Fiona Gordon

Meet The New CEO

Fiona Gordon: I want Ogilvy UK to be the jewel in the crown of advertising

The Ogilvy UK CEO talks international experience and UK ambitions

By Sonoo Singh

It’s not even been a year since Fiona Gordon started as the Ogilvy UK CEO, and she's already set on changing the face of leadership in our industry as we know it.

In a recent BBC documentary - CEO Secrets - Fiona portrays herself as a fearless challenger who wants to change the advertising workplace culture in order to level the playing field. Just last month she announced an industry first - a scheme to offer personal one-to-one coaching to every employee, in every department, in every core business, from apprentices up. And her first practical intervention into workplace culture was introducing a menopause and perimenopause policy at Ogilvy UK. The agency has also decided to fund a week's temporary accommodation for anyone who needs to flee domestic abuse and they are also given ten days additional paid leave. She's clearly a leader for whom “action is what matters”.

“I think it’s great to talk about these things, but as a leader you have to set actions and policies in place that enable as many people to succeed as possible,” she says, referring to our industry’s obsession with talking about purpose, what organisations stand for, or their approach to societal issues. “But how do you really make an impact on people's actual working conditions, their lives, their inspiration, their creativity?,” she asks. Some of her answers are already making a positive difference to lives at Ogilvy in London.

Fiona was made the UK CEO in May last year but I first met her when she was was the WPP UK team lead for Walgreens Boots Alliance a few years ago, before she got promoted to be the Ogilvy chief client officer EMEA. We were talking together on stage, alongside her WBA client - and the thing that stayed with me was how she brandished her sharp arguments with a lot of sharp-wit and humour. Easily commanding her audience while on stage, Fiona was as forthright in her opinions as she was eloquent in expressing them; there's a reason all the press releases from Ogilvy UK always talk about her "Scottish candour".

International experience makes for better leaders

She credits her inner Scot and her geography-teacher father - who helped shape her curiosity - for her desire to travel the world, seek new horizons “and get away from rainy days”. And though Fiona admits that not being married or having kids has made her career choices easier, she's clear that those life decisions were not sacrifices that she made along the way. “Work for me has never been a sacrifice. I love, and have always always loved, what I’ve done. And it all kind of fitted in.”

After joining Ogilvy as a graduate trainee in 1992 she moved through a series of roles at Ogilvy in London, New York, Hong Kong and Singapore. Her appointment to the Ogilvy UK CEO role last year came as a surprise choice for many, but that's not something that appears to trouble her much. Instead she talks about how that international experience has given her a unique perspective as a business leader. “That’s always the great thing about moving to another culture, that you learn to question your own assumptions,” she says.

Singapore certainly helped shape her. “In Singapore people are very ambitious, people really believe they can make a better future. There’s a real hunger for making a difference and so people, I found, are really brave - at work, about their work. For instance, when it comes to embracing new technologies they are not just early adopters but want to move at speed. What the UK has is the absolute love of the craft of advertising, along with deep brand thinking. So now how do I bring some of that of love of the craft and the deep insight and thinking together with some of the speed and agility and passion for the future that I saw in Singapore? As a leader, I find that an exciting challenge.”

Making Ogilvy a jewel in the crown of advertising

Creative agencies, of course don’t come more famous than Ogilvy. The agency network, once WPP’s biggest purchase (in 1989), is the only remaining agency brand within WPP that hasn’t been merged with another within the group.

I ask her how she is reshaping the UK agency, which has consolidated all of its sub-brands under a single P&L - a global move that first started in the US in 2017 under the leadership of the then Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide chairman and chief executive, John Seifert. In the UK the radical restructure proved controversial and led to the departure of senior leaders including Charlie Rudd (currently the Leo Burnett London CEO) and Jo Coombs (currently the COO at Publicis Groupe UK). Working to a mandate set by the new-ish global CEO for Ogilvy, Andy Main - who was appointed to the role in the summer of 2020 from Deloitte Digital - Fiona says that Ogilvy UK now operates as five business areas. These are advertising, experience, health, PR, growth and innovation (which includes consulting) - all laddering up to a single P&L, but each led by its own managing director.

“We want to give our clients deep expertise in each one of these specialisms, while bringing together the best skills across our UK business because we believe in the magic that comes from the intersections," she explains. "I think the thing with integration is that when you put everything together, you lose that perception of being an expert in these areas.” She's now planning to hire “renowned experts” in these five disciplines later in the year. In that spirit Fiona recently recruited Jo Arden from Publicis.Poke to take the role of Ogilvy UK’s chief strategy officer, working across all the areas of the business.

But Fiona insists that Ogilvy UK, unlike Ogilvy Singapore, is not a turn-around job. “Michael [Frolich] did such a great job here and left a strong leadership team for me to work with. It’s more like 'how do I get the agency to its next level?' Also as most agencies have been doing, we’ve been looking after our employees, but this year will be the year of clients - desperately caring for our clients’ business and making the best work we can for them. Not that we haven’t been doing that already, but as a business we did have a different focus and a duty of care to our people over the pandemic.”

And her ambition for growth is clear. “My 100 day plan was to win a significant piece of business.” Ogilvy duly scooped the Sainsbury’s Group digital and below-the-line business and tier-2 above the line business last year - covering digital creative, content, social and CRM across all of the company’s brands, which include Sainsbury’s, Argos, clothing line Tu and home furnishings brand Habitat. “Winning a piece of business like that sends a signal to the industry; my ultimate vision is to be not just a jewel in the crown for WPP, but a jewel in the crown that's respected by the industry.”

Fiona’s “grown up” at Ogilvy, after all. “Within WPP there’s been a huge shift in the last few years [towards Ogilvy], and calling Ogilvy a ‘creative company’ is not just a set of words. Emotionally it feels different, and working with people like Liz Taylor [Ogilvy global chief creative officer] and Rob Reilly [WPP global chief creative officer] you get the sense that we can bring great thinking and insight into a brand to help transform a business."

“Yes, a jewel in the crown of advertising - that’s where I want to be.”

Fiona’s top 3 favourite ads

The Evolution of Beauty - For Dove by Ogilvy

“We forget how transformational that campaign was at the time (2006), taking a totally different perspective on the beauty industry. It had such a strong position on beauty as a brand, and looking back it really had such resonance. I think it impacted me in terms of thinking about how do you create work that has such an impact, but also as a woman it impacted me to think of a lot of things that are perceived as norms but don't have to be norms. And if you watch it today, it feels just as relevant as it was 16 years ago. Also the craft of that film was amazing.”

Not just a Cadbury - By Ogilvy India

The campaign, featuring Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan, used AI tech and allowed anyone to create an ad for their local store and use the face and voice of the celebrity to promote their brand without spending a penny on endorsements. 

“It was one of the most talked-about campaigns during Diwali in 2020. Also, over the years I have watched the partnership of the brand and the agency and how incredibly that client-agency relationship has become. They completely trust each other. What was most interesting about the campaign was how really to use tech and take the power of Cadbury and the Bollywood superstar and make it available to local retailers. It was so very clever. As an industry we often get carried away with new technologies - like how many NFTs are we going to see this year? But this campaign was about a really useful piece of technology.”

Let’s Talk The Joy of Later Life Sex - For Relate By Ogilvy UK

“The work shines a light on a group of people who are normally not seen in advertising. Shining a light on a topic that's not often talked about. Getting people to have conversations about relationships in a positive light, and sometimes talk about what might be seen as a difficult conversation but with joy is important. We’ve talked about spreading joy and fun at your Creative Salon suppers. We need more of that I think.”


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