Cilla Snowball: 'I try to be a good loser but inwardly I'm a very bad loser'

Outgoing AMV chief executive on pitching, childbirth and the future for the creative industries.

Cilla Snowball: 'I try to be a good loser but inwardly I'm a very bad loser'

Unlike Edith Piaf, Frank Sinatra, Robbie Williams and, of course, Dappy, Cilla Snowball has one career regret she’s willing to share, involving a request from Michael Baulk, her predecessor as chief executive at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, where she is leaving after 26 years at the end of December.

"When I went on maternity leave soon after I joined, I’d stopped working and he asked me to help out with a Quorn pre-production meeting," she recalls. "I was right on the due date, but I thought, it’s only a conference room at Heathrow, I’m half-an-hour away, so I decided to go. On the way there, I thought, I feel a bit weird."

Two hours later, she was in labour with her third child, Rosie – "So she has the distinction of being nearly born in a Quorn pre-production meeting." While that might explain why Rosie was the only one of Cilla’s kids to follow her mother into advertising (she is an account manager at Adam & Eve/DDB), it was a situation Snowball finds baffling with the benefit of hindsight: "I would never do that now. What possessed me?"

But that memorable occasion aside, Snowball insists: "I’m not a regrets type of person – but I’m a great believer in silver linings." Her attitude isn’t just about leaving the past in the past – she admits that every losing pitch she has been involved in has stayed "etched in my memory".

"I try to be a good loser but inwardly I’m a very bad loser," she admits. "We beat ourselves up big time about things we’ve lost. But, in every occasion, you learn something by losing. Good leaders need to be passionate about winning and not afraid of losing."

The rawest of these losses is Camelot, which AMV lost this year to Adam & Eve/DDB after 14 years. Snowball’s successor as chief executive, Sarah Douglas, appeared to agree with Campaign’s Jeremy Lee that the new agency’s first work was under par. What does Snowball think?

"It’s impossible to be objective when you look at the work of a pitch that you’ve lost from the winning agency," she says diplomatically, but admits: "The execution I found quite difficult given all our years on Camelot." But her harshest, gentlest swipe is directed at the client: "The strategy they are following is an interesting strategy."

Unsurprisingly, Snowball is much more at ease talking about the points of pride from her long career at the UK’s biggest agency, first of which is the new leadership team of Douglas and Justin Pahl, who has been promoted from managing director to group chairman.

"Good leaders build a strong succession squad and we have a very strong succession plan built around someone who’s been in the agency for 18 years," she says. Her advice to Douglas is this: "We have huge momentum, so build on that and enjoy it – focusing on enjoying the reality of everyday life makes good CEOs."

Cilla Snowball's three key ads from 26 years at AMV

When we ask how she thinks AMV will look in another 26 years, she makes a bullish prediction: "We’re three times bigger than when I joined, so I’d expect us to be at least three times bigger again."

If we’re talking billings, that would put the agency on around £1.3bn in 2044. It might be hyperbole, but for one agency to get anywhere close to that size would surely rely on the industry as a whole continuing to surge. Given the challenges facing agencies at the moment, is that realistic?

Snowball is adamant: "The ad industry will keep growing. The demand for creativity has never been greater and the means to measure it have never been better. I feel great about the creative industries – they’re a huge driver of economic value, social value, growth in the economy."

Changes she’d like to see include major efforts to improve diversity, especially in management and creative leadership, and more focus on wellness. But she also wants an improved standard for how pitches are conducted, including payment for participating agencies.

"Pitching is the lifeblood of the industry, but I think we should be paid for it and there should be greater control on the process," she says. "A well-run, paid pitch with a small number of agencies to a tight brief, tight timetable and tight set of commercials is preferable."

Having turned 60 in October, Snowball clearly isn’t thinking about retirement. She will be continuing with her two government roles in the Women’s Business Council and the GREAT campaign that promoted the UK as a business and investment destination, and will be looking to add extra non-executive roles at FTSE companies to her existing position with property group Derwent London.

But she insists there will be no surprise comeback to this industry: "AMV’s the only ad agency I ever want to work in."

If she were starting her career over again, she says she’d like to add "a chunk of time at business school" and a stint working in another country – but she’s crystal clear that she has spent the past 26 years in the right place.

"I love what I do and will work every last day of my notice period happily and enthusiastically," Snowball says. "You haven’t got a prayer if you’re working in the wrong place with the wrong people – life is too short."

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