Karen Blackett: Black, working class and successful

The chief executive of MediaCom tells Margareta Pagano of her hard life journey to the shortlist for businesswoman of the year

Karen Blackett's father warned her life would be tough.

"He told me: 'you are black and female so you will have to work twice as hard.' He knew how awful prejudice could be; as a bus conductor in the 1960s, he had suffered extreme racism and abuse."

But her father also drummed into her and her sister that education, as well as resilience, had the power to unlock their futures.

She tells the story of how he called them into the living room to watch TV when Diane Abbott was elected to Parliament as MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington in 1987.

"I can still remember the day. My dad turned to us and said: 'there's a black woman in Parliament; you can achieve anything in this country with hard work.'"

His warning worked; she played hard at sport – ran the 100m in 11.8 seconds – and studied hard at school and university too.

"I'm very competitive and need to be kept busy."

Very busy. Today, Ms Blackett, aged 42, is the chief executive of MediaCom, one of the UK's biggest media-buying and planning agencies.

Last year she masterminded billings of more than £1bn – forecast to be £1.2bn this year – and looks after clients such as Sky, Audi and GSK, employing around 900 people in the UK. Her rewards are handsome too; the single mother earns a six-figure-plus salary, has homes in London, the Cotswolds and Barbados, drives an Audi drop-head and goes riding most weekends.

It's a position that's brought her to the short list of three for the prestigious Veuve Clicquot Business Woman Award to be judged on Monday.

Getting into the limelight is a habit. In the latest PowerList 2014 Ms Blackett was voted the fifth-most-influential black person in the UK – beating off Chuka Umunna, the shadow Business Secretary, Baroness Doreen Lawrence and Conservative MP Adam Afriyie.

Not bad for a working-class girl from a second-generation immigrant family from Reading. Her words, not mine.

"My father, God rest his soul, would have been so proud. It's a real honour to have been chosen. What I like so much about these events is the incredible people you meet like Jane Shepherdson of Whistles or Malorie Blackman, the children's writer who topped the PowerList.

"It's what I love about Britain – it's a fabulous fruit salad with such diversity."

Handling diversity in the advertising world is her big challenge at MediaCom.

"With everything so interconnected – from digital, social media and mobile platforms to TV and print, companies are having to find new ways to sell to their audiences. It's all about content today and personalised yet mass targeting. We will see more partnerships like the ones between VW and Paul Weller in the car maker's campaign to give the Beetle car a more male image."

It means that drilling down to find your audience is more of a science than ever. She has teams of econometricians, robotics experts and market analysts to work out the metrics so clients can choose the optimum places to advertise. This has given birth to "programmatic buying" whereby Media-Com works with agencies who decide what to bid for the right target audience.

"Let's say Maximuscle wants to get to its male audience of under 35-year-olds. The researchers go through everything online, look at who buys fitness equipment, who goes to the gym, who buys what and where. Then they come up with the metrics and we target that audience – maybe it's just 100,000 people but it will be the right people – for the client."

There's another new product, second-screen planning.

"Not so long ago everyone thought TV was dead because people were switching to laptops or phones. Now we see that people are doing both at the same time; so we track the noise, the social chatter. In the ad breaks, for example people go on their mobiles – use Twitter or whatever – so we can measure the noise levels of audiences too." Getting into the ad industry came about by a fluke.

After university, she applied for a job advertised in The Independent for a media auditor with CIA. "I got through the first interview and then they asked me to give a presentation on the pros and cons of Sky TV. I didn't get that job but they suggested I talk to someone in media planning. I think it's because I was so gobby."

She never looked back. But her first few years climbing the ladder shocked her: "In an agency of about 250 people I was in a minority; black, and working class. Everyone was related to someone or other; cousins, or sons or friends of friends. It was the same in the industry. But it didn't make sense, particularly in advertising where you need to have people of different socio-economic backgrounds and diversity to sell to others."

The experience made her determined to change the outlook. On becoming chief executive a few years ago she launched the first government-backed apprenticeship scheme for the creative industry offering an NVQ in marketing and communications.

"The scheme is now spreading – Channel 4 recently started one. We have 10 apprentices a year at MediaCom and hopefully we can extend this to 15 soon. With university fees so high, industry needs to be doing all it can to promote apprenticeships and to get talent. "

There's another lesson she learnt from her father: celebrate your differences.

"He always said don't try to be someone else; always be yourself. It's what I tell the apprentices all the time. Many worry they don't fit, that they are from the wrong social background and don't have degrees. I tell them it's not important – there are many people in the industry who don't have degrees.

"Neither colour nor background is a barrier. When people ask me for career advice I say do the job you are doing well, keep learning, and the rest will follow. "

Day in the life

Wakes up at 5.45am and checks her emails while her four-year-old son, Isaac, is still sleeping. She then works out in the gym in her converted garage before taking her son to school. If she doesn't have a client breakfast meeting close to her London home she takes the train to Waterloo and walks to her office near the British Museum. Meetings fill the mornings followed sometimes by a client lunch. Then there will be more meetings, preparing for presentations or pitches, and then home by 6.30pm to take over from the male nanny. She tries to limit dinners with clients, such as the Metropolitan Police, to twice a week. Weekends are spent in the Cotswolds with her son riding and holidays at her home in Barbados.

Veuve Clicquot Award: Other finalists

Harriet Green

CEO, Thomas Cook

Took over at a troubled time for Thomas Cook Group and within a year put together a plan which has revived the travel company's fortunes. This has strengthened its balance sheet via a £1.6bn capital refinancing plan. Today, it is one of the world's leading leisure-travel organisations with sales of over £9bn and more than 20 million customers in the year ended 30 September.

Jane Shepherdson

CEO, Whistles

After a period as brand director at Topshop where she was acknowledged to have created "fast fashion", Ms Shepherdson moved to Whistles in 2008. Since then she has led on the retailer's international expansion as well as showing at London Fashion Week in 2014 for the first time and introduced a men's line. She is also a non-executive director of Oxfam and People Tree.

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