ADLAND’S UNSUNG HEROINES: As new technology plays a bigger part in agencies, the larger shops are reviewing the secretary’s role. What effect is this having on agency life?

It’s official. The paperless office is quicker and more efficient BT is advertising the fact on television, and obviously the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre wouldn’t have passed the script if it were not so. The tide of communications change is sweeping the world and bringing with it e-mail, voicemail, the Internet, ISDN, video conferencing and all manner of devices to minimise our reliance on human interaction. Functionality reigns supreme.

It’s official. The paperless office is quicker and more efficient

BT is advertising the fact on television, and obviously the Broadcast

Advertising Clearance Centre wouldn’t have passed the script if it were

not so. The tide of communications change is sweeping the world and

bringing with it e-mail, voicemail, the Internet, ISDN, video

conferencing and all manner of devices to minimise our reliance on human

interaction. Functionality reigns supreme.

It was not always so. Agencies were renowned as vibrant environments

where work sprang from chatting to one another. Advertising was, above

all, a people business and there was no greater social lubricant than

the secretary. Long before networking became part of the executive’s job

spec, secretaries ensured that everyone in the agency knew what was

going on. The spreading of information was not limited to informal

gossip. You were less likely to be cynical about something you heard

from your secretary than about information you read on a memo from the

management. Of course, secretaries were responsible for typing and

telephone answering, but they were also important in keeping up agency

morale. As Robert Senior, joint client services director at TBWA Simons

Palmer, says: ’The best secretaries are not the quickest typists or the

most efficient meetings organisers, but the ones who are the best

cultural ambassadors. They become good reference points for what type of

agency it is.’

But some people began to assume that secretaries were just about typing

and telephone answering, and doubted their worth in the age of the

virtual office. According to Ben Langdon, chief executive of

McCann-Erickson: ’As a consequence of the growth in technology, some

people have questioned the need to have not just the number but also the

type of secretary we used to have, the sort who used to be

entertainments officers and the source of all gossip. You tend to get

secretaries to double up on the sorts of jobs that graduate trainees

used to do.’

Different agencies are approaching the situation in slightly different

ways but most are having to redefine the secretarial role. Those

agencies that have yet to install voicemail or make their offices

open-plan have tended to retain more vestiges of the old secretarial

role - but this is changing. This is not just down to technology but

also the attitude of newcomers entering the industry. Fresh recruits are

more computer literate and expect to look after themselves to a greater


Traditional secretaries are becoming marginalised by a new generation

that increasingly views their function as obsolete.

This leaves the secretary with two options: sit and wait until the

modern age negates your worth and your job ceases to exist, or learn new

skills and start contributing in other areas. Angela Porteous,

secretarial quaestor at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, observes: ’We’ve

always wanted our secretaries to take on more responsibility. We don’t

want them to just sit there bashing away on a word processor. We want

them to be involved and be part of the team.’

This expanded role has led to the emergence of the new title of account

administrator or assistant, a quasi-account management job with

incidental secretarial duties. As account teams become more streamlined,

it is not unusual for everyone to be away from their desks or out of the


It’s handy to have a person back at the ranch who knows something about

what is happening on the business and who can provide short-term fixes

before people return.

This is a more satisfying job than being ’merely’ a secretary - a title

many now dislike for its pejorative overtones - and it offers greater

opportunities for career advancement. It also increases the pressure.

Davide De Maestri, group account director at M&C Saatchi, says:

’Secretaries need to be better than ever before because there’s fewer of

them. They’re responsible for more of the output - so if they fuck up,

they fuck up big time and you can’t gloss over it.’

Most secretaries entering the ad business these days don’t envisage

staying secretaries for ever. Some want to move on to be a senior

person’s PA, some want to get into account management or the creative

department. They are serious about their careers.

Some are lucky and get the breaks. Others find it extremely difficult to

shake off their past and acquire the credibility needed to move

significantly forward. ’Some Oxbridge prat’ is a label many graduates

find difficult to shake off after entering the industry. ’Some girl who

used to be a secretary’ is a tag that can be even harder to lose.

Even though the role may be changing, the way secretaries are recruited

is not perceived to be. Bimbos may be thinner on the ground these days

but, generally, the secretarial body is still mainly composed of young

and attractive women. It doesn’t matter too much what you look like if

you want to become a creative or an account planner, but nobody wants a

secretary who looks like Dave Lee Travis. This attitude is not only

politically incorrect, but is out of synch with what secretaries are now

required to do.

Of course, there are some people who would prefer their secretaries not

to be ambitious. Some older members of the industry begrudge not having

a pretty young thing to wait on them hand and foot. They dismiss the

moves to reduce the number of secretaries as some sort of money-saving

ploy by management. This would appear not to be the case.

Amanda Fisher, the head of secretaries at J. Walter Thompson, says:

’Over time, we’ve reduced the head count, increased the quality and

they’re better paid so, overall, it’s not a particular financial


In general, management seems keen to keep the secretarial function


This is partly down to recognising the importance of having a human

contact point at the agency, and partly because they could never see

themselves being able to cope without a PA. The typical senior staff

member has his/her entire working life organised by a PA in a way that

allows them to get on with doing their job. Jo Dix, PA to Trevor Beattie

at TBWA and now GGT, says: ’I’m 100 per cent back up. I know everyone

who phones in to speak to him and I’ve got an answer for them.’

