How I Made It featuring Ondine Whittington, MD at Virgo Health
Hanson Search steps inside the world of Virgo Health to interview Managing Director Ondine Whittington for its inspiring career series. Ondine shares her career journey, advice on overcoming challenges at the top, and explains why adaptability is key to becoming a successful leader.
How did you get into the communications industry?
Like so many, my route into the industry wasn’t traditional. Originally, I was going to study medicine, but also loved English and ended up doing an unusual mix of A-Levels in all the sciences and English literature. In the end, I did a last-minute U-turn to do a psychology degree. I realised I loved the combination of science and writing and started to explore how I could combine the two. This led me to my first job working at a breast cancer charity as a press officer and I carved out a niche there, overseeing their scientific comms. When it was time to move on I saw there was a whole healthcare comms industry out there and I joined Virgo as an account manager.
Do you have a mentor or someone who inspired you to succeed?
There hasn’t been one specific person. I’ve been really lucky that I’ve had the opportunity to work with lots of inspiring people throughout the course of my career. At different points, I’ve needed different kinds of leadership or mentoring – and that’s as much from those above me as my peers or even people below me. I’ve found that ability to seek out mentors from across the board has been useful.
If I was to single one person out though it would be my first boss at the breast cancer charity, Sangeeta Haindl, who has this complete passion for our craft and was a true PR professional. She loved the news and storytelling and her expectations were really high which gave me a fantastic grounding for what exceptional looked like.
What has been the biggest challenge that you’ve overcome in your career?
Taking on the managing directorship of Virgo. At the time the business was going through a huge amount of change; we were transitioning out of the end of the Golin buy-out and integrating the business, there was a change in senior leadership and we also moved offices to Central London. Whilst this represented opportunity, for some it also created uncertainty and supporting this transition whilst also reconfiguring and refocusing the business to grow was a challenge. For me personally though this provided a great opportunity to hone my leadership skills and imprint on all aspects of the business in terms of leadership, vision and as part of that the integration into being part of a bigger network and unlocking this potential.
What career advice would you give your 20-year-old self?
Be authentic. Take time to really understand what matters to you and what’s important and then bring that into the business. Have confidence in your ability and trust your gut instinct.
What changes have you seen in the industry since you started your career?
Of course, the rise of social and digital media. When I came into the industry it was traditional media through and through and there has been a shift in terms of social now being fully integrated and baked in. People coming into the business now are digital natives and don’t see social and digital as a separate entity, it’s just another channel to reach our audience.
In terms of the type of work we do for clients and how the pharma industry is shifting, we are delivering more internal comms and change management work – the industry is increasingly seeing their internal teams as corporate ambassadors to build a strong external reputation.
Aligned with that is a shift in the agency workforce. I have seen a huge change in the expectations of employees – from flexible working to strong preferences around the type of work people want to do. People are focussed on doing work which makes them feel they have a purpose and there’s a different expectation of leadership too, to be more transparent and accessible to their teams.
What do you think it takes to be successful in 2020?
Given the pace of change in our industry, it’s all about adaptability; being comfortable with uncertainty and being able to flex and adapt at speed to still deliver measurable impact.
What are the top three things businesses should do to improve diversity in the workplace?
Businesses should place a greater focus on inclusion. We can get very focussed on diversity as a quotient - having a certain number of CVs, having the right number of people in our teams - but if we want diverse talent to stay in our industry, we need to focus on creating an inclusive culture where all opinions, perspectives and points of view are all taken into consideration. At Virgo, being inclusive is very much embedded in our culture. We have a team of Cultural Ambassadors who ensure everyone’s opinions are heard, irrespective of background or role in the business.
Where we seek talent is important. The industry could do much more to open up opportunities to a more diverse network and to increase social mobility. For example, we should explore bringing in degree level entrants with a scientific background, rather that always focussing on university graduates. There’s a lot of work to do in terms of where we’re bringing in talent from and not going to the usual places.
Additionally, agencies must place diversity at the heart of business strategy, not sidelined to HR. On the consumer side particularly, there are countless campaign fails that can be directly attributed to a lack of diverse thinking. Equally, there are plenty of campaigns that have successfully brought to life diverse perspectives. Clients increasingly see the value to their business of engaging with wider audiences, which means agencies must lead the way with diversity to meet that demand, or risk becoming irrelevant.
What do you think are the key qualities it takes to be a leader in today’s communications industry?
Lots of things! One of the main things is accessibility – gone are the days when you can sit behind a desk in an office and be disconnected from your teams or clients. There is a requirement now, and teams expect it, that you are accessible to them and that you’re transparent in the way you operate – they want to feel you in the business and to have time with you at every level.
That can be quite challenging when you’re busy, but you need to put in mechanisms so that that can happen. For example, I do quarterly one to ones where anyone can come in and have a chat. I also spend quite a lot of time walking around on the floor: people want to feel a presence from a leader.
I also think the ability to have a clear vision, handle uncertainty as our environment adapts at pace, connect the dots in an organisation, get teams behind opportunities at speed and to deliver measurable results are definitely requirements today. To do this effectively though, you need a level of emotional intelligence, warmth and compassion – your teams need to trust you and that you have their best interest in mind as well.
What do you love about the industry?
I love the people that work in it – they’re the brightest, smartest, most creative people - and I love coming to work with them every day. I feel privileged to work in an industry where you’re genuinely at the cutting edge of some of the most incredible advances in science and innovation and can see the impact that they’re ultimately going to have on patients.
What is the biggest challenge that the industry will face over the next few years?
In terms of the craft of what we do, we need to adapt to increasing demand from patients for access to information and support. Patients expect to consume this information in the same way that they consume other information in their daily lives. How we do that compliantly and how pharma delivers what patients need is going to be challenging.
Name one piece of technology, other than your phone, that you couldn’t live without?
After a hard day at work when my eight-year-old is asking me existential life questions, I call on Alexa!