David Reviews

 Biting the hand that feeds us since 2002.

THE VAGINA DIALOGUES

The news that Caroline Pay is joining forces with Vicki Maguire to form London's first all-female CCO team has inevitably focused on their success in breaking through one of advertising's toughest glass ceilings.

The pair were in exuberant form when DAVID caught up with them at Grey London's Hatton Garden headquarters where they discussed their newly-formed partnership as well as their commitment to diversity - exemplified by the decision to celebrate Grey's Jewish founders by renaming the London agency Valenstein & Fatt for a hundred days.

Waiting for Vicki Maguire and Caroline Day in the lobby of the building where they will soon be joining forces is a striking experience. In addition to the customary hustle and bustle of people coming and going or picking up a coffee from the impressive in-house café, there is a large stone 'V' alongside an 'F' of similar proportions to mark Grey's temporary reinvention as Valenstein & Fatt.

It doesn't stop there. The reception desk is adorned with the names of the company's founders - whom Vicki Maguire would later refer to affectionately as 'Larry and Arthur'. Add to this a stylish plaque offering an explanation of Grey's origins and you sense a real determination to honour Valenstein and Fatt.

And it's all highly relevant in the post-Brexit climate as - according to a recently-formed narrative - the reason the duo named the company after the colour of the studio where it was based is because they worried their palpably Jewish names would provoke anti-Semitism.




It was an exhibition of a very inclusive leadership style... something that comes so naturally to Maguire that she probably doesn't even know she's doing it.

 ”

Apocryphal or not, the tale has been a useful launching pad for a diversity agenda which both Maguire and Pay are passionate about, and it's the first thing we talked about.... just as soon as we'd trawled through the company's immensely busy offices in search of a meeting room.

Because she hadn't started in her new role, Caroline Pay was as clueless as your intrepid reporter about the geography of the building and it turns out that being led by the gregariously-spirited Vicki Maguire is a pretty bad plan.

Her habit of affectionately greeting the troops led us down a number of cul-de-sacs as Caroline and I blindly followed. Only after she'd spoken to half the company did she finally get the bit between her teeth and steer us towards a suitable space.

It was an exhibition of a very inclusive leadership style... something that comes so naturally to her she probably doesn't even know she's doing it.

Vicki Maguire is determined that the rebranding should be more than a gesture and she ebulliently expresses her frustration with the lack of progress on diversity: "This stuff needs to be acted on... there's a lot of people wringing their hands and doing surveys and doing head-counts in their agency and satisfying themselves that they have a good mix of diversity but - to be perfectly honest - we've got to sort this shit out because this industry is embarrassing."


For accuracy I suggest 'the vagina dialogues' instead, and they laugh generously; declaring their intention to borrow the phrase.

 ”

It's a statement which leads inevitably to the the symbolism of her and Caroline Pay being the first all-woman CCO team.

When it's put to them that this has been a talking point, they reply with a humour which reflects their weariness that it even needs to be discussed. Maguire offers an alternative description when asked how she feels about there being so much focus on their femaleness: "Our vaginas, you mean... it's our vaginas that are talking."

"The vagina monologues!" adds Caroline Pay.

For accuracy I suggest 'the vagina dialogues' instead, and they laugh generously; declaring their intention to borrow the phrase.


We've got to sort this shit out because this industry is embarrassing.

 ”

Their weariness is understandable. Caroline Pay recounts how often it was the focus of the trade press and the wider industry when she was partnered with Kim Gehrig: "Whenever we got asked about anything, it was always about the fact that we were an all girl team, and that got very, very boring very, very quickly."

For years, she shirked her sororal duties but seniority has been accompanied by a recognition that her success has meaning for the next generation of young women: "It definitely comes with a responsibility which is something I'm really proud to have... it's the power of role models. If girls in art school or in senior school can see a 41-year-old mum from Croydon and a girl from Leicester doing well, then they can think, 'You know what? It's not just white, middle-classed privileged boys named Josh and Hugo who can succeed in advertising'".


I don't want us to be known as the first female CCO team in London. I want us to be the known as the best CCO team in London.

 ”

They acknowledge the difficulties of reconciling a desire to be treated the same as men in their position, with a willingness to be identified as role models.

It's the dilemma expressed by Kim Gehrig recently when she observed that she'd rather be thought of as 'a director who happens to be female' than as 'a female director'.

Caroline Pay understands entirely where her former creative partner is coming from: "Kim has gone out there and done some of the best work in the country, if not the world... regardless of her gender, she's an extraordinary director. We feel very similarly... we just want to come to work and be the best in the world. I find it frustrating. I don't want us to be known as the first female CCO team in London. I want us to be the known as the best CCO team in London."


When people look at us, they'll probably say: 'Look at that. It's a tick tick exercise.' But, let's see what they say when they come up against us for a bit of new business!

