How I made it: Jane Brearley, Senior Partner, Portland Communications
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.
Jane has over 22 years of experience in health communications. She believes passionately in the power of diverse thinking and co-creation. Jane leads Portland’s Health and Global Impact practices as a Senior Partner, she joined the firm in 2014.
How did you get into the communications industry?
I was doing a PhD in Biophysics many years ago, and realised that pure science wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. While at university, I completed a placement with the Forestry Commission that included a lot of communications work. I really enjoyed it. Over twenty years ago I saw a job advert in The Guardian, applied, was successful and have been working in communications ever since.
What keeps you sane on those crazy days?
You just need to be grounded and remember that nobody died. Work is important, clients are important, and we want to deliver exceptional results but there is a life outside of that. I need to spend time with my teenagers, my friends and to get out in the fresh air. Just getting out of the office helps to remind you that what might seem catastrophic in the moment is maybe not as important as it looks.
Do you or did you have a mentor?
Most of my formative career was spent at The Workhouse with Jo Bright; Red Door with Catherine Warne; and Anna Korving at Publicis Resolute. All of whom are strong independent women who showed me that you can set something up from scratch and be super successful. They certainly gave me the appetite for building a team and all acted as mentors, especially Anna.
What three words best describe you?
Honest, respectful, inclusive
Knowing what you know now, what career advice would you give your 20-year-old self?
Stay curious and don’t get jaded. Keep asking questions. Don’t have a closed mind. Don’t be fazed by the fact that you might not know things. It’s too easy in the pharmaceutical sector to say “compliance says no” rather than think “this is a fabulous idea, let’s see how we can make it work within the rules”.
As a female leader, what has been your experience of getting to the top? Did you face any obstacles you weren’t expecting?
In all honesty, no. My husband passed away suddenly, when I was pregnant with my third child, so I am very grounded in the reality of being a single working parent. I don’t think that having kids has stopped me achieving promotion. But I’ve mainly worked in female driven businesses, so it might not be the same for everyone.
I do think that until you have children, you don’t understand what sort of an impact they are going to have on your life. I think that the concept of work-life balance is misleading; it’s about work-life integration. I like to leave work at 4.30pm because I want to have dinner with my teenagers, but then I’ll work on Sunday mornings and that suits me. But what suits me won’t suit everyone or every working environment.
I think it’s about being open minded to reality but empowered by your leadership team to be able to set red lines and say, “this is what I want”. I don’t think we give people enough choices: we tend to say “this is our policy” when we should be having conversations asking people what their circumstances are and what would work for them. If you’re more fluid in the way you think about work and life I think it becomes much easier. But if you try to keep them in separate boxes things quickly become very hard.
What do you think the industry should be doing to improve diversity?
My perspective is all around diversity of thinking. When it comes to recruitment, we have a bad habit of hiring people who look and think like us, I think if we just keep going to the same universities we’re going to just keep on hiring the same people, but with different shoes. You need to take it a step further and be open minded and curious about who you bring in, and make sure you and treat people well even when they are very different to the people already within the business.
I think a lot of clients have a fixed view on what they expect from their agency, but if you sell it right it’s clear that diversity of thinking can help identify new ways of doing things, whilst achieving their objectives. Our clients are trying to reach a global population; we need to represent that or at least have meaningful insights, to be able create campaigns that resonate drive real behaviour change.
The other thing is mental health, which is something that we as an industry don’t talk about enough. We need to help people build resilience so that our colleagues and teams know when they might need time out, or when things aren’t right for them mentally. We should help people to build daily routines that work for them – whether that is flexible working or being able to go to the gym, or whatever they need. We have five mental health first aiders here which helps show that the business takes this seriously and that there are people in the building trained to look out for your mental health. It’s like an iceberg: I bet there’s a lot of people struggling under the surface, which is why I am always open to talk about my experiences of mental ill health. It’s only through building resilient teams that we can nurture talent and achieve true diversity of thinking. Being open and honest about where individuals encounter difficulty is key to this.
What is the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without?
Social media. I use Instagram mainly for getting inspiration in terms of creative projects I’m working on, Facebook for catching up with friends and Twitter mainly for news. But I’d still always rather catch up face-to-face over a glass of wine.