'You have to be single-minded'

Alexandra Taylor is the first woman to win the D&AD President's Award. Laura Jordan Bambach asks the trailblazing art director for advice for young creatives.

This year, Alexandra Taylor became the first female recipient of the D&AD President’s Award. She had already become the first woman in advertising to make the D&AD board.

The eminent art director made her name at Saatchi & Saatchi, creating award-winning work for clients such as the Army, Castlemaine XXXX and Schweppes. She has secured more than 200 mentions in the D&AD Annual and her mentor, Paul Arden, appointed her to succeed him as the head of art at Saatchis.

The former D&AD president Laura Jordan Bambach, who presented Taylor with the award, interviewed her for Campaign.

Laura Jordan Bambach: Alex, it was an honour to be able to make you the recipient of the D&AD President’s Award. The first woman in advertising too. How did it feel?

Alexandra Taylor: I was shocked! But I feel very honoured, so thank you for selecting me.

LJB: You have your own studio now, but you made your name at Saatchis. What was it like working at one of the legendary agencies?

AT: I think what made it so special was three men, my mentors: Paul Arden, Jeremy Sinclair and Charles Saatchi. I’ve always said the agency was a bit like Manchester United at its peak. It was incredibly competitive, but in a good way. Lots of arguing, lots of stamping of feet and slamming doors.

But the next day, any argument would be forgotten and it was back to: "How can we make this the best ad we possibly can?"

LJB: Was it difficult being a woman in such a competitive environment at that time? I assume you must have been one of only a few…

AT: At Saatchis, at that time, yes. There were only a handful of women on the creative floor. However, working closely with the likes of Jeremy, Paul and Charles, I never, ever encountered any degree of sexism within Saatchis.

The determination from all of them in wanting nothing less than the very best from their creatives spurred me on and, especially being in Paul’s group, it gave me that extra determination to succeed.

LJB: Why do you think it is that today there is still this problem of a lack of women in creative departments? One idea that has been suggested to me is that it’s not the quality but the bravery that’s missing in the work. Are women conditioned to try to please more, with the result that they’re not as challenging?

AT: You have to be single-minded and, from what I’ve heard back from a lot of people I’ve asked, it’s similar to what you’ve said – how well do women take criticism? You will get rejection every single day and I think women lack confidence in what’s already a male-dominated environment. But, equally, executive creative directors have a responsibility to put time aside to seek out and nurture new talent too – that used to be one of the thrills of being a creative director.

LJB: Completely. It’s time-consuming, yes, but it’s so incredibly rewarding. Not just as an advantage for your agency in hiring the best talent but for yourself too. It keeps you fresh, doesn’t it?

AT: It does. However, students tell me constantly that they hit a wall when it comes to trying to meet with ECDs. They are inevitably told they’re "in a meeting". Or they will send e-mail after e-mail to no avail and their confidence and passion fade. It’s important that ECDs remain connected and available to meet regularly with the future creative generation.

LJB: Do you think young women perhaps don’t have enough mentors or people to look up to?

AT: There are enough mentors out there. On my way to meeting you today, I sat in the taxi and, without any difficulty, I wrote down 13 women at the top of their game, including yourself. That’s a hell of a lot more than I had.

When I came in, I had one female I could look up to, and that was Barbara Nokes. But she was a writer, and I was searching to be under the wing of the best art director. That’s why I hunted out Paul and why I wanted to work at Saatchis. For the young generation, I think there’s no excuse. Find these people, get inspired, get determined to be as good as them.

LJB: So what do you think is holding them back?

AT: I think it’s energy. I’ll always remember Paul saying, to reach creative excellence, you have to have 100 per cent energy. If you don’t have 100 per cent, just be nice. And I knew I couldn’t be nice! I drove account managers and planners up the wall because I would argue and defend my work to the hilt. If I really believed in it, I’d fight for it.

LJB: Mark Denton did a D&AD lecture this year, and I chose him for a similar reason. He has that attitude of "if the client says no, I’m just going to make it anyway".

AT: I just think, coming out of a recession, there are a lot of creatives whose batteries are just low. I see it so often at my art direction masterclasses, whether they are junior, middleweight or senior. Creatives need to be constantly creatively remotivated. They need to seek inspiration outside of work. Maybe you take the photo yourself, draw the illustration yourself or direct the TV ad yourself. You have to find new avenues to get that creative charge.

LJB: I think you’re right in that the recession has affected things more than we realise. It has been a difficult slog for people wanting to do exceptional work.

AT: It has been a struggle. But trust is important, between both the client and agency. Sadly, this has been eroded because a lot of the mystery of what creatives do has been exposed. Clients now have the software that allows them to choose typefaces, sometimes colourise and even edit TV commercials.

However, there is one important quote from one of my clients at the time, Rory Clayton, then a brigadier in the Army, that has stayed with me. When l finished presenting the first-ever creative work to him, I said: "So, Rory, what do you think?" He paused, looked at me and said: "Alex, I wouldn’t ask you how to run the British Army, so I’m certainly not going to tell you how to do your advertising!"

I feel that most clients today need to be reminded of the true meaning of the word "trust". And not only between client and agency management, but with their creative departments too.

Laura Jordan Bambach is the creative partner at Mr President