CV: CAROL REAY Chief executive, Mellors Reay and Partners

'THE FIRST THING I HAD TO DO WAS LEARN HOW TO POUR A GIN AND TONIC FOR THE MEN AT THEIR MORNING MEETINGS ... I THOUGHT I'D NEVER MAKE IT AS A WOMAN IN ADVERTISING ...'
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The Independent Online
All my life I think I've been very ambitious, but I've been afraid to name it. Although I didn't come out of university with a clear vision of what I wanted to do, I knew I wanted a career, and that I wanted to do well. I also wanted to have a career that was unusual for a woman. I went to Manchester University, to read English, and when I finished in the late Seventies Thomson Newspapers offered me a job with a car, which, simply because I was broke, I thought was brilliant.

I ended up in advertising because they were offering me pounds 100 more a year. I started at a big agency called Benton and Bowles in 1979, and if I had any expectations they were that advertising was going to be fast-moving and creative. But it was totally male-dominated, and quite bureaucratic; it felt more like how I'd always imagined the Civil Service. The first thing I had to learn was how to pour a gin and tonic, which the men always had at their morning meetings.

I also remember feeling that it was very unlikely that I would make it in advertising as a woman, simply because there were no senior women there at all. But then a 31-year-old woman joined the board, which made my ambition seem possible. My boss was outraged by this woman, for having two children and thinking she could be a director of a multinational advertising agency as well, but when I pointed out that the same was true of him, he just said: "Oh, don't get all modern with me."

So I decided that advertising really wasn't for me; it all seemed so slow at that place. I started planning to travel round the world, but first I thought I would give another agency a try. So, in 1981, I switched to a smaller agency called Reeves Robertshaw Needham, and that was completely different. I really took to life there: there were only about 30 people, and you were left alone and "owned" what you were working on.

But we had some really big bits of business, and I was promoted very rapidly. I decided not to travel round the world after all: I was earning a lot more money by now, and I decided I wanted to be on the board of an agency by the time I was 30. Then some more senior friends of mine decided to form a breakaway agency, and I thought this would be a very exciting thing to join in with. In 1984 we formed Jenner Keating Becker, and, although it was a gamble, I thought: "I'm only 28, and even if it all goes wrong, I'll be even more saleable for having taken a risk."

Having come from a big organisation, the onus was now on us to introduce ourselves, and I remember sitting in our new offices in Pimlico thinking that if we didn't make some phone calls, the phones were never going to ring. But that was great - it brought out the very strong, "salesy" person in me - and I proceeded to work all the hours God sent.

The agency did very well: I went from being a small shareholder to a major shareholder, and then became a named partner - the agency's name was changed to Jenner Keating Becker Reay in 1987. It was a very invigorating time, but when I look back I think I was wrongly focused, and very caught up in that decade's lunatic materialism. I was a complete workaholic: I don't think I had any sense of humour, and didn't really develop my friendships.

Essentially, that was the same agency that this is now, but there were quite a few changes: I got to be managing director, and took it into a merger with Grey Advertising. But I got to a stage when I felt that, although I had achieved a lot on the business side of things, I wanted to make sure I could look back and say I'd done some really good advertising work. I looked for a partner to work with who I felt could help me realise that ambition, and I teamed up with Tim Mellors, from GGT, relaunching as Mellors Reay and Partners in 1995.

I think the best work I've done is for the Kleenex campaign, featuring three women living together. It's now gone in another direction, with another agency, but I was proud of the idea of using female repartee, which is quite common in advertising household products. More recently, there's been the Burton poster campaign shot by David Bailey, and there is stuff in the pipeline which I just know is going to do very well for us. Now, rather than seeking to get bigger and bigger, we're focusing on the quality of the work we're producing.

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