How I Made It: Ali Gee, Deputy CEO at FleishmanHillard Fishburn
For our latest inspiring stories series, 'How I made it', we're interviewing the cream of the crop across all facets of communications and marketing. This is where you'll learn about how the best in the industry got to where they are today and hopefully pick up some tips along the way to help your own career progress.
We sat down with Ali Gee, deputy CEO at FleishmanHillard Fishburn, to find out how she made it in the communications industry. As deputy CEO, Ali supports the managing directors of the business in growing the agency’s client base and delivering great campaigns. She sponsors the new business, marketing, strategy and planning and creative teams within the agency as well as leading a number of the firm’s key clients.
Read on to find out all about Ali's big break, toughest challenges, and the 'girl gang' that inspires her.
Tell me about your big break?
I was doing a postgrad course, the CAM Diploma in PR, after I graduated and my teacher was Kevin Read, who was until quite recently working at Bell Pottinger. I think I was a bit of a swot and managed to use that to convince him to give me a job as an account manager. I had never done a day of PR in my life. It wasn't all plain sailing...
What major challenges have you overcome in your career?
I started at QBO on the same day as Jo Carr, now better known for being the co-founder and managing partner at Hope & Glory. She was a ‘proper’ account manager and the disparity between the two of us was very clear from week one; she was an ace at selling-in and client handling and I didn’t even know what a press release was.
It was pretty painful. I was flailing around, acutely aware that I wasn’t worth the salary I was being paid, with Jo by my side as a constant reminder of ‘what good looks like’. And then someone tipped me off that the trick in this business is that you only have to get one client to think you’re indispensable and you’re home and dry.
I decided to make The Portman Group – the drinks industry watchdog – my vital client. It was around the time that alcopops were a big thing and the campaigns we worked on were great. I loved the client, they liked me and I succeeded in making myself indispensable.
Do you have a daily routine to help you stay focussed and motivated?
I start every day with a to-do list. It’s always too long to be achievable in one day and because I spend so much of my week in meetings I never actually have the time to do the work. Sometimes I feel like I’ve achieved the square root of nothing but just having it there helps keep me focussed.
Who inspires you?
I don’t have one specific person or mentor, but I have a great gaggle of ferociously talented girlfriends who've all grown up together in the industry and who now all run agencies, some of them in the same building as us in Bankside. They’re very inspiring. That includes my former boss Cilla Snowball, group chief executive of AMV BBDO. She is a fantastic female leader and she's a good friend as well so I would say the inspiration comes less from mentors and more from this 'girl gang'.
And actually Bibi Hilton, MD of Golin London, did something recently that I had meant to do and hadn't acted on... She sent a blind-copied email – so you didn’t know who else had received it – about a year and a half ago saying ‘Hello, some of you I know, some of you I don’t, but all of you I admire. Why don't why get together for drinks and make it a 'not-networking' event and just get to know each other?' And I thought that was so intriguing and so tonally right for me I went along and now there’s a bunch of us who get together to share war stories and a bit of gallows humour over drinks on a regular basis.
Describe yourself in three words.
Thoughtful, analytical, passionate.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I would not miss out the rungs below account manager again as I know now that I lacked quite a lot of the skills required to do any of the basics well. What I did have was some of the other skills we value in our industry, which meant I could specialise later in life. Had I known that, I would have just gone straight into a specialist career path, probably as a planner right from the start.
Have you faced any particular challenges as a female leader?
No. I would say that some of the challenges I’ve faced in the industry are unrelated to gender and are often cultural. Some agencies are about work hard, play hard or just plain work hard. This can create a toughness that can lead to a lot of bullying and I always swore that when I ‘grew up’ I wouldn’t let it happen on my watch. So it’s gratifying to work for an agency where I genuinely believe that it doesn’t happen.
Do you see diversity as an issue in the industry?
Yes, it’s chronic. However, we’re really gearing up to sort it out. I think 2018 will be the year that people are actually going to do the things required to make a difference. For example, Omnicom Group has started to address this in all of its agencies – benchmarking is being carried out so we know how we’re performing and how things can be tackled.
I learned a few things at previous agencies about how diversity is also about creating a global mindset and having different perspectives. Truly global work can only be created by working with people who have lived beyond London or the Home Counties.
What piece of tech can’t you live without?
It would have to be my phone which I know is a complete cliché. And that’s despite the fact that I spent last night lecturing my son on the perils of social media.