From Mad Men to über-woman: Why Lisa Thomas is at the top of her game

Here's the brief. You're making an ad for the international sportswear brand Reebok in the frenzied build-up to the World Cup and the climax of the Formula 1 season, and the talent at your disposal includes no less than Thierry Henry and Lewis Hamilton.

So what do you do? Your first thought would probably not be to cast Thierry as the victim of a bizarre sculpture heist at his Barcelona mansion. Much less would you suggest that the first person he should call for help would be Hamilton, reinvented as an abseiling ninja with a Superman sideline.

But if a website called Lewis Hamilton: Secret Life was what you were thinking, then there might be a job for you at M&C Saatchi, the blue-chip advertising agency called in by David Cameron to rescue the Tory election campaign. M&C was founded by brothers Maurice and Charles in 1995 and has recently caused surprise in adland – still one of the most macho sectors in the British media – by appointing a woman as its group CEO.

The appearance of Lisa Thomas outside the lift of M&C's offices in Soho, London provokes whispered comment among her colleagues. "That's the über-woman," they say. At 43, Thomas takes charge of seven branches of the agency, from advertising, PR and social marketing to brand licensing, research and direct mail. The Reebok online game is a product of the Sport & Entertainment division, and is cited by Thomas as an example of the agency's future direction.

The client wanted a campaign that was targeted at a youth audience and focused not on Hamilton's driving skills but "his preparation in the gym and training as an athlete", she explains. "The idea is that Lewis is a Mission Impossible-type good guy, finding stolen bits of art and returning them to their rightful owners."

Thomas has been appointed to modernise M&C for an era when previously distinct media disciplines are morphing into one another. "The world has changed dramatically," she says. Change has come quicker in some ways than in others. "My promotion has caused a lot of interest among other women," she admits. "Of all the advertising agencies, this one is seen as quite male, so I think it was quite surprising externally." We agree that it is strange to even be discussing gender discrimination in the British creative industries, a decade into the 21st century, but "it definitely is still an issue", she insists, "more so than in other sectors". The industry is "very hard for women", particularly mothers like Thomas, who has two young children and two stepchildren.

She's prepared, nonetheless, to identify differences between men and women in management style. "I think there is something to be said for the more female traits of intuition and that natural display of passion and energy. Men – being very general here – are more contained, whereas I bring more directness and forthrightness to our conversations."

The sight of Cameron in Downing Street came as a great relief at M&C, which was called in by the Tories at the end of March to work alongside its existing agency Euro RSCG. She admits it was an unorthodox arrangement. "It was a weird thing for the Tory party to have two different messages out there in the market, and if you were being a marketing purist you'd be thinking 'Haven't we just confused the public?'" she says. "But I think in the end our campaign rather dominated. The posters had a very clear message and there was a lot of press coverage."

Confidence at M&C has grown with a succession of recent wins, including accounts for Network Rail and the Mail on Sunday. Thomas is able to draw on the talents of Graham Fink, one of Britain's most adven-turous creatives, a firebrand once known for standing on a window ledge and threatening to jump. "I find him very centred, quite a calm guy," she says supportively.

As another example of effective M&C work, Thomas chooses an online film for Coca-Cola, featuring comedian James Corden as a histrionic director attempting to choreograph Wayne Rooney in a goal celebration that incorporates moon-walking, jazz hands and Madonna's vogueing. The clip – linked to a Coke World Cup competition – was seeded on various football websites and blogs.

In an era where every client "wants a mobile app, wants a social media strategy", Thomas must lead her various departments in trying to ascertain which mobile devices will gain ascendancy and to what degree consumers will be willing to accept advertising messages on them. "There's a tension between clients and consumers in wanting to have power in the world of social media," she says of the reluctance of brands to accept that interactivity comes with direct criticism.

She will attempt to resolve the problem with the help of a 30-strong central strategy unit working across media disciplines.

When asked for the best anecdote from her advertising career, Thomas picks a moment from her time at another agency, a dinner at Gleneagles golf course at which Anthony Hopkins gave her a cheeky wink on his way out of the restaurant. At M&C she can do better than that. She can have a champion racing driver abseiling in through the window, if not in reality then at least on Lewis Hamilton: Secret Life.

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