Vicki Maguire: 'If you’re an introvert, I’ll find you a corner. And if you’re an extrovert, I’ll find you a stage'

Vicki Maguire does not boast a traditional advertising education and she wouldn’t have it any other way. In fact, the chief creative officer of Havas London would love to demolish adland’s remaining ivory towers and welcome in more like her – the misfits and outsiders.

Vicki Maguire: 'If you’re an introvert, I’ll find you a corner. And if you’re an extrovert, I’ll find you a stage'

Vicki Maguire was doing some spring cleaning when she came across one of her old school reports. It was not a glowing recommendation.

“If Vicki could spend as much time and energy on her studies as she puts into being the class clown, she would be much more successful,” the teacher had written.

Decades have passed since receiving that stern review, but it still got under Maguire’s skin.

“For three days I was absolutely fucking incensed. I spent that time hunting [the teacher] down to see if she was still alive,” Maguire says. “I was the class clown, but I was just trying to alleviate the boredom and brighten up a lesson that I didn’t understand.”

The real reason that lacklustre report annoyed her ran deeper. This wasn’t merely personal; it reminded Maguire of the barriers and prejudices that can prevent many young people from realising their creative potential.

“The stuff you can’t teach and the skills that we need in this industry are being beaten out of kids like me at a really early age,” she says.

Despite her teacher’s concerns, Maguire has since found success in a place she never knew existed as a teenager: the advertising industry. She didn’t come to adland through a conventional route, but lately she has found herself on a career high.

After a decade at Grey London, Maguire was poached to be the creative leader of Havas London in January 2020. While the timing was less than ideal – she started just eight weeks before the Covid-19 pandemic hit and rocked the industry – she has helped the agency gain momentum, most recently by winning the £52m Asda account in May. In another sign of her rising star, Maguire was named Creative Person of the Year at Campaign’s 2020 Agency of the Year Awards (announced in March 2021).

Even before her recent achievements, however, Maguire stood out because she represents a different kind of creative leader – more open, more collaborative – in an industry that has often elevated big egos and shut out talent like her: a working-class woman with no traditional advertising education. Nothing gets her more riled up than talking about the industry’s elitism. If it were up to her, adland would tear down its remaining ivory towers and open its doors to more of her ilk – the kids with the bad school reports, the misfits, the outsiders.

A new style of creative leadership

“I 100% believe you will never do your best work while your juniors are queuing up outside your office waiting for their allotted time to show you ideas, and you’re still in The Ivy talking about the good old days,” she says. “That’s exactly what it used to be like and I’ve been around enough to learn from the worst. To be perfectly honest, it’s only just changing.”

To a new generation of creatives, Maguire’s style of leadership may be more appealing. Take it from Emma Thomas and Ryan Delaney, creatives at Above & Beyond, who used to work for Maguire at Grey: “Whenever we think about Vix, the same image springs to mind. She’s sat among many dog-related trinkets, feet up on the table and cackling so much that it echoes through the agency. This is the attitude Vix brings: ‘This is me. If you don’t like it, fuck it.’

“She shows everyone there is no single way to be in the industry. Turn up as you are, write the ads you like and go home happy. There’s a reason those who work with Vix follow her wherever she goes.”

"The stuff you can’t teach and the skills that we need in this industry are being beaten out of kids like me at a really early age”

Maguire’s creative education began on the stalls of Leicester Market. Her father was an Irish brickie who also sold wares at the market, and she learned some tricks of the trade from him. “He was a natural born storyteller,” she recalls. “I would sit there and listen to him talk up the price on something – if something was a fiver, he could tell a story and get £7.50 for it. He would sell medical specimen jars as Scandinavian vases. He did it out of necessity.”

That storytelling gene clearly runs through Maguire, too: as Campaign watches her holding court at the corner table of her regular breakfast place, Caravan in King’s Cross, or wandering around Havas London’s office, it’s clear she’s an avid talker who can weave a good yarn.

When she was just 15 years old, she followed in her dad’s footsteps and got her own stall at the market selling secondhand clothes. “I used to go around and sell to all the art students who I always wanted to hang out with,” she says.

Maguire had restless feet and yearned to break away from home, where “if you were reading a book it meant you weren’t busy, so mum would find us stuff to do”, she says. “I always wanted to leave. I found it really frustrating – it didn’t feel exciting enough.”

Fashion’s loss…

A lover of art and fashion – “I was a little punk, then I was a mod” – Maguire struggled academically, but at sixth-form college she met two art teachers who opened her eyes “to a totally different world, which was that you could be quite good at something creative and you could make money out of it”.

Maguire enrolled in a fashion degree at Newcastle University. “I wasn’t very good but I could talk my way into anything,” she says. After graduating, she moved down to London “as soon as I could”, renting a room for £11 a month in Leytonstone. She’s stayed in east London ever since.

