Hannah Penn is Deputy Head of Account Management at AMV BBDO and has recently been named in Management Today’s 35 Business Women under 35 list. Here she speaks to Sixth Former Alice Craig about life after Habs and how she is ended up where she is today.
Reading through the AMV BBDO Gender Pay Gap Report, I was struck by the equal balance between men and women at the firm, and I wondered what your thoughts were on this, and whether you had experienced any hardship or disparity on account of your gender?
I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have got to start my career and enjoy success at an agency with the culture and values which AMV BBDO holds. From day one I was surrounded by incredible female role models, my Account lead, Head of Department, CEO and Chairwoman were all female. I have been nurtured by these and more inspiring women, and of course men too, and am now Deputy Head of a department of 120 myself. In almost a decade of working however, it would be a lie to say I have never experienced any hardship as a woman. Belittling comments, quips from clients, use of derogatory phrases and language – all subtle actions which can almost go unnoticed in the moment but which build over time to form something bigger which can wear you down. AMV has always had systems in place to encourage staff to speak up and speak out about these instances, supported most crucially by not just the women but the men in the agency. It means our culture is incredibly open and if issues occur where anyone feels hardship on account of their gender (or any other characteristic), there is a shared language and code of conduct in place where such issues can be raised, discussed and dealt with. Calling out the bad behaviour to highlight it as wrong and stamp it out stops women feeling like the hardship is theirs to put up with in the first place. I am relieved to finally now see other businesses and industries across all sectors waking up to the endemic patriarchy which has for so long been the unspoken code by which they operate.
On a more basic level, I was interested to ask what you had studied at A-Level and at University, and whether you had always known that you would do something like ‘account management,’ or whether you had completely different goals?
I studied Philosophy at Cambridge University and to be totally honest had originally planned to do a Law conversion. It struck me after 2 years of studying that I myself had no desire to pursue a career in the Law, and was simply defaulting to follow in my father’s footsteps. I realised I needed to blaze my own trail. I knew I wanted a job which would expose me to business growth and opportunity, and had always had a creative flair which I wanted my career choice to allow me to channel. Clear on those parameters and after a bit of time researching, I came across Account Management as a career opportunity – a role which I didn’t even know existing in advertising agencies. I spent the summer of my second year applying for and completing work experience programmes, one of which was at AMV, and absolutely fell in love with the industry. Getting hands on experience before you apply for roles is something I couldn’t recommend more. It meant I was applying for Graduate positions with a real clarity on the role, what I loved about it and what I knew I had to offer to the agencies I was applying to.
Could you give a description of what skills you utilise on a daily basis, and whether you think that you have developed these skills throughout your experiences in your current employment, or whether you think they were nurtured during school and university?
The Account Management discipline in an advertising agency is really all about relationship management. It is my job to lead multidiscipline teams of clients, creatives, strategists, and producers to come up with creative solutions which grow our clients’ businesses. You have to be fluent in the needs of the brand, the client, the consumer, and motivate a group of diverse people to come up with ideas and communication solutions which help move consumers to in turn drive a business forward. So you need a combination of an enquiring mind, a passion for creativity, a fascination with what makes people tick, and an ability to think strategically and present compelling solutions to problems. Looking back, all of these skills are things which were encouraged and teased out of me from a very young age throughout my 13 years at Habs. I always felt empowered to question and challenge, to approach things differently and consider issues from other angles. That curiosity, passion and confidence as a bedrock of skills has proved invaluable and is something I am hugely grateful to Habs for instilling in me.
What would you say has been the toughest point of your career so far, and how did you overcome this obstacle to grow as a person?
I started my career at AMV BBDO back in 2009 on The National Lottery account. I had a wonderful team from whom I learnt so much and with whom I made some of my happiest memories so far in my career. Earlier this year, The National Lottery called an advertising review and we were forced into a pitch situation as the incumbent. Determined and heady with nostalgia, I stepped in to lead the team through an exhausting 8 week process involving late nights, weekend work, high emotions and high stakes. We gave it everything we had to fight to keep a piece of business we all so loved and believed in. Devastatingly, we lost. Closer to home, I felt like an absolute failure, ashamed and most crushingly I felt that I’d let the side down. The day we heard the news the whole team left the office immediately to lick our wounds and commiserate together. Surrounded by an amazing team of people much stronger and wiser than I, what I had anticipated would be an afternoon of anger, frustration and sadness became one of positive reflection, of moving forwards stronger and tougher, focussed on overcoming adversity together. I had been protected from genuine failure for much of my life. Ironically, most of the leaders who I respect most talk a lot about failure as something you should seek out and aim for – “fail fast” because if you aren’t failing, you aren’t trying to do something worth doing. With an army of brilliant people around me when real, gut wrenching failure smacked me straight in the face for the first time, I was able to take lessons from it, come out stronger for it, and feel proud of the brave and category breaking thinking we had presented in the pitch. Because it showed we were ultimately aiming to achieve something which was worth the trouble, but which the world just wasn’t ready for…..yet.
Finally, after all your achievements, what are your plans and goals for the future?
Last year I was promoted to lead the Account Management department at AMV, which is made up of 120 of the brightest and nicest brains in the industry. I am passionate about ensuring each and every one of them today and in the future have the same experiences I have been lucky enough to enjoy in my career so far. That they feel the right balance of challenge and support, feel valued, and are able to make a genuine difference to incredible businesses across all different sectors. I hope one day to build on this experience to get to lead an entire company.
I am committed to ensuring that AMV is at the forefront of breaking down the challenges facing our industry relating to diversity and inclusion. For too long historically Advertising (along with most business) was seen exclusively the domain of middle and upper class white males. We have come quite some way from that now but need to push further to ensure that Advertising is a vocation which is viable and inviting everyone – regardless of gender, race, sexuality, background.
Finally, I would love someday to have a family. I was very lucky to meet my now husband, Simon, on my first day at University and he has stuck with me ever since. I hope to be a role model to my children by continuing to enjoy a successful career without having to sacrifice being the kind of mother I was lucky enough to have and want to be myself. I think the best thing you can do to ensure that is find a life partner who believes that the duty of parenthood falls to you both equally, and to a work culture which doesn’t just support but really champions working parents. I know I am incredibly fortunate to have found both.
Hannah will return to Habs to speak to the whole Lower 6 in February as part of their Leadership Day.