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By Maddy Smith
WDC Partner Nicky Russell explores her journey from an agency runner to COO in just eight years, the value of diversity and disabilities in the workplace, Princess Margaret and buying a football club at 25.
A seat at the top table
“People are starting to realise the importance of creative operations and you’re seeing ‘makers and delivery people’ more in pitches. Although there still aren’t enough of them at C-suite level or at the top table, in my opinion”
Reclined in the bath with her hair stacked high in an elaborate crown, Princess Margaret beams from the top of Nicky Russell’s LinkedIn profile.
As a self-proclaimed royalist, Russell, a Partner of creative operations consultancy WDC, explains how she has an affinity for the royal family, for the unconventional royal who rebelled against the system. “I think challenging old attitudes and infrastructures is probably in my blood”, she adds.
Russell’s view to challenging stereotypes ripples throughout her life. Describing her background, she reveals how her entrepreneurial spirit originated from rising against the odds. As a young mum, with two children under two at the age of 20, Russell was determined to be the best mother possible.
“I realised it was easier to create my own revenue streams than [to] work on someone else’s terms”, she explains. “That way, I could make the rules and work around my family. It evolved over the years from small to bigger things; starting from a fleet management service to a cleaning company and then eventually a football club”.
Russell adds, “There’s no greater motivation for trying new things when you have a mortgage to pay and two small children to feed, let me tell you”.
Seeing potential and turning it into value – owning a football club at 25
At the age of 25, Russell bought Hayes Gate, an English football (soccer) club based in West London from previous owners, Technicolor.
“The club was being run under the radar to be cost-neutral” and as such, Russell bought the club for £300,000 and resold it some years later for an astonishing £1.4 million. “By having full ownership and accountability, we could reinvest back into the facilities. The youth team became charter standard and the senior team rose to semi-professional status. We took its potential and turned it into value”.
As a 25 year old and running a football club in a “rough area of London”, Russell’s emotional intelligence “had no choice but to be sharpened”.
“It’s all politics and human emotion”, she says. Grassroots football received very little funding and with 17 teams in total, Russell couldn’t afford to pay staff, yet her business depended on their commitment. “My biggest skill was being able to get the best out of people and get what I needed from them without the motivation of money. It was my first lesson in culture”, she says.
Fresh eyes and a fresh start – entering the creative world
Russell’s entry into the creative sector was entirely by chance. Once the club was sold, Russell found herself disillusioned with business and assumed she was unemployable, having never “worked for someone”.
However, a friend at the agency Grey London, suggested a month’s work experience to try to reignite her passion for business.
“I totally fell in love with the industry”, she says. “I arrived just as Chris Hirst and Nils Leonard took over and was fortunate enough to be a part of that amazing creative evolution”, she explains. “I really felt like I had found my place”.
Coming into the industry over 30 years of age, at a junior entry level position but with a lot of experience in business change management, Russell says she has an unorthodox approach and experience.
At a time where there was still a struggle with integration and digital, she was learning on the ground with fresh eyes as she didn’t carry the burden of having to unlearn old ways of working. She was therefore able to bring a unique point of view on business management. “Creative and delivery operations was the lynch pin to success for me”, she adds.
From Agency Runner to Chief Operating Officer in just eight years
Russell’s journey has been one of surprises. Starting as a runner at Grey London, she reached the role of COO at Anomaly within just eight years.
“I wish I knew!” she comments, when asked how she achieved this in such a short space of time. “It’s only when you look back you think ‘blimey..’ That was a pretty intense time”.
“A lot of it had to do with my energy, I didn’t even know what a pack shot was when I first stepped into Grey and it was pure energy and tenacity that got me through that time”, she says. Asking the ‘stupid questions’, Russell believes, endeared her to the right people and ultimately pushed her forward.
During her time at Anomaly, Russell experienced a period of rapid growth, which presented a number of challenges. “To some extent you are building the car and trying to drive it at the same time”, she considers.
She stresses the importance of strong relationships in any business at a time of rapid growth, reflecting on the relationship between herself and CEO of Anomaly, Camilla Harrison. “It’s one thing to win new business, but it’s another [entirely] to deliver it and obviously, the two are intrinsically linked for success”, she states.
Their alignment and trust in the value of operations was a key to their success, Russell explains. These aspects were carefully considered at the beginning of new client relationships and big projects; time invested in strengthening these elements helped to deliver Anomaly’s ambitions.
“It ensured [that] we had a clear direction of travel for the team and the right financial support to give the team the skills and autonomy to get on with the job and create good work”.
The biggest challenge she outlines, was the difficulty of sourcing the right talent. Praising Anomaly, Russell says their encouragement of lateral thinking, enabling the creation of an environment where they could “really push boundaries”.
“I quickly learned, however, that not everyone is confident – or capable– to work in areas that aren’t familiar to them. Which isn’t surprising as the industry can barely give creatives the time and space they need to think creatively, let alone dedicate a percentage of their commercial margins to encourage different thinking”, she considers.
IPA’s Woman of Tomorrow
In 2016, Nicky Russell’s achievements were officially recognised and she was named IPA’s Woman of Tomorrow.
“It was amazing for the role of operations”, Russell says. “People are starting to realise the importance of creative operations and you’re seeing ‘makers and delivery people’ more in pitches”, she states. “Although there still aren’t enough of them at C-suite level or at the top table, in my opinion”.
“In 2016, I think I may have been the only operations person put forward for the award, which shows how far the role has now come”. She adds, “The win gave me faith in the industry as I didn’t think they took the role seriously and I was worried that they didn’t see it as innovative. Whereas I think that creative operations are crucial for the survival of agencies and creativity”.
