Saatchi Kate and Addict Kate

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Kate Smith works with CEOs, Boards, and senior teams to set goals, develop strategies, and understand what it is going to take to execute successfully. Marketing and brands are her speciality, but she also facilitates broader business strategy discussion and development and works with a diverse range of clients from sectors including FMCG, tourism, tech, retail, primary production, the arts, and government. Find out more.

Biggest fuck up

I fell into advertising by accident while waiting for the call to be a journalist from the BBC or Guardian. 

Started in 1985 in the London office of a regional agency called Cogent Elliott. From there, I went to D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, where I learned a lot about agency politics but not much about creativity.

My career took off at Gold Greenlees Trott. The MD at the time said, “We don’t have any girls at GGT. Girls are people who cry in the toilets when it gets tough. We have blokes with tits.“ I loved it.

When Dave Trott was fired from GGT, Tim Mellors came in as creative director.  He gave a speech to the mutinous masses about being on the bus or off it and then decided he didn’t want me on his bus. I’m still quite proud of that.

From there, I joined Dave at Bainsfair Sharkey Trott – not a success – and from there to CME/KHBB as Planning Director. It was an agency with an amazing line-up of talent – including Barbara Nokes and Susie Henry, both trail-blazing female creatives – but the team never quite gelled.

Having decided that it was time to go overseas, I was offered Planning Director roles at both Chiat/Day in LA and Saatchi & Saatchi NZ. On paper, it was a no-brainer. The Chiat/Day job was way more prestigious and way better paid.  When I told Adam Morgan at Chiat that I was going to take the S&S job, he was incredulous. He said, ‘people go to NZ to retire. You’re at the peak of your career’. 

I initially went to S&S Auckland, but that also did not go well. If Trevor Beattie and I hadn’t disliked each other on sight, I may have returned to London. Instead, I moved down to S&S Wellington and spent 8 years there. 

By all conventional measures, I was highly successful. I was stupidly well paid, in demand, part of a highly regarded and globally awarded team, and living the high life. But by 2004, I was struggling with addiction to alcohol, a workaholic who was rapidly burning out, alternately angry and depressed. My career was wrecking my mental health and putting my physical health in jeopardy. I left because I had to. It was killing me.

Since then, I have worked for myself. I don’t make the money I used to make, and I don’t have the status I used to have. It has taken me a long time to disentangle myself from Saatchi Kate and Addict Kate, and recovery has been anything but straightforward, but now my life is calm and peaceful, and I am happy and healthy. My advertising career was rewarding in many ways, not least because of the many creative and wonderful people I worked with, but I‘m grateful I was able to escape. Not everyone does.

All my really big fuck ups involved booze. 

Sometime in the early 90s, I turned up at the Dorchester for the ultra-prestigious Off Licence News Awards at least three, possibly four, sheets to the wind and minus my skirt.  I’d been out to lunch and then home to get ready, drinking the best part of a bottle of bubbles while I did so ‘to get in the mood’.  I wore a thigh-length black chiffon tunic that was sufficiently appliqued with black velvet to save my blushes – although I was too far gone to have any – but had neglected to put on the short black skirt that I normally wore underneath it.  

When I walked in, the account director raised his eyebrows and said, ‘daring choice, Katie’. 

It got worse. I sat next to our senior Carlsberg client at dinner and proceeded to give him the benefit of my opinions about what was wrong with him, his brand, his company, and his treatment of the agency. 

After that performance, I was put into a cab by the account director and sent home. I only hung onto my job because the MD of the agency was a friend. I had to apologise in person to the client, and he was decent enough to laugh it off and say that we’d all been there.  Many more booze-fuelled humiliations followed. 

Rant

I haven’t worked in advertising for a long time, but occasionally, I work with agencies on the client side of the table. I get really pissed off by the arrogance of some agency people. They think they are smarter than their clients when often they haven’t done even the most basic groundwork to understand their clients’ businesses and challenges. 

They think that their strategies and creative ideas are brilliant and original when they are superficial and obvious. They think they have a monopoly on creativity. They blame clients for not having the ‘vision’ to recognise their obvious brilliance. It’s embarrassing. 

What used to piss me off the most when I was one of the aforementioned arrogant dicks who worked in advertising (and I was) was when clients, and occasionally account people, would say, ‘that’s the creative challenge.’  Loosely translated: ‘We know this is an impossible brief, but we’re going to lob this pile of excrement onto your desk and make it your problem to sort out.’  Ugh.

Useful advice

Don’t let your ego run your life, and particularly, don’t let work be your life. 

When I worked in advertising, and for a long time afterward, I was obsessed with how my life looked. I still have to check whether I’m doing or wanting something because it is something I actually value or just because it’s something that I think makes me look good. The programming is that strong. 

Whatever b/s is spouted at all agency meetings, your employer is not your family or your friend. They want maximum output from minimum input. They are not there to take care of you, not to protect your interests, not to recognise the value you create for them and recompense you accordingly, not to create work/life balance for you. You have to do that for you. You have to be your own best advocate.  

Second piece of advice, and I wish someone had drummed this into my thick head much earlier, get your finances sorted. 

Don’t do what I did: 

  • Ran my credit cards up to the max on idiotic things like shopping trips to New York and paid extortionate interest rates for months/years.
  • Spent everything I earned and saved almost nothing. 
  • Had no rainy day fund.
  • Failed to either get my pension sorted or to learn about investment when I was younger and at peak earnings.
  • Get talked into a worthless ‘bonus’ scheme instead of demanding a pay rise.

Smart things I did do:

  • Paid very close attention to the details of my contracts. This was crucial on the two occasions I was fired, when I eventually left S&S.
  • Negotiated hard for what I was worth and didn’t buy arguments like ‘we can’t afford to pay you more until x happens.’ 

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