Look at everything longer and harder. Become a creative critic.

Push yourself, not others

It’s your career so you need to be the driving force. As soon as you start to feel comfortable, throw yourself into something scary. Don’t wait for someone else to prompt you.

Roll up your sleeves

There’s always more that can be done and ideas that can be pushed further, so get involved.

Stand by your views

Just make sure you can substantiate them. You won’t always be right but you will be respected.


It’s hard to be original if you do the same thing day in, day out, in the same place, with the same people. Switch it up.

Clare Coughlan is the head of brand guardianship at Telefónica UK. Coughlan featured in Marketing's Power 100 Next Generation in 2014.