Senior secretaries tell the same story. Their professional efficacy is

down to how well they know what is going on in the agency and the


It takes years to acquire this knowledge. And, when a senior person

finds an assistant who lives up to their expectations, they tend not to

let them go. A senior hiring often means offering a job to the PA


So where are the senior PAs of the future coming from? At present,

junior secretaries are not encouraged to accumulate those skills. Their

relationship is not with the dozen or so people with whom they work, but

with the impersonal accounts to which they are assigned. They don’t have

the time to build up a knowledge of anything that doesn’t have an

immediate functional end.

Secretaries will not disappear altogether. It is accepted that they will

always be needed, but their changing role reflects what is happening in

the industry generally. Langdon says: ’That sort of indulgence and

fraternity has disappeared. It’s sad because it used to be one of the

reasons why people enjoyed working in the business.’ Most people join

advertising expecting it to be fun. This is particularly true of

secretaries, who see it as more lively than working in insurance or law.

It was always the case that when things got tough, people had to get

serious but secretaries used to inject some much needed levity at such

times. Now they get serious with everyone else - the safety valve has

been removed.

This has changed the agency environment into a serious place where only

the career-focused can survive. Gone are the days when the strength of

an agency could be measured by the breadth of the church it


Now there’s only room for rude ambition.

The dangers of the virtual office are evident and it is hard to believe

that anyone could be foolish enough to advocate organising an agency on

the basis of sheer functionality. People tapping away on laptops from

home will just not work, however good communications technology


People need to meet face to face and have human stimulation.

But the price paid is the demise of the traditional secretary. It may be

quicker to do your own typing and more reliable to have voicemail for

your messages. And it may seem motivating for secretaries to be invited

to become more involved in the business. But this is not the point.

Something is being lost, the true value of which has never really been

appreciated openly. In the words of Jim Thornton, a copywriter at GGT:

’It’s a great shame because secretaries are a civilising influence.

They’re not as utterly involved in what’s going on as everyone else is

so they add a bit of balance.

While everyone else is getting up their own arses, quite often you get a

reasonable perspective from secretaries.’


Lucas has been Paul Simons’ PA for most of the past seven years.

Although she has an HND in beauty therapy, at 38 she has worked

primarily for senior people in advertising.

’I was drawn to advertising because of the people, the atmosphere and

the attitude to what you wear at work. It’s a nice environment with

interesting people. I once had a year in finance, then I came back to

Paul. The other secretaries weren’t up to his expectations, so I was

asked to come back.

You need to have a lot more of a relationship with your boss if you’re

working for someone senior. You get to know their family and all their

little foibles - their cigarettes, dry cleaning, coffee and all the

little bits and pieces. You’re not just an operator of machinery. Most

of the day is spent screening calls so Paul doesn’t get bogged down with

people he doesn’t want to talk to. Juggling diaries takes up a lot of

time, managing his time so that he can get on with his job.’


Lyne is 34 and works as Adam Kean’s PA at Saatchi & Saatchi, having

previously done the same for Simon Dicketts. Before that, she worked for

other agencies in a number of departments.

’ I tried my hand at working in a bank, but A-line skirts and

see-through blouses with push-up bras weren’t exactly me. A friend who

worked in the business suggested I might have a personality suited to

advertising, so I stumbled into it. It was play and fun, with work

splashed in. Nowadays, people seem more geared up to this industry

specifically, and there’s not the same spectrum of backgrounds and

personalities there used to be.

It’s still quite old-fashioned in the meeting and greeting way, and the

personal touch is now more valid than ever before. I have to know what’s

going on in Adam’s life, who he needs to see, who takes priority. I have

to send away people who take up large chunks of his day. I field things

for him that don’t need to be attended to then and there. I’m a

’behind-the-scenes bird’. Lots of situations go on outside his door

without him knowing. I have to change my voice all the time.’


Cubitt is PA to Rupert Howell and also looks after Adam Lury, Robin

Price and Chris Satterthwaite . She has been at HHCL & Partners for

three years. Apart from seven years running her own electronic

presentations company and maternity leave, she has spent most of her

career in advertising. She is 42.

’I sit next to Rupert - his desk touches mine - so you know exactly

what’s going on. I found it hard when I first came here to even make a

phone call. I’d wait until Rupert went away until I made one. I remember

the first time Rupert said to me, ’I’m just going to make a cup of tea,

do you want one?’. I almost fell off my chair. It’s so different here, I

couldn’t imagine working back at a normal agency. All the post comes

through me and I decide what he looks at because I know him well enough

now. I deal with his social diary and, if his family needs anything, I

deal with that too. I think it’s a just case of knowing him, so that if

anyone rings up to ask if he wants to do something, I don’t have to ask

him because I’ll know if he wants to do it. Everything that comes in I

know whether to bin or who to send it on to. It frees him up.

You’ve got to know who people are. People at Rupert’s level don’t like

to be thought of as not being known. He doesn’t like it at all when

people say ’Rupert who?’’

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