Vicki Maguire, Grey London: 'Most ad agencies are misogynist, shitty places'

How a 'misfit' and an 'outsider' is shaking up the world of advertising.

by Kate Bassett
Last Updated: 28 Mar 2017

When Vicki Maguire took over at the helm of advertising awards and education body Creative Circle last year – becoming the first female chair in its history – she set out her manifesto: ‘We will never be like them. We will never conform... We are the risk takers. The trouble makers. We don’t give a shit where you live. Where you're from. Or who your dad is. We are the outsiders. And it’s us against them.’

Maguire has spent her entire career taking risks. She’s bright, ballsy and swears like a trooper. Her mission is to disrupt the ‘pale, grey and stale’ world of adland and bring in more ‘outsiders’ – and more women. ‘In UK advertising, women make up just 30% of leadership positions and less than 11% of ECD [executive creative director] roles. That’s embarrassing. How can agencies say, hand on heart, that they are in touch with the consumer if they keep rolling out the same old boys? It’s absolute bollocks.’

Maguire was born in Leicester, where her parents worked on a market stall. From the age of five, she was helping them sell ‘second-hand crap’. By the age of 15, she had her own stall. She developed a love of fashion and scraped together four O-levels to study fashion design at Newcastle University. ‘I discovered pretty quickly that I couldn’t draw and I had no practical skills,’ she says. ‘Sir Paul Smith gave a talk at the uni and he said "Just write down your ideas". That stuck with me. I was good at articulating ideas. Years on the market stall had given me an ear for nuances and flavours.’

She graduated in the late eighties and moved straight to London, living in ‘shit holes’ around the East End and partying with young designers such as Alexander McQueen. She worked for brands including French Connection, Next and Nicole Farhi – but the jobs were always short lived. ‘I got sacked. A lot,’ she says. She got fired from Vivienne Westwood after getting bright red lipstick on a wedding dress; she tried to steam it off and turned the whole thing pink. ‘I got good at failing. And the more I failed, the less it hurt,’ she says.

Her final stint in fashion was at Ted Baker, which shared a floor with HHCL [the advertising agency famous for creating Tango’s Orange Man commercial]. ‘I got chatting to a couple of the creatives there and they told me how much they got paid for coming up with ideas. I couldn’t believe it. I resigned the next day, moved to a cheaper flat and started volunteering and interning for ad agencies. I didn’t have any family money to fall back on so I lived on toast and teabags to support myself.’

Maguire was introduced to art director Yuval Zanier and the pair started a freelance partnership. ‘He was a Jewish-Israeli graffiti artist. He didn’t fit the mould and neither did I. We were the industry misfits. Together we formed this odd, quirky team. No-one really expected anything from us, especially as I was a woman. Some agencies would even change my name from Vicki to Micky on scripts because they didn’t want the client to know I was female.’

Maguire remembers her first client pitch for an agency. ‘I was dressed in vintage Vivienne Westwood. My boss turned to me and said, "You’re not presenting dressed like that. Here’s £30. Go and buy something appropriate." I went to Dorothy Perkins and bought a shift dress, mid-heel court shoes and tights. That was a low point. I was the first ever Susan f***ing Boyle.’

Over the next decade, Maguire worked for 14 agencies across three countries, including Ogilvy & Mather, Wieden + Kennedy, Mojo and Amsterdam International. ‘Most of them were shitty, misogynist places. I have a good idea about what works for me and what doesn’t. I’ve never stayed at an office where juniors have to queue outside the creative director’s door.’

In 2009, she landed at Grey London to work on a two-week project. Seven years later, she’s still there – and is now the company’s executive creative director.  It was Maguire who came up with The Angina Monolgues for the British Heart Foundation (BHF), for which she earned a coveted British Comedy Award. And it was Maguire who was behind BHF’s 'Hands only CPR' Vinnie Jones campaign, which has saved countless lives. ‘I met a guy who told me he’d had a heart attack in Waitrose. When he woke up, there was a bearded Asian man leaning over his chest singing Stayin’ Alive in the fish aisle,’ says Maguire. ‘I’ve won lots of shiny awards but it’s stories like that that floor me.’

Her next big project is to help stop the rot at Marks & Spencer. The deposed king of the high street appointed Grey London to head up its creative account in August last year, marking the first time the retailer has given one agency control of both its advertising and digital strategy. Although M&S reported a rise in Christmas clothing and homeware sales for the first time in two years (thanks Mrs Claus), there’s still, as chief executive Steve Rowe put it, "lots that needs fixing".

‘I applied for a job at M&S’s design department back in 1988 and didn’t get it. Call this pay back!’ jokes Maguire. ‘I’ve been waiting for the chance to work on M&S for years. I’m its fiercest supporter and its fiercest critic.’

Meet some of the UK's most powerful businesswomen at MT's Inspiring Women Edinburgh event on 9th March. Read more here.

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