The CEO on reception: diverse backgrounds bring marketing strength

Diverse backgrounds and career paths are key to our strength in storytelling, says Will Harris.

The CEO on reception: diverse backgrounds bring marketing strength

If you have met Hannah who works on our reception, you’ll agree with me that, one day, she will be running the agency. Even if you haven’t met her specifically, you’ll have met her type.

Unflappable, friendly and incredibly eager to please, she is able to make the grittiest cycle courier feel at home, or the most effete and pampered client special. Her trajectory is upward, despite a lack of formal degrees and qualifications. Oh, plus she’s from Sheffield, and sounds it.

At the other end of the agency, our UK managing director started off working on reception at a magazine some moons ago, fresh from school. The story goes that he was so interested in the business around him that people took to shouting "PHONE!" at the top of their voice when the telephone rang, because he was busy looking at who was doing what in the world of fashion and retail. If you had met him then, you would have tipped him for the top.

These are not one-off events. Before reception came the post room, that unconventional clearing-house of talent, stuffed full with people itching to find a way into the business, by hook or by crook.

Enshrine the ability for people to come into our business through unconventional routes, from unconventional backgrounds.

When I worked at AMV, there was a story about the agency’s co-founder Peter Mead, which I want to believe is true. Once spurned by JWT while working in its post room, and told he was not "the right sort" to work in advertising, many years later Peter had his revenge. At lunchtime of the very day that AMV passed JWT in the new-business rankings, Mead went to Berkeley Square (where the latter then had its offices) and ate his sandwiches on a bench in the square, in front of his former employer’s building, in silent retribution.

The only part of that story I don’t believe is the bit about the sandwiches – it would more likely be Langan’s take-out.

These days, post rooms are not what they were, since people stopped sending letters. I think AMV probably still has a graduate stuffed in there (when I worked there about 10 years ago, I certainly hired one out of their post room, who went on to have a glittering career as a planner), but I wonder whether reception will become the de facto place to start your career in agency-land in the age of email.

The twin wrecking balls of digital and the ubiquitous smartphone are still merrily swinging back and forward, reforming everything in their wake.

What I am sure of is the need to enshrine this ability for people to come into our business not just through unconventional routes, but from unconventional backgrounds. If we are stuffed full of people all trained in the same way at the "great" universities, our ability to stay ahead of the rest of the world at marketing and communications will diminish and disappear. Only divergence of thought and diversity of background will keep our thinking and doing fresh and vivid.

Elsewhere in this issue, the best and brightest of the new era are being wheeled out, blinking in the sunlight of publicity. No doubt they are all hopeless overachievers, gliding through their work lives with an array of extra-curricular activities that would make the rest of us blanche. But I hope they are an eccentric mix of backgrounds and foregrounds, all different, all individual.

The new normal

They will inherit a marketing landscape that is more sure of itself than the one we all presently share. The twin wrecking balls of digital and the ubiquitous smartphone are still merrily swinging back and forward, reforming everything in their wake. Only once they settle down will a new norm begin to emerge.

One thing that is becoming clear is that the road to entrepreneurialism is becoming more and more distinct. If you take a "35,000ft view", it’s pretty easy to group marketers into conformist or non-conformist. The big corporations are demanding more conformity, more process, more precision. The small start-ups thrive precisely because they break the rules, and innovate away from what people are expecting.

The best advice I will give my children when they ask me about careers is to go and learn a skill, get really good at it, and then make a fine living all over the world practising it.

As the world opens up, so the opportunities for people who help tell stories can only increase. Receptionists of the world: your time is now.