To mark International Women’s Day 2022, four leading women at Recipe speak to LBB about challenging norms, shifting perception, and how the agency’s “not normal” approach to work and culture is helping set new precedents.
Here, we are joined by director of business development Oya Mustafa, head of creative Becks Montgomery, finance director Eilis Leslie, and head of studio Shilpa Dhere.
LBB> First up, we’d love to hear a little bit about you and what shaped the person you are today.
Eilis Leslie> I like to work hard but I also love to have fun. I like to be busy with lots of stuff to crack on with new challenges every day.
I trained as an accountant, going to various different businesses from fishmongers to manufacturing companies and some of my clients happened to be ad agencies which I came to realise were some of the most fun places to work. So when I finished my accountancy training, I decided to try and get a job in the advertising industry. It was relatively hard without any in-house experience but I did manage to get one! Since then I've worked at a few different agencies and am now settled at Recipe.
Oya Mustafa> Most people tend to have a ‘rags to riches’ story, mine was the opposite. I was born extremely privileged. My parents were war children who came to the UK in ‘63 with nothing, returning to Northern Cyprus in ‘89 to open our multi million pound holiday resort they had built from the ground up. But at age 9, I remember returning to the UK with my mum and three brothers, homeless. Fast forward 12 years and I was graduating with an upper class 2:1 in Integrated Marketing Communications. I was the first in my family to graduate, I paid for myself, worked part time to survive whilst supporting our household. I had naively thought at the end of it I'd walk into a marketing role for Nike. But I ended up discovering vocations I had no idea existed - landing my first job as an airtime assistant at Sky. The rest, as