How I made it featuring Gemma Irvine, Head of Creatives Services at Engine, MHP
Hanson Search steps inside the world of Engine, MHP to interview Gemma Irvine, Head of Creative Services, for its 'Inspiring Stories' career series. Gemma shares her career journey, the biggest challenges she’s overcome and her thoughts on the future of the comms industry.
How did you get into the communications industry?
I was attracted by an illusion. I remember when AbFab came out and I thought that PR life would be centred around Bollinger and celebrities! At university I applied to multiple PR agencies but ended up working at a concrete company in export and sales which gave me a brilliant foundation in understanding business, but when I saw an advertisement for a PR Assistant that was the start of things.
Do you have a mentor or someone who has inspired you to succeed?
I have had some fantastic managers along the way who have really understood me and my desire to remain authentic but the biggest mentors in my life have been people within my own family. Things like a strong work ethic and the fact that you should never compromise on what you believe in are certainly things that I have tried to bring into the workplace.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome in your career?
I don’t want to be a diva, and sometimes as you become more senior there is an expectation that you will become harder and more cut-throat. I haven’t done that. I’ve tried to be a good manager and a good professional in terms of my clients. Coming to London as a young woman was quite a big cultural shock and I’m proud of the fact that I started out in Cirencester and then Bristol and that I understood what it was to work with regional media. I got real grassroots-up training.
When I was promoted to Managing Director of Brand that was also a challenge. I moved from being part of a big team to managing that team and having to make some difficult decisions. Being privy to lots of information at a senior and leadership level which I couldn’t then share with what had previously been peers and friends was a big lesson in terms of what it is to become an MD.
What career advice would you give to your twenty-year-old self?
Always be true to yourself and listen to your intuition. In today’s world, especially with social media, people often feel that they need to filter their persona, but in our industry authenticity is incredibly important. I’m proud that today I still work with clients who I worked with on the first day I joined MHP 12 years ago and have remained the same person I was when started.
What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the industry since you started your career?
Clients are much more sophisticated and that’s why we’re seeing more people go in-house from agency as there are greater opportunities and an appetite for best in class internal teams.
Social and digital have, of course, had a huge impact on the industry and is something that I’m exploring at the moment as to how we make it feel less siloed and recognise it as part of our job in communications and audience engagement.
I also think that creativity has become more challenging and that as audiences’ expectations rise, so do the client’s. Consequently we’re sometimes in danger of overcomplicating things rather than delivering simple ideas.
What can business do to improve diversity in the workplace?
We’ve been doing a number of things over the years at MHP, from blind CVs to working with different partners to explore how we can attract different candidates. In the design team we’ve worked with Ravensbourne University to get students to come in for two-month placements so that they can enhance their skills and portfolio and in return, we have access to young talent and new perspectives and creative ways of thinking.
We also have an apprenticeship scheme, which has been really important in introducing a different kind of thinking and nurturing talent.
From my perspective now, I need to consider CVs from disciplines outside of PR to bring more diverse thinking into the business.
What do you think are the key qualities it takes to become a leader in today’s communications industry?
You need to have your finger on the pulse of things that are happening both culturally and politically because it’s essential that you have a broader understanding of the stories that are being told.
You also need a flexible, empathetic management style. We now have such a multi-generational workforce that there isn’t one rule that can fit all.
Approachability is also important; there’s so much knowledge that can be imparted in terms of experience from management, but people often become more distant as they become more senior. It’s always good to remember where you started because you’ve got so much to share with those just starting out.
What do you see as key to the growth of a successful team and a positive working environment?
At MHP + Mischief we’re moving to a hotdesking model and we also have fluid working in place, which means it’s less about presenteeism and more about outputs and productivity. I’ve always worked on the basis of trust and delivery. However, when you’re starting out in your career, at-desk learning is so important – and for all of us, bouncing ideas and questions off other people is also hugely powerful.
Tech can help – we moved to Slack last year and have done a lot of Slack-braining which has been great. And we’re developing agile working spaces where people can sit together as integrated teams, which will hopefully foster even more.
In terms of mental wellness, there’s a lot to be said for spending your days with exciting, stimulating people – it’s all about balance.
What do you love about the industry?
I love that it keeps changing and I love the largely positive impact that technology has had. I like the fact that PR, which was once the poor cousin in the marketing mix, is now recognised as being incredibly important in its own right and that earned media is both powerful and influential.
What do you think are the biggest challenges the industry will face over the next few years?
Agencies need to be really clear in their offering and what value they’re going to add because the market will only become more competitive as businesses merge and diversify. As a society, we are more activist and more vocal and more cynical than ever before, and people have the means to tear apart output from communications agencies. We need to adapt as an industry and diversify to ensure that we’re providing clients with things that they need and help them navigate the scrutiny and expectations of society.