Meet The MD

"It’s a mad ride, but I would never want to get off": What It's Like To Be MD Of Wunderman Thompson

Meet Lizzie Snell, a leader who cares about culture

By Avnie Bansal

A few months into her role as managing director at Wunderman Thompson, Lizzie Snell says she loves her job as no day is typical. 

Lizzie, formerly of Valtech and WPP, has worked her way up via roles in client services and account management in agencies including Possible and Mirum.

She has been responsible for identifying and building partnerships with clients, scaling transformation across a number of brands, including the Very Group, Kingfisher and Rail Delivery Group. She also helped land new business wins including Specsavers, Canon Europe and Mercedes Benz. 

Now at Wunderman Thompson and with experience ranging from social and digital brand strategy to ecommerce website delivery, Snell has managed a portfolio of retail clients within the business including: Jaeger, Westfield, Estee Lauder, Lexus, United Coffee and Value Retail.

We asked Snell for her insights into the industry and what’s it like to be the MD of Wunderman Thompson. 

Creative Salon: How would you describe your working life at the agency?

Lizzie Snell: It’s like being player, spectator, coach and manager all at the same time. It's vibrant, fun, crazy and – with change constant in the agency world – exciting. 

My role has dramatically evolved over the past couple of years, from holding the client's hand to buy one idea, to coaching, pushing and creating the conditions for them to make a fundamental shift in how they operate. 

Being bigger, bolder and braver is no longer about one thing, it’s about a series of many. Brands today need to move into business transformation, not just sell an idea. And in response, working life within the agency has now also moved on. 

That means working with the best talent across every discipline, skillset and personality type you can imagine. We balance short-term reactivity to market changes with big vision proactivity. And our focus is fixed on the quality and effectiveness of the work we produce.

It’s a mad ride, but one I would never want to get off.

Did you always want to work in advertising?

Growing up, I never really knew what I wanted to do – apart from not become a teacher (I come from a family of teachers).

 At 17, I was lucky enough to do work experience in a PR company in London where I spent the week mainly photocopying, to be honest. Then, on my last day, I was invited to take notes in an all-agency meeting for a retail client.

Those two hours were a lightbulb moment. The energy in the room, the work all over the walls, and the collaboration of all types of disciplines to bring the client on the journey left me enthralled with the whole process and, specifically, the role of the Client Director orchestrating the room (maybe I do have the teacher in me somewhere!)

As a result, my notes from the meeting were rubbish. But I instinctively knew ‘this’ was something I wanted to be a part of and that set the course for me moving forward, into university and beyond. And unlike my friends, I have never swayed from it.

I have definitely changed my mind about what kind of agency I wanted to be at during my career, and this has taken me off into lots of different directions. But at the end of the day, all those experiences have made me better suited for the role I have today.

So aside from the hard weeks, we all have now and then (when I secretly imagine becoming a dog walker), I genuinely feel grateful to be able to do what I do.

How does it feel to be back at WPP?

Simply put, being back feels like coming home, as cheesy as that sounds. My career has taken me in lots of different directions, working in many different types of agencies - small independents, large holding companies, doing a wide range of work – from direct marketing and magazine design through brand and digital to technology. I’ve covered the entire gamut. But I’ve always followed my gut and I’ve never regretted a decision I’ve made and, I realise now, that it’s made me far more well-rounded – albeit by accident. 

Coming back to Wunderman Thompson – with the capabilities within the business and network to truly deliver whole brand solutions for clients – is a no-brainer. Not only does it sit right in my heartland, it’s the future of our industry.   

With their businesses transforming dramatically, clients need a partner who can help them use data, technology, operations, and strategic thinking to improve their marketing effectiveness and help them grow. By infusing this with powerful creative, smart CX plays and strong ties with media, we can truly inspire growth for ambitious brands. 

And that’s why I truly believe Wunderman Thompson and its insights-powered offering – insights being what bring together all we do, from creative to tech to data to strategy –  is the only agency right now that can deliver this. 

The next few years are definitely going to be a journey, but I’ll be the annoying person smiling daily as I walk through the hallway, and I don’t see that going away any time soon.

What’s your favourite project you have worked on? 

That’s a really tough one for me – it’s like asking me to choose a favourite niece or nephew!

As someone who has worked on a huge range of different types of projects, it's difficult to choose a favourite. That’s because what makes a project great isn’t just the end result but also the journey and the team you work with. 

For me that one of the best things about our industry is it's not an individual sport, the team is everything. The way I have seen my job evolving is by being much more focused on being a coach who cares about the culture.  Agencies have the freedom, flexibility, and talent to be able to do what they do best. One of my roles is to protect that culture and inspire people to make the best work.  Watching the incredible work coming out of the agency such as first direct’s Skunk and the HSBC Safe Spaces work – and seeing individuals that I’ve worked with step up into leadership positions, develop and flourish is the greatest feeling.

Describe your typical day? 

In my job, there is no typical day. That’s why I love it – the spectrum of discussions I can have in just a few hours always amazes me.

Usually, I start early and use the train journey to clear out any emails and prepare for the day. Once in the office, my main focus is being with the team, being with clients, and making great work.

There isn’t a day when I don’t speak to a client in one way or another, and that’s something I will never lose within my career – it’s why I got into this business, and it’s what I love.

I have seen too many senior leaders lose sight of what’s going on the ground, so I also make an effort to be in the thick of it with the team – it’s so important for me to understand how the work gets made, and its often where I identify changes we can make for the better, for everyone.

What’s the hardest thing about being in the advertising industry?

As an industry, we are fairly unique in the way that we’re impacted by so many factors.

Our CSO Sid McGrath recently talked about ‘How to Plan for Chaos’. And I think the title alone stays true to what both clients, and our industry, are facing, especially the notion of getting comfortable with unpredictability, something that has never been more relevant.

As the industry adapts to post-pandemic changes in working practices and balancing the use of data & tech while protecting the craft of advertising, a big part of the job is now to reframe the brief and look beyond it – not just respond to it. 

Brands today have to stay true to creating things that customers care about. No one is actively looking for another piece of brand communication. As agency folk, we should be looking to think and work differently to help brands take a look at the entirety of their brand, and work out what’s needed to take that brand into the future. 

It’s a challenge, but challenges can also inspire new ways of thinking creatively and lead to exciting new opportunities. It’s part of what makes it one of the most exciting places to work in my opinion. 

How do you unwind? 

Ha! My husband would say I don’t, that I am always on the go, and forever organising something. He calls our house ‘The Hotel by the Sea’. But for me that is unwinding. I grew up in a large family, so having chaos in the house and being surrounded by family and friends is my idea of normal. It’s relaxing too, because as they all work across different industries we just don’t talk work as we just don’t really get what each other does.

What advice would you have for someone wanting to get into the industry?

Be yourself. Care about your team, the work, the clients, and trust your gut instinct. 

Find a mentor. It can provide valuable outside perspectives and learnings that you wouldn’t come across otherwise, and when you feel ready pay it forward and help others rise.

But most importantly, get involved in the industry because you love it. You have to have a passion for this business. It’s not a traditional job, and since I joined a lot has changed. There are times when the hours are long and the challenges are hard. But we do it because we love it.


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