Lee: left Y&R London last year
Lee: left Y&R London last year
A view from Katie Lee

Katie Lee's top tips for surviving redundancy

The managing director of Y&R London before its merger with VML reflects on her experience at the centre of one of the most shocking agency stories of 2018.

I can’t imagine many people are sad to say goodbye to 2018. I am certainly looking forward to putting it behind me. But over the Christmas holidays (and my rather extended holiday prior to that), I have done a fair bit of reflection and tried to glean some learning that would, at least, give the situation some value to me and potentially others in the future.

Being made redundant was always one of my greatest fears, as the breadwinner and without the six-month buffer my father had always told me to have stored away. It wasn’t just my pride that was hurt but my ability to keep the roof over my head. As dramatic as that sounds, when the door closed behind me, the reality just wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. 

The moment that redundancy happened to me was full of mixed emotion. My first thought (weirdly) was I’m glad I’ve ticked this off the list of things likely to happen to me. This was then followed by rage, blind panic and an inability to make any form of decision. So I went to see my mum and she made me a cheese sandwich. After that comforting start, this is how I coped.

1 Plot your strategy

Plotting sounds like you have a degree of control as to what you will do. I went into autopilot, but the way I dealt with the situation was different from the others. I was like the old bloke from The Full Monty – got dressed for work every morning, got the same train into London and the same train home. I met people for breakfast, lunch and all the coffees in-between. The adrenaline meant I couldn’t stop, so while it was still coursing through my veins I set lots of little fires burning before collapsing in front of the TV a week later. For me, this was a brilliant way of coming to terms with what had happened. I felt like I was achieving stuff and I didn’t have to cope with that sudden reality check of joblessness.

2 Don’t be ashamed by how much it hurts

The adrenaline doesn’t last forever, though, and a time comes when you have to deal with how awful it is. The feelings of inadequacy, crying for no reason in the supermarket, moments of stomach-churning panic about the future and waking at 3am with an all-consuming rage. In my myriad of coffees, I met with people who couldn’t have been more negative about the industry environment and those who were brimming with optimism. I stuck to the optimists; any other conversation would leave me spinning.

Talk to the professionals, whether that’s Nabs, which has seen it all before and is well equipped to help you, or Self Space – a brilliant mental well-being company that is worth a visit regardless of your situation. I was straight into the doctor, came out rattling, got some decent sleep and felt a whole lot more human.

3 Find yourself a wingman

So, you know that group of peers who are now some of your lifelong friends? Chances are, you won’t be the only one in this position. My wingman and I made a pact to call each other when it was 11am and we were in tears watching morning TV, when we were so nervous before an interview that we were hyperventilating, or when we needed a second opinion on a role or person we were meeting. Louise, I can never thank you enough for your awesome wingman qualities.

4 Be honest

In one of my favourite interviews (I’ve had 30-plus in the past few months), someone asked me: "What would make you happy?" An excellent question and one that there was no point bullshitting about. It’s similar to when you are asked what your main fault is and you say: "I’m a perfectionist." Bleurgh! I answered truthfully – a challenging role that still gives me enough time with my family. Even when I desperately need to earn a living, I am not going to sacrifice myself and my motivations – this was my chance to get my dream job (more on that soon!).

5 Make sure you take something from the experience

What have I learned from these past three months? I’ve learned to take things slower – I’ve spent hours sitting on benches around London between interviews just watching the pigeons. I’ve also learned that work doesn’t make me a worse mother; I shout at my children because they’re annoying, not because I’m stressed. And, finally, that karma is a powerful force to be reckoned with. All things that I will keep with me as I embark on my next adventure – a role that wouldn’t be mine, if it wasn’t for all that has happened.

And surviving redundancy (and almost enjoying some aspects of it) were due to many behaviours that were set in motion over the course of my career so far.

Here are some of them:

Do as you would be done by

Always my favourite of The Water-Babies’ characters. It’s not a tricky one but it does stand you in good stead… just be a decent human being. Do what you can to give people a step up or the support they need, look out for other people and don’t just treat those above you with respect. Managing up is an admirable quality that can get you places fast but, as you rise through the ranks, you hope to be doing it surrounded by all your lovely peers. Put equal effort into everyone you work with. I’ve certainly come face to face with a lot of peers in interviews over the past few months and they’ve also been a fearsome network and some of my absolute advocates.

Don’t just keep your head down

I have always been guilty of this: missing the Christmas party because of work, checking emails in all the breaks of a training course. Stop it. It’s those moments when you will strike up conversations with new people, have a laugh with people you didn’t expect and generally broaden your horizons. Take all these opportunities when you can – they are the most valuable things you could do for yourself.

Redress the work/life balance

There’s always talk about work/life balance, which I take as balancing the amount of time I have to be upright in grown-up clothes versus being in my pyjamas. I actually think that you need to further split that balance to find time to do extracurricular work activities. I don’t mean shameless self-promotion; I mean throwing yourself into something you are passionate about. For me, this started with the IPA New Business and Marketing Group and now it's the Wacl Gather committee. Devote at least 10% of your work time to stuff that doesn’t have a direct link to your day-to-day work but will have an effect on how you perceive, and are perceived within, the industry.

Find yourself a mentor

While you’re meeting these interesting people, you may well find your mentor. I have a mix of mentors who fulfil a variety of roles and are invaluable both when in gainful employment but even more so of late. Find your mentor when you’re happy and fulfilled, so that they know you at your best and can help you at your worst.

Don’t be naïve

If you’ve scanned this so far, thinking it doesn’t apply to you because you’re your boss’ favourite, your client relationship is rock solid and you are a vital part of the organisation – remember that often things happen outside your boss’ control and outside their boss’ control.

Make sure you feel entirely happy with your situation as an individual, not with assurances being made to you. When did you last check your contract? Are you still happy with your notice period? One month may be liberating, but is that still your primary priority?

Katie Lee left Y&R London in September alongside its chief executive, Paul Lawson, and chief creative officer, Jon Burley, as the agency merged with WPP digital agency VML to form VMLY&R