'How I Made It' featuring Clare Wilkes of Marks & Spencer

How I Made It featuring Clare Wilkes, Head of Corporate PR at Marks & Spencer

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 Clare Wilkes, Head of Corporate PR at Marks & Spencer, to find out more about her career and how she made it in the communications industry.

Clare has worked at M&S since 2006, most recently as Head of Corporate PR. It’s a diverse and challenging role, working closely with a high calibre team of nine to deliver the corporate narrative for a business in the midst of an unprecedented transformation plan. Prior to joining M&S, Clare had two stints agency side and worked inhouse at IKEA.

Read on to find out all about Clare’s career and how she made it in communications.

How did you get into the communications industry?

I came from a very working-class background and when I came to choose my subjects for university, I initially chose English and Drama. However, my Dad sat me down and made it clear he didn’t think I was going to make it as an actress. He asked me instead if I wanted to be an English teacher. I said no, and he replied that if it didn’t lead to a career, he couldn’t support me in studying English and Drama.

So, I went back to my careers advisor, and scrolled through all the courses available.  I saw PR listed but didn’t know what it was, so I researched it. I found a book which talked about open and honest two-way communication, campaigns, creativity, angles – all of which appealed. I successfully applied for a PR and Media Studies course at Exeter. I had a great time and am grateful to my Dad for making me think about my career at that early stage.

What keeps you sane on those crazy days?

Most days are crazy at M&S! What keeps me sane is the strength and talent within the team. Their passion and creativity drives me through the days.

Do you have a mentor?

I’ve been lucky enough to work with some truly brilliant people who have really inspired me. For example, I had the privilege of working with Belinda Earle, former CEO of Debenhams and Jaeger. She has an amazing ability to mix the aspirational and the humble. She’s engaging, accessible and has an open-door policy but has also reached amazing heights in her career and is hugely respected within the industry. I loved working with her.

Another person who really inspired me was Sir Stuart Rose, the former Executive Chairman of Marks & Spencer. Again, he had a real open-door policy; you could reach him any time day or night if you needed him. He valued PR and comms and understood that the reputation of a business – and the people within it – can make or break that business.

I’ve also been lucky enough to meet Jo Malone recently, and she is totally amazing. She’s disrupting the powerhouse of perfumery and living to tell the tale. I admire people who are disruptive, innovative, pioneering, transcending boundaries and breaking the rules.

What three words best describe you as a communicator?

Curious. Loyal. Challenging.

What career advice would you give your 20-year-old self?

Rip up your CV. Whatever you put on that piece of paper isn’t going to cut through. Think about new and creative ways to reach people. Think about ways to make yourself stand out. And think of yourself as a holistic communications practitioner, not a specialist, as that’s going to be more and more important. Keep abreast of what is happening in the paid for space and understand that paid and owned together drive the best results.

Get as much work experience as you can but be choosey about the projects you take on. And make sure you are happy and comfortable with your digital footprint. Everyone’s legacy is now online and personal and professional integrity go hand-in-hand – don’t be fooled into thinking your future employees won’t check out your personal online impression. They will!

Finally, trust your gut instincts. Those hunches are important in communications. If something doesn’t feel right, it won’t land right with customers or media.

What obstacles have you faced while getting to the top as a female leader? 

My natural personality is dogmatic, determined, and persistent. I like to probe, challenge and try to disrupt the status quo. I’ve learnt the hard way that that isn’t always well-received in women and that feels unfair. It can cause a lot of pain to be told repeatedly that you’re too aggressive or too dominant when those are traits that are celebrated in men and help get them to the top.

How do you think the industry can improve diversity?

There’s a disproportionate amount of people from public schools in the industry – especially in public affairs – and as someone from a working-class background I think this ‘hidden’ lack of diversity should be tackled. As senior leaders we have an obligation to venture out and talk to young people from all backgrounds about what a career in comms could mean for them.

What one piece of technology can you not live without?

My Kindle. I don’t have a huge amount of downtime but I do love to read. I resisted a Kindle for years as I thought it would bring about the death of books. However, when I finally got one it changed my life and now I always have a book on the go.

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Author: Jenny Waters

Jenny specialises in the corporate communications space at Hanson Search, working in partnership with global agencies and in-house clients. She is also Co-Chairman of the PRCA NextGen London Group, a forum providing support and advice to communications professionals.

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