Helping brands walk through walls: The Gate's First MD celebrates her first anniversary

Charlotte Wolfenden shares the three gang laws and what it's like being under the MSQ umbrella

By Avnie Bansal

A year ago the Jamie Elliott, CEO of The Gate (part of the MSQ collective) said, "We have had a strong 18 months but are a restless gang with great ambitions." In - then - comes Charlotte Wolfenden, The Gate's first managing director to look after the day-to-day running of the agency.

Wolfenden, formerly a managing partner at adam&eveDDB, was entrusted to meet the agency's creative ambitions and develop its ‘walk through walls’ culture.

While at adam&eveDDB, she had led the Lloyds Banking Group account, along with Lucozade, Miller Genuine Draft, and Great Ormond Street Hospital. Now at The Gate, she's super proud of the work the agency is winning and producing for clients like The AA, Smarty Mobile, and recently the Very Group (Festive Flamingos, remember?).

Celebrating her one-year anniversary at The Gate, Wolfenden recaps her first year and her almost-two-decades in advertising. She also walks us through the ‘walk through walls’ culture that has been pivotal in turning around the creative arm of MSQ.

Creative Salon: You are the first managing director at The Gate...what’s a typical day in your life like?

Charlotte Wolfenden: Let’s take yesterday. It involved a debate about flamingos for our recently launched brand platform for The Very Group (would flamingos wear nail varnish?!), a kick-off for a new business opportunity, a quick wolf-down of a falafel wrap from my go-to Covent Garden food truck, a head-scratching hour about desk logistics, a review of a Christmas party invite, our weekly forecast meeting, the launch of a new briefing process…and probably some timesheets (!). No day is the same and I absolutely love that about the role.

Did you always want to work in advertising?

Absolutely not, I didn’t know it was even an option until my final year of university when Lowe (now Mullen Lowe), came to do a talk about ‘Careers in Advertising’. I was sleep-walking into a law conversion course but can vividly remember leaving that talk feeling that the penny had dropped. It was everything I’d been searching for - it was creative (I had always regretted not doing an Art Foundation Course), commercial, and most importantly, a role where it was a massive benefit to be a ‘people person’. I spent the summer applying for as many grad schemes as I could find and started as a grad at DLKW (formerly Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners) in September. A fresh-faced 21-year-old northerner, thrown rapidly into London ad-life. I realise now how lucky I was to

a) be exposed to what a career in advertising could even look like and

b) be successful in securing a grad role (although worth noting I was ‘first reserve’…the first choice, helpfully for me, opted for the Ogilvy grad scheme). 

Our industry remains a tough one to break into, especially if it’s not an industry you’ve been exposed to, which is why we need to work even harder to reach our future talent.  

What piece of work are you personally most proud of?

I’ve only been at The Gate for a year, but in that short time there’s been heaps to be proud of, it’s hard to choose. We’ve had a bumper year, from pitch wins to new campaign launches for The AA, Guide Dogs, Smarty and Gigaclear, but the work I’ve been personally most proud of recently is the work we’re doing with The Very Group. We had the opportunity to get right under the skin of the business, to help them develop a new brand strategy, creative platform, and distinctive brand world. The work is fun, populist and spot on for Very’s audience, with early results suggesting it’s going to work hard. Anyone who’s been involved in a Christmas campaign will know the pressure involved, so I’m super proud of what we and the team at Very have achieved in what was essentially a 16-week post-pitch sprint. 

What is the best thing about working at an agency that sits under the MSQ umbrella?

The fact that you have access to so much brilliant talent, who are all specialists in their own fields. At The Gate we’re finding that 80 per cent of our clients are using at least one other MSQ agency to help them join something up for the brand, so I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in all aspects of brand problem-solving, from very early data and insight conversations to wider visual identity conversations – and I’ve learnt so much from this process. 

Plus, the mindset of the full MSQ team deserves a mention – the model is designed for collaboration so everyone’s default is ‘of course, we can help’. No barriers, and no politics, everyone is there to solve problems together. 

And what is the one thing you’d like to change?

There are so many things I want to do, and I want to be able to say yes to everything, but in a growing agency (there are currently 40 of us at The Gate), we’re constantly making decisions about where our energy and resources are most valuable. From new business opportunities to internal initiatives, we can’t always do everything we want to, when we want to, so that’s taken some patience. I’m confident as we continue to grow, that will absolutely change.  

As the Managing Director, you play a pivotal role in steering the company's success. One distinctive aspect often highlighted about The Gate is its 'Walk Through Walls' culture. Can you elaborate on what this culture means to you and how it influences the way the team collaborates and innovates within the agency?

It’s super simple. ‘Walk Through Walls’ is all about identifying problems (the walls) quickly and precisely so we can solve them (find the gate) creatively and collaboratively, whether that’s a wall a client’s brand is facing or a personal wall our people might be tackling, we apply this approach to everything we do.

We also have three ‘gang laws’ or behaviours that we follow:

1. No View No Seat. We create an environment where ideas are welcomed and encouraged from everyone.

2. Scare yourself. We want to make category-defining work- we’re very clear about this when we meet potential clients. We also work hard to create a fear-free space for ideas to thrive. 

3. Everyone sweeps the floor. Whatever the job title, we roll our sleeves up and get stuck in – it’s the only way to make stuff happen.  

Our culture has played a huge role in The Gate’s transformation over the past few years, and it continues to guide who we work with, how we work with them, and how we look out for each other.  

You have been in the industry for almost seventeen years, is there still anything that takes you by surprise?

The work will always surprise me. I will forever be in awe of how creatives can take a problem and solve it in a way you’re not expecting. I still get the same excitement going to a first creative review as I did as an account executive, the same giddy anticipation when reading a director’s treatment, and the same butterflies when seeing work out in the real world for the first time. Whether it’s our own work, or work we admire from afar, I don’t think the feeling of seeing an idea that stops you in your tracks will ever get old. 

What advice would you have for someone wanting to become an agency MD?

Identify your own strengths and weaknesses and (albeit a massive cliché) be yourself – don’t try to be something you’re not or do things you don’t fully believe in. You have to really believe in what you’re doing and building, so don’t waste time pretending. 

Learn to love problems – or even better, learn to reframe them. It took me a while to realise that I don’t have to fix everything on my own - figure out how to bring the right people together, to complement your own skills. 

And lastly, what advice would you have for someone wanting to get into the industry?

Always have a point of view, be that what’s going on in culture or what you think about the latest Christmas ads. Ideas and inspiration can come from anywhere and everyone, so don’t feel your voice is any less valued because you’re new to the industry. There’s never just one right answer or perspective. 


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