Then began Maguire’s short-lived fashion career. She made her way through stints at various fashion houses – French Connection, Vivienne Westwood, Paul Smith. “I could talk my way into working for loads of different people but I only ever kept a job for six months,” she says. “I always had my coat on the back of my chair because I knew it would never last.”

While her career as a fashion designer never took off, she picked up some other creative advice that has stayed with her, from Paul Smith himself. “If you can’t draw, Vicki, write it down instead,” she remembers him telling her.

That planted a seed in her search for career direction. Soon afterwards, her life took a turn while working at Ted Baker, whose Soho office shared a floor with an ad agency called Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury.

…was advertising’s gain

This was the 1990s, the era when HHCL was at the top of its game, churning out hits including Tango’s “Orange man” and “St George”. The agency bred future leaders such as Trevor Robinson, who went on to set up Quiet Storm, and Dave Buonaguidi, who went on to co-found St Luke’s and Karmarama.

Maguire befriended Buonaguidi and Robinson – “I used to give them T-shirts so I could hang out with them” – and they introduced her to the world of advertising. “Trev and Buono were really important to me,” she says. “Trev would give me D&AD Annuals and I would digest how the ads were written and what the brief was. He told me what I needed to do to get into advertising.”

Maguire made a portfolio and found a creative partner, a graffiti artist called Yuval Zommer, and they landed their first job at McCann Erickson (now McCann London). She only stayed with Zommer for a couple of years, and from there worked at more than a dozen agencies including Ogilvy & Mather, Wieden & Kennedy London and StrawberryFrog Amsterdam.

From the beginning, Maguire says she often felt like an outsider in advertising. “Some of that might be my imposter syndrome,” she explains. “I was self-taught and I didn’t go to ad college.”

But she also came up through the industry “at the height of cockdom”, she says. It was a time when “there was a culture of cock-blocking or competitiveness and that kind of shit… that behaviour was not only acceptable but awarded and promoted. I worked under people as a junior who had been given ridiculous titles, who not only had no leadership skills but probably shouldn’t have been around people anyway. But they could win you a Grand Prix, so they were rewarded.”

Along the way, however, she “collected people”, as she calls it – friends and colleagues who showed her a different way to be in the industry. “I was never banging down the doors of everybody who was winning British Arrows, Agency of the Year or whatever. I was just finding people who were nice and generous that I could learn off. It’s always been about people and crew.”

Maguire hit her stride when she landed at Grey. She joined the WPP agency in 2009 as a freelancer, expecting to be there only for a few weeks. But she stayed and climbed the ranks: promoted to deputy executive creative director in 2013 alongside Dave Monk, then ECD in 2015 alongside Dom Goldman.

Maguire arrived at Grey as the agency was reaching its peak. The same year Nils Leonard, who had started at the shop two years previously, rose to joint creative director, running the creative department day to day. He would later become chief creative officer and chairman. Leonard ended up being an influential figure in Maguire’s career progression, she says: “He would do this thing like, ‘I want you to come to this meeting, are you coming in with me?’ And I’d be like, ‘No, you don’t need me…’ But then I’d walk into the meeting and he’d [let me take over]. He knew as soon as I got a stage I’d be like, ‘Hiya!’ He was really good for me. One of the things he taught me, or would constantly remind me, is to not be afraid to fuck up.”

It’s all about the people

A big moment for Maguire was when Marks & Spencer awarded its advertising account to Grey in 2016 – according to some insiders, she was instrumental in the win. But that same year, the agency was rocked by the simultaneous departures of Leonard, chief executive Lucy Jameson and managing director Natalie Graeme, who went on to set up adland hotshop Uncommon Creative Studio.

Goldman also left in 2017, then Caroline Pay came in to help Maguire run the creative department but only stayed for a year.

"You lead from the front – but if you haven’t got your team right, if you haven’t got that crew, then as far as I’m concerned it’s a non-starter"

In 2019, Grey brought in former Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO ECD Adrian Rossi as creative chairman over Maguire. Rossi departed within a year but by then Maguire was also looking elsewhere.

In the end, what lured Maguire to Havas was the same thing that had kept her in the advertising industry for so long: the people. “I had no intention of going into another ‘network’ agency,” she says.

But after meeting Havas London leaders such as chief executive Xavier Rees and managing director Jennifer Black, “I was like, oh, I like you – I like what you’re saying and I like your energy. The spirit felt right. There was a tipping point where I was looking around the table and I thought, OK, let’s do this.”

