Farah Ramzan Golant, 46, is CEO of Britain's biggest advertising agency, AMV BBDO, whose clients include Guinness, Sainsbury's, Walkers and BT. She studied modern languages at Cambridge University before joining the industry as a graduate trainee and has worked at AMV BBDO for more than 20 years. She says her ethos is "work hard and be nice to people".
Business is quite unpredictable. Advertising has been hit hard by the recession and the change in government, and the industry as a whole is still waiting for some sign of lift. Clients are needing to see results much more quickly and they're a little bit more cautious about long-term investment. But AMV BBDO continues to be really robust. We have very long-standing client relationships, so there's a lot of trust.
How has the recession affected the work that you produce?
I think we have to be more creative than before, because the value of a brand is really up for debate. Why should I buy Heinz rather than an own-label product? Why should I choose Mercedes, at a time when luxury is maybe a little bit out of reach? The recession has meant that the best creative talent has had to be more inventive, more lateral, more thoughtful and more quick-witted and to think about brands. When everything is really good, people can get quite lazy. But when you're in more straitened circumstances and there's much more at stake, it can sometimes bring out the best in people.
What first attracted you to a career in advertising?
Someone in the recruitment office at my university said that advertising was all about using creativity to solve commercial challenges and I thought, well that sounds pretty cool, using your imagination to attack business problems. Also it was about joining an industry where the whole emphasis is on people. I liked the idea of joining somewhere where the product was just ideas created by people with good chemistry.
In what ways has advertising changed in the last 20 years?
It's much more accountable and much more measurable but it can also be much more impactful. A good idea could always go quite far, but now it can literally go global in seconds thanks to the internet. And also advertising now has critics. Consumers will tell you very quickly what they like and don't like about your work. Once upon a time there was a bit of splendid isolation. Now you're constantly having your work commented on. Content is criticised, shaped, advocated and passed on by consumers who are not just on the receiving end: they're uploading what they think you should be doing. It's a massive change.
Have consumers become more cynical over the years?
Haven't they always been cynical? If a commercial company is telling you something about a product, people think, well they would say that, wouldn't they? People are influenced in so many different ways now. Peer group recommendation and word of mouth are really strong. I think the truth is that people aren't more cynical but people are perhaps much more capable of finding out a truth if you happen to be hiding one. So if you're a big corporation and you've got something to hide, you will be found out.
In the past, the advertising world was famous for being inhabited by big, outrageous characters who took very long lunches. Is that still true today?
I think creative communities are always going to be a little bit eccentric and a little bit out of the box because that's the way creative ideas come about. They don't come about because you follow a set of rules, and they don't come about because you logically solve a problem. You understand diagnostically what a problem is, you use the data and then you make a leap to create an idea. So there are always going to be eccentricities, but I think that era of heavy drinking and long lunches is a thing of the past, completely. I never experienced it, but you hear stories of the good old days and the two-bottle lunch!
Is there anything in the 60s world of Mad Men, the TV series, that still rings true?
Yes, in terms of the way an agency works to run clients and to develop campaigns. But there isn't much about us that you can relate to that period. I don't get from Mad Men a sense of the excitement that goes into developing work. The series reflects the way life used to be in corporate America. For instance, the women are either objects of desire or objects of domesticity. Today we're in a completely different world. This agency is completely 50:50 in terms of gender split, as is the management. There are women leading a lot of agencies and women coming through the ranks. So I think the industry is much more supportive of women and much less about the eccentricities of being a man. There's definitely still some way to go but if you compare us with, say, the legal profession and see how many women are senior partners in top City firms, I think we're not doing badly.
What was the last ad you saw that made you buy something?
The ad for Apple FaceTime, which my son showed me online. I loved it because it literally showed me how that product was going to get me to have FaceTime with people when I'm on the move. So I might be in New York for a board meeting but I could do FaceTime with the kids. Or I might be in the agency and actually want to have video contact with somebody in another agency. I just thought it was a beautiful piece of kit with beautiful aesthetics, so bloody useful and breakthrough, because nobody else can get me to do that.
Finally, do you have any sense of where advertising is heading?
We have very few certainties. So much is moving quickly. Look at the way that something like Twitter can take off. There's no way to predict what's coming, but you can see the themes. It's about brands trying to earn their place in your life rather than just selling at you.
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