 ”

According to Vicki Maguire, Grey London's decision to install an all-female senior team is part of the same philosophy which persuaded the company to hand Nils Leonard a senior role when he was just 30 years old: "I've been here eight years and we've always been the underdog. I remember when Nils took over. He was 'too young'. He was 'too pretty'. He was 'too inexperienced'... you know, 'who is this Mac Monkey?' 'Who is this guy who's suddenly been given this really good job?'"

Warming to her theme, Maguire lays down a gauntlet to the rest of the advertising industry: "When people look at us, they'll probably say: 'Look at that. It's a tick tick exercise.' But, let's see what they say when they come up against us for a bit of new business!"

Maguire and Pay met when they both worked at Wieden+Kennedy in 2007. The agency was at the top of its game and the creative department was full of inspiring people so even though they were never paired together, they were acutely aware of each other's strengths. They began a tradition of keeping in touch: "We'd have these no holds barred breakfasts... 'Chatham House Rules' get togethers and we'd just let rip. It was very cathartic."


If you've done your work, then go have some fucking fun. Otherwise, you're just boring.

 ”

They developed a sense that they'd like to work together some day but had no way of knowing whether it would ever happen.

Vicki Maguire's arrival at Grey provided her with an opportunity to see a different model at work. Having worked as a freelancer for a number of years, she wasn't as attached to the idea of creative team pairings as many of her contemporaries, and she was open to a more flexible approach. Nils Leonard felt the same and - between them - they encouraged creatives to adopt whatever approach worked best for them.

Does it mean pairings are discouraged? "If they want to pair off, they can. The offer is 'come here and work in whatever way you want, as long as (a) you're not an arsehole and (b) you're not ridiculously competitive."

Caroline Pay picks up the theme: "We want people who have different ways of working... those who need to work part-time... those who work best at four o'clock in the morning. As long as people deliver, we don't give a fuck where they are or what they're doing... as long as they deliver."


If they want to pair off, they can. The offer is 'come here and work in whatever way you want, as long as (a) you're not an arsehole and (b) you're not ridiculously competitive.

 ”

Does Vicki Maguire feel that the need to accept other lifestyles feeds back into the diversity issue? "Totally. It's got to. We're not just talking mothers who want to work three or four days a week. Anybody that wants to work four days a week can go off and do whatever they want on that fifth day. It's their own business."

Theirs is a comprehensive rejection of the old school values which can leads to a perverse competition to discover who is able to punish themselves with the most dysfunctional life.

According to Caroline Pay, this isn't just counter-productive, it's harmful to everyone's mental health. "If you've done your work, then go have some fucking fun. Otherwise, you're just boring."

Another dimension of this philosophy is to create an environment where people aren't afraid of asking for help. Maguire says that it's essential for creatives to know they won't be judged if they're stuck. She describes the panic of someone operating in a department ruled by competitiveness: "'Oh my God. They're gonna think really bad of me. They're gonna slap me... I don't think I can crack this on my own,'" before issuing her solution: "Stick your hand up. We'll all get in a room and crank out the ideas together."

But what of the future? What is going to be the best approach for the challenges that lie ahead as the advertising landscape changes?

Having won a British Comedy Award and an Emmy respectively, Vicki Maguire and Caroline Pay are well aware of the need for modern creatives to broaden their skillsets.

Maguire cites Volvo's 'Life Paint' project as an outcome of a more imaginative approach and she wants her company to be a bastion of creativity in a myriad of forms.


I do take heart from the fact that 79% of us are wearing M & S knickers. They are probably the most uniting thing about Britain, at the moment.

 ”

But how will parent company WPP react to all this free thinking? Will Martin Sorrell's pragmatism prove a stumbling block?

Not according to Vicki Maguire: "Sorrell knows what's going on. He's got his finger on the pulse. He buys right and if it's not broken, he's not gonna meddle. He's been super, super supportive, because these ideas take time, energy, talent and money."

The next big test will come when their work for Marks & Spencer is unveiled.

Vicki Maguire is not daunted at the prospect of tackling one of the UK's most challenging brands and is extremely bullish about the prospects of the clothing side of the business: "They had a very good Christmas and they're operating in a very, very interesting landscape at the moment."

And besides, she has a killer fact that has given her something to build on: "I do take heart from the fact that 79% of us are wearing M & S knickers. They are probably the most uniting thing about Britain, at the moment."

With Caroline Pay chomping at the bit to get started and Vicki Maguire exhibiting a gleeful appetite for the challenges ahead, it's clear that Grey London are going to be a force to be reckoned with over the coming years... no matter what they call themselves.

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David Reviews - Lovely Lenzie Ltd, Woodbourne House, Seven Sisters, Lenzie, G66 3AW. Telephone: +44 141 776 7766. Editor: Jason Stone.