How I made it featuring Sian Dodwell, Chief Strategy Officer, Publicis LifeBrands
Hanson Search steps inside the world of Publicis LifeBrands to interview Sian Dodwell, Chief Strategy Officer, for our 'Inspiring Stories' career series. Sian shares her journey from the beginning of her career path, the challenges she's overcome, and her top tips for success it the communications industry.
How did you get into the communications and marketing industry?
I did Art & Architecture History at university and started out working in architecture for an exhibition space in central London. I loved it and did that for a couple of years. I gave publishing a go briefly, but hated that, so I went to do the filing for a marketing agency one summer and it just clicked… turns out we were one of the first integrated marketing agencies in London at the time, at the very beginning of the digital age. I was an account planner for about seven years before I moved to Grey/G2 and into planning.
Do you have a mentor who inspires you to succeed?
Throughout my career, there has been somebody around who I have thought, ‘wow, you’re amazing’. When I was at Grey/G2 there were a couple of planners who really inspired me: one got me deeply into semiotics and visual analysis and another taught me the fundamentals of brand planning. When I went client-side at GSK it was filled with brilliant people: I learnt so much in that role, I honestly think having client experience in our industry is invaluable.
What has been the biggest challenge that you have overcome?
Realising that it’s when things aren’t going well that you learn and grow the most. When you’re young, you’re worried about making mistakes, of being exposed. But you eventually learn that people are there to support you, to help you step out of your comfort zone, and help you take responsibility.
What career advice would you give your 20-year-old self?
There’s not a lot I would change but maybe get into planning earlier.
What are the biggest changes that you’ve seen in the communications industry since you started your career?
We thought digital was just another channel opportunity and social platforms were a new social glue, given free to the world. But with data scandal after data scandal, there is a slow realisation that if the product is free, then you are the product.
What do you think it takes to be successful in 2019?
I think it has always been the same; show up on time and don’t be an arsehole. If you’re nice to work with, learn from your mistakes and get on with it, you’ll be fine.
What are the main things businesses should be doing to improve diversity in the workplace?
Healthcare is very female-orientated and in our niche of advertising we’ve done a lot in terms of addressing gender balance. We try to recruit as diversely and blindly as we can but fundamentally it’s all about filling the talent funnel. We do OK but we could always do better.
What do you think are the key qualities it takes to be a leader in today’s communications industry?
Lead how you’d like to be led I guess. Leadership these days is much more democratic and participatory than it used to be, and the historic pyramid system is flattening out. Working as hard as those around you and participating is really important.
There is much debate around the future of work and needs of a team. What do you see as key to the growth of a successful team and a positive working environment?
Agency life is a very face-to-face environment and technology helps but still has a long way to go. Being in the room is essential to the creative processes, and also essential for agency culture. Nevertheless, people value working from home and you have to try and get the balance right as much as possible. I don’t think we’ve found that balance yet!
What do you love about the industry?
I love the continual problem solving and the fact that you’re creating something meaningful and truly valuable to the health of the world. I also love working with people. You’re constantly learning – not being a scientist, every brief we get is an eye-opener for me, there’s always something new.
What is the biggest challenge that the communications industry will face over the next few years?
We’re getting a lot of squeeze in healthcare at the moment. The wider advertising industry has woken up to the value of health, and so the big creative names have now started competing with the more pure-healthcare organisations – that’s exciting because it’s going to make us step up our creative game. The same is true strategically: the consultancy giants are now looking at commercial, brand and communications strategy and wanting a piece of that as well, so we’re being squeezed from both ends. It’s going to force us to think hard about how we compete and really up our game.
What can healthcare learn from big brands?
We’ve learned a lot from big brands. Many of our clients aren’t pure marketeers, so a lot of the time we’re helping them to understand the core basics of brand building. But actually consumer brands can also learn a lot from healthcare in terms of how you build a brand from a rock solid scientifically led evidence base.
If you weren’t in communications, what would you do?
I’d probably be in the arts. What I do love about the communications industry is that you’re continually reading image. My art history heritage helps with that – we are currently building a lot more semiotics analysis into our strategy. Every time we talk to a client, we show them the visual history of their category and it helps demonstrate to them where the white space is, and helps break the creative laziness which haunts so much of our sector.
Name one technology, other than your phone, that you couldn’t live without.
It’s an old ‘technology’ but I’d say my bike.
Any last words of advice?
Healthcare comms is the world’s best kept secret. We are the only industry that provides a true blend of science and creativity. I work with amazing scientific and creative brains all in the same agency, sometimes the same person – where else could a chemist end up winning at Cannes?