Since Maguire’s arrival, something about the leadership team’s collective spirit seems to be working. Even amid Covid – “a fucking nightmare” in which to start a new job, she says – over the past year Havas London has won accounts including EDF, John West and Asda. Importantly for Maguire, the creative work is picking up, too, with promising campaigns from Durex, Coors Light, Citroën, Nubian Jak Community Trust’s Black Plaque Project and more.

Maguire sums up her approach to creative leadership like this: “You lead from the front – but if you haven’t got your team right, if you haven’t got that crew, then as far as I’m concerned it’s a non-starter. I try to get the best work out of my talent without killing them or sitting on them and without putting my legacy over them. If you’re an introvert, I’ll find you a corner. And if you’re an extrovert, I’ll find you a stage.”

Or, as Rees says: “You’ll never meet anyone who is more passionate about the work than Vix. Whether it’s an inkling of an opportunity on a small client or an incredible idea staring us in the face on our biggest brands, she will approach them all with exactly the same vigour and excitement. She has the energy, enthusiasm and open-eyedness of someone just starting out… she’s brought all the momentum I hoped she would to fuel the next stage of Havas London’s journey.”

Breaking down barriers

While Maguire has never wanted to be known as a token female leader – she recalls with disdain the time an ECD called her up about a possible job because the agency “needed more skirt” – her ascent is still notable in an industry that has long lacked female representation at the top.

Recent data suggests the ad industry’s gender equality has worsened during the pandemic – the 2020 IPA Agency Census, for example, showed that the number of women employed in agencies fell disproportionately to men year on year.

Against this backdrop, Maguire says she doesn’t mind being a role model to other women in the industry: “Because if I didn’t or Chaka [Sobhani, global CCO of Leo Burnett] didn’t or Sue [Higgs, joint ECD of Dentsumcgarrybowen] didn’t, another bloke would.”

Besides the issue of female representation, Maguire is also frustrated by adland’s lack of ethnic and socioeconomic diversity. Numerous barriers stand in the way to welcoming diverse talent into the industry, and one of those is a pattern of elitism, she says.

To illustrate this, Maguire loves to tell a story about a young woman at an agency being taken out to dinner after a pitch win and puzzling over the wine menu. When the waiter asked the woman if he should send the sommelier over, she answered “Yeah, we’ll have four bottles of that”, as Maguire recalls it.

“I’ve had moments like that. It’s the little things that make this industry inaccessible to the talent that we need to drive it. Hiring diverse talent but assuming they want to fit into the way this industry works is ridiculous to me,” Maguire says.

Driven by this disconnect, as Creative Circle’s first female president from 2016 to 2018, she helped set up the advertising awards and education body’s foundation, a charity that helps fund students from diverse backgrounds to enter the industry.

“We need to grow our own, we need to get people in and change our business to be more accessible. Some of those old tropes are going to have to change,” she says. “All we can do is throw our arms around one person at a time and make sure that their path is as smooth as we can possibly make it.”

Now, as one of advertising’s most pre-eminent creative leaders, Maguire’s path looks a little smoother, and her early restlessness to change course has subsided. That doesn’t mean she’s looking to put her feet up, though.

“I don’t feel the need to have a Plan B any more,” she says, referring to the eight years when besides her day job in advertising, she ran a sweet shop with her partner on Columbia Road – aptly named Suck and Chew.

“I hit 55, I hit the menopause and I put on another patch. I’ve got so much energy and almost so little time. I’ve got loads of stuff to do.”

From her spot at the breakfast table in Granary Square, Maguire gestures in the direction of Havas London’s office, where she has found a crew where she feels she belongs: “We’ve only just started.”

The five campaigns that made me

Ford Fiesta 'Faces', Ogilvy & Mather

The start of my 25-year or so meteoric rise(!). I love the fact Patrick Collister and Leon Jaume took a punt on the girl team that couldn’t drive, swapping out a femcare brief for a car brief in the process.

Orange 'Millidge and Doig', Wieden & Kennedy London

The beauty about working with Kim [Papworth] and Tony [Davidson] at W&K was they saw every brief as a huge creative opportunity. This ad for Orange Romania turned into a 10-year plus campaign and two of the country’s most lovable characters.

British Heart Foundation, Grey London

“Vinnie” was brilliant for me – and for the more than 100 lives saved and counting – but The Angina Monologues was the standout. What started as a print brief became a West End show and a one-hour comedy special on Sky that doubled as a public health announcement.

Marks & Spencer 'Paddington Christmas', Grey London

An iconic British retailer meets the iconic British bear. Working with Paddington 2 writers Simon Farnaby and David Heyman was an eye-opener, but you can see their attention to detail on-screen.

Black Plaque Project, Havas London

This isn’t my work, but it’s so important – and I feel that I, and we as an industry, should do everything we can to get black achievement into the mainstream where it belongs.