The CCO of Headspace reflects on her first new year outside of the London ad industry, writes LBB’s Alex Reeves
This time last year Caroline Pay was joint chief creative officer of Grey London. She was at the peak of a career as an advertising creative, working alongside Vicki Maguire to oversee campaigns for brands including Lucozade, M&S and HSBC. But at this time of year London really can be grey. And cold. Both meteorologically and emotionally.
Caroline’s 2019 is starting out quite differently. After an extended Christmas break with family she arrived back in the office this week, beginning her first new year outside of the ad industry for 20 years. She’s still a CCO, but her office is now in Los Angeles and when I speak to her the weather there is 19°C and sunny. She’s client side now, overseeing content, design, marketing and communications for the meditation and mindfulness app Headspace.
She’s been in her role since the summer of 2018 and so far she’s in love with the transformation in her lifestyle. She counts herself lucky. Every day all Headspace employees are invited to meditate together at 10am. “Even though it sounds a bit weird, the power of meditating in a room with other people is just incredible,” she says. “I love it for so many reasons. I’m proud of everyone for attending, I love the discipline of doing it at the same time every day and I come in feeling like one person and leave the room ten minutes later feeling like a different person.”
A meditation app doesn’t get to over a million paying subscribers by wafting around setting a good example for mental wellbeing though. It’s still a workplace. “The group meditation is probably the only bit of the day that feels like how you expect it to here,” explains Caroline. “It’s busy and buzzy and there are 250 millenials running around being really smart.”
But the company manages to strike a balance that the corporate world could do well to emulate in 2019. “Health and happiness is our promise to our customers, so we need to live that at work,” says Caroline. “Meditation is part of it, but we’re mindful of making sure that everyone we work with is looking after themselves. We offer incredible, healthy food and snacks. It’s a peaceful environment. It’s bright and light. It’s definitely not the environment I’ve grown up in in advertising agencies. It’s a different pace, a different energy in the room. And the demands on you are different.”
Caroline took her first steps on the path towards this life almost a decade ago, before Headspace had even been built. Having befriended co-founder Rich Pierson while they were both at BBH, she remembers the seed of an idea germinating. “I remember walking my dog with Rich and he had just heard Andy [Puddicombe, the other co-founder, former Buddhist monk and meditation teacher] on the radio. They were starting to meet up and getting to know each other. I was aware of their relationship at first and then kind of a spectator to the birth of Headspace.”
Her first experience of meditation came soon after, at the first ever Headspace event in London, where Andy led newcomers through the basics of meditation. “We did probably half a dozen meditations throughout that day, interleaved with Andy’s back story and all his experiences in the monastery. A fascinating, inspiring day,” she reflects.
“That was a pretty full-on introduction to meditation. I was really overwhelmed, in a good way, by that day. You come away feeling so incredibly inspired, like your mind has been opened to a different way of looking after yourself, a different way of learning and a different approach to health and happiness.”
That was a pivotal moment for her. She’d never considered herself this sort of person before: “I wasn’t a meditator. I didn’t understand meditation. I definitely didn’t think I could do it because I never sat still. I thought it would be impossible for me to find quietness, peace and stillness by myself. I came away from that day thinking, ‘I can see how meditation can fit into my life. If I practice, I can do this.’”
She used Headspace, on and off, over the years, to help her keep up her mindfulness practice, before she stepped it up to the next level and signed up for a meditation course. “I wanted to regain that feeling that I’d had in that first event and then the times I’d used it after,” she says. “That was brilliant for me because it got me into the routine of meditating twice a day, every day, for about a year. That would be wherever I was, whoever I was with. I did it in airports. I did it in fields. I did it in my bedroom. I did it at work. I was able to quite quickly get myself into that practice.”
Caroline’s still no monk, but in the past six months she’s got even deeper into meditation. “The final stage is coming to Headspace and being part of the culture here, being exposed to the benefits of meditation every single hour of every single day,” she says.
Naturally, she’s an evangelist for the practice now. “Everyone can benefit from meditation,” she asserts. And the world of 2019 is just waking up to the extent of these benefits. “We’re definitely moving from [seeing meditation as] an antidote to stress and anxiety into a much more additive, positive effect on people’s lives. It can decrease aggression, increase empathy, improve focus. It can offer so many positive benefits, as well as undoing negative things in your life.”
Having spent 20 years working in it, Caroline admits that the ad industry is responsible for its share of the stress and anxiety people use meditation to combat. She looks back on her time as an ad creative fondly. “I thrived on the adrenaline, the pressure and the deadlines,” she says. But she admits that a dose of mindfulness in agencies wouldn’t go amiss. “The advertising industry is probably harder on the people that work in it. But it’s not only the advertising industry. Everyone needs to take a little bit more care about their health, their happiness and their mental health and wellbeing. There are so many physical activities that we do to train and look after our bodies. Mindfulness and meditation is a way for us to train and look after our minds.”
Aside from the central role meditation plays in her life, Caroline says moving away from the culture of London has been a big influence on her wellness. She’d love to prescribe a dose of California to anyone looking for a happier 2019: “It’s totally different. It’s sunny. The sky is blue, everyone’s outside. People have a much more measured work-life balance. They wake up super early. They have a life before work - surfing or running or having breakfast. They come to work and work incredibly hard. And then when they go home the sun’s still out. I go to the beach with my son after work. The climate allows you to have a much healthier balance. I’m not an exercise freak but I think that being outside more and being more relaxed, it’s easier to be healthy. It’s just all there for the taking.”
She reflects on her past life in London’s advertising scene and it seems worlds away: “I’ve spent my life going to the pub straight after work. Advertising, I loved it. I met all of my friends and had great relationships just from going to the pub after work, but here it’s very different. Nobody goes to the pub here. I feel much more family-oriented. My son Buddy and I get so much more time together.”
We can’t all move to California though, so what can we all do to take a bit more care of our mental wellbeing in 2019? "Aside from using Headspace, which I highly recommend (at least three times a week if not more), I think sleep is probably the most fundamental thing that can improve your health and happiness,” she says. “Then just getting up from your desk and walking, getting outside, whether that’s to have meaningful conversations with people or just taking a break.”
So, what are you waiting for?