From White Door Consulting to WDC
From Grey London and Anomaly to becoming a partner at WDC, Russell explains how she arrived at this point.
After leaving Anomaly she found herself at another crossroads, Russell felt it was less about the role and more about the team that she would be working with next.
Russell adds, “With operations, trust me, you are only as good as the team around you and you need a leadership that believes in the value of the delivery and bottom-line margin as well as the top line revenue, otherwise… you can’t make a difference and you’ll have a constant uphill battle”.
Around this time, she signed up for a short term consultancy project with White Door Consulting, which was her first introduction to Jim Hubbard, who founded the consultancy in 2001, and Dare’s ex-Chief Strategy Officer and Partner, John Owen.
“From day one it was like I had found the Holy Trinity. Jim is like the godfather of operations, having overseen project management at BBH and John is one of the most extraordinary people I have ever worked with”, she reflects.
Russell adds, “Having led Dare during the decade when the industry was struggling to evolve with the changing digital landscape, [Owen’s] knowledge of how to get the best out of creativity in any environment is honestly outstanding”.
Realising the level of synergy they had as a team, the trio then decided to partner up and evolve White Door’s offerings, relaunching WDC into the company it is today.
At WDC, Russell works to support IHAs with their internal marketing and creative operations. “Communication is a complex web, and it can be very difficult to know what to build for yourself and why and when to seek external support”, she says.
WDC is completely independent, she explains, partnering with senior stakeholders to understand business needs across people, process, structure, tech and culture. She adds, “We work with them in lots of different ways from defining the remit and role of the IHA, supporting with the right structure, identifying the right talent, and co-creating and implementing new processes and ways of working. No IHA is the same, they are all unique”.
Client challenges – evolving from service provider to strategic partner
Russell says that WDC are noticing an evolution in the remits of the IHA, which presents challenges. “A lot of brands are evolving from what we call ‘a service provider’; where the business will provide instructions to their IHA which they will fulfil and deliver, to wanting a creative and strategic partner who they can work collaboratively [with] to find solutions”. As well as this, she says, they are also witnessing a growing number of internal agencies wanting to be more ‘digital first’.
She explains that both challenges require a massive shift and step change, not only in the process and people, but also in its behaviour. WDC helps incorporate behaviour change into every aspect of operations, as Russell says, “We don’t just design the change with our clients, we deliver it with them and we don’t leave until they are confident in the new approach and ways of working”.
Improving creative operations – greater recognition at boardroom level
In order for the industry to work to improve creative operations, Russell believes that this must firstly come from greater recognition at boardroom level, “In the leadership team, actively having an opinion and shaping how to evolve the agency offering based on evolving internal and client needs”.
Russell quotes keynote speaker Nils Leonard at last year’s Henry Stewart virtual Creative Ops conference, “You can have the best ideas in the world but if you can’t deliver them, you are just talking to yourself”.
Henry Stewart Creative Ops conference London
This March, Nicky Russell, alongside John Owen, will be moderating From External Agency to In-House: Learnings from making the leap at the Henry Stewart Creative Ops conference in London. She outlines what they are hoping to deliver for the audience.
As we see more people wanting to move from external agencies to in-house for better working hours as well as closer proximity to brands in order to have a greater impact on the work, IHAs also want closer creative partnerships with other internal stakeholders. With this trend, Russell wants to highlight the opportunities and challenges for making such a move.
“We have four excellent ex-agency panellists who now work in-house; two from operations and two Creative Directors. We want to talk about the differences and similarities between agencies and IHA and how you create the same creative environments internally”, she says.
Pillars of diversity – growing up working class
Once her journey in advertising began, Russell was shocked at being judged on her background instead of one’s value. She explains, “There was an assumption that you weren’t bright due to how you spoke with implications on your class and education. I’d developed a thick skin in football and I was no wall flower”, but her confidence took a knock around public speaking when she wasn’t deemed ‘client-facing’ due to her voice.
“There are many pillars of diversity and class is one of them”, Russell reflects. “The industry has a lot to do to make it accessible for everyone. If you don’t change some of the inherent biases and elitist culture that a lot of the industry has, not only will you fail to attract the exact talent that this industry desperately needs, but they will lose them very quickly”.
Disability and inclusivity – a topic close to home
Living with a disability is an incredibly personal issue for Russell, as she was diagnosed with Rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 12.
“I think anyone who has a disability is naturally very creative. We have to think of creative solutions every day to be able to achieve what able bodies or minds would perceive as simple tasks”, she muses. Although those with disabilities thrive in creative environments, the industry is still inaccessible to many, she says.
“A lot of people I know in the industry have kept their disability a secret, [for] fear [of] barriers to promotion or opportunities and that is just wrong. I’ve always been very open about my disability and that representation matters, highlighting areas that need [to change]. As long as I have a platform, I will shout about it”, she explains.
Advice to myself: “Fail fast, learn quickly”
So, what’s the one piece of advice Russell would give her 20 year old self?
“I’d use the piece of advice that I’m giving to myself now, which is when you make a mistake and you keep going and you keep trying, that is brave and that’s more important than the mistake. It’s also the only way to learn. Fail fast, learn quickly”, she says.
She adds, “Everything I beat myself up over is an opportunity to learn and grow and I wish I understood that more when I was younger”.
Russell also shares another piece of advice given to her from her grandad which has served her well, advising to be kind to everyone, but not to “take shit off anyone”.
The Women of Influence insight series is published in partnership with Decideware
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