"I would say to anyone interested in a career in advertising or marketing, all experience is going to prove useful"

Volunteer in the Spotlight – Hilary Thomson

'Volunteer in the Spotlight' is a regular feature which shares the stories of some of our alumni volunteers.

This issue features Hilary Thomson, nee Butler (English, 1978). Hilary volunteers on the committee of Ex-Exe, our professional networking group for alumnae. Here she shares with us how an adaptable approach to her career has helped her survive combining family and caring etc. with a successful career in marketing, advertising and writing as well as business start-up and ownership.

What do you do and where do you work?

I work from home, combining family with career and I do a lot of things! I’m a partner in Two Lizards, an advertising agency that works mainly with ‘second stage’ businesses. I combined this with work as a BBC Radio 4 documentary writer/producer for a few years. And last year I co-founded Headstart Uni, which provides advice and guidance for teenagers aiming for university, and their parents, specifically about student finance and money management. I have three children, two currently at university and one still at school and I also work in a number of voluntary roles including being a member of the Exeter Alumnae (female graduates) steering committee.  

How did you get into working in your field?

Most Alumnae in the Spotlight seem to have had quite organised and purposeful careers but in my case I have tended to sort of drift into things that interested me. I’m probably fairly typical of women of my generation in that having a ‘career’ was a new and rather daring idea and prior to family-friendly working legislation you had to combine career and family as best you could, so I have had what is sometimes termed a ‘patchwork life, portfolio career’.   

Leaving Exeter in 1978 with a degree in English I fancied a job in publishing and my first job was with academic publishers Harraps, as a publicity assistant. After a few months a colleague pointed out a job ad for the WH Smith book club, and I put my ‘blurb’ writing skills to work as an advertising copywriter, which I discovered was far better paid than being an editor.

I followed other BCA copywriters to Avon Cosmetics, then to a specialist direct marketing agency (WWAV, now Rapp) and a financial agency before being made redundant and co-founding a creative partnership. This evolved into a full service advertising agency, Sheard Thomson Harris CBH, at which point I became a ‘name over the door’. I was Executive Creative Director for eight years before selling my share in the agency in 1997 and becoming a consultant. So for nearly twenty years I had sort of blundered about saying yes to things I liked the sound of. Some of them worked and others didn’t but I would say to anyone interested in a career in advertising or marketing, all experience is going to prove useful, however redundant or **itty it seems at the time (and be prepared for plenty of that!)

What is your working day like? What do you enjoy the most?

First, my Two Lizards role. Copywriting, like most writing jobs, is pretty solitary. You sit in a room and think about the brief and keep writing stuff and honing it until you are happy with it. You have to use your experience and skills to keep it coming, even if you end up throwing away everything you wrote that day. You bounce ideas off your art director (in my case the other ‘Lizard’, Alison), the client and, in the case of websites, the programmer, but in the end the quality of the writing is your responsibility. Writing sign-off lines (slogans) is always great fun and very creative. Seeing a website develop and go live is very rewarding too. We always aim for a strongly branded, marketing-driven site. But I happen to love direct marketing, too. There is something particularly exciting about writing something that is going to land on someone’s desk or doormat and (hopefully) excite them. Keeping up to date with what is going on in marketing, design, the arts and media is also an enjoyable part of the job. I make a point of seeing as much cutting-edge theatre and design as I can to keep my creative ideas fresh and contemporary. 

Headstart Uni is an entirely different way of working. My business partner Lucy and I work in very collaborative way, discuss the shaping of what is still a fairly new company and in particular news regarding student finance and the experiences of students and their parents. It’s a fast-changing picture and we fine-tune our workshops to reflect this, taking in feedback from undergraduates to ensure our advice is relevant and practical. It is a unique service, in providing guidance for both parents and their children, so PR plays an important role – you have to tell people you are there.   

What are your top tips for getting into working in your field?

When I talk to undergraduates or recent graduates about getting into advertising and marketing they invariably say they want to work in an ad agency as a ‘creative’ or ‘an account director’. But It’s always been very tough to secure those roles and these days there are a lot of endlessly unpaid internships, not to mention insecure contracts with no prospect of a pay rise.

My advice would be to take a much wider view of the sector and don’t be too hung up on your starting point – because there are so many more than you are likely to know about. Consider starting in a marketing role for a client company – possibly one of the less sexy ones or a public service organisation, so you can start to acquire some relevant skills. And look at where the growth is. Digital media for example, is booming and offers a wide variety of roles.

By using your initiative, you can often hopscotch your way to a job you like – and you might be surprised at what actually appeals and what doesn’t, once you are actually doing it. I know I was. It might take a few years, but who cares? Everything you learn on the way will be useful to you because advertising and marketing requires you to have a fantastically wide-ranging knowledge of products and services. And once you start to acquire some real expertise, salaries rise fairly steeply.

Headstart Uni was a startup business a couple of years ago and I’m going to focus on the new business aspect here. Having started quite a few businesses over the years I would say ‘just do it’ – but if possible avoid borrowing money from the bank until you gain experience and hang onto the day job if you can. It’s better to have a few false starts but live to fight another day – than go for the big one before you have experience and risk being wiped out, with the resulting loss of confidence. I suspect this will come across as a rather female view. But many highly successful women contemporaries who are now CEOs of their own corporations started at the kitchen table, bucking the traditional business model and remaining in control of their profits and their business culture.     

And finally, what inspires you to volunteer your time to help Exeter students?

In my case I am working principally with Ex-Exe, the Exeter Alumnae (female graduates) Group. I was originally invited by Penelope Crouch, who was a friend and contemporary at Exeter. I felt it chimed with my previous experience working with a female industry networking and lobbying group.  Penny sent me an invitation to Ex-Exe’s first networking event and I decided to get more involved from then on.

All our events are open to undergraduates. It is important that they get to see the possibilities of being an Exeter graduate but it is equally vital that we understand their specific challenges so we can respond to them with helpful and inspiring events.

Challenges that primarily affect women – necessary career breaks to bring up children or care for elderly parents, prejudice and a predominantly male business networking scene – are still with us and as far as I can see, always will be.

Add to that some new ones (or at least unpleasant developments of existing issues) such as ‘everyday’ sexism, an increasingly laddish university and social culture and an increasingly insecure employment market and you have a group who deserve a great deal of help and encouragement.

A recent survey showed that young women started university feeling their employment prospects were equal with those of their male contemporaries but left with a severely reduced sense of worth. This something we should question and challenge wherever we can. I have a daughter currently in her first year at university who has given me useful and interesting feedback.

Ex-Exe has a real sense of purpose, is clearly answering a need for female-only networking and education events and is an inspiring and fabulous group of women to be associated with.   

Date: 27 May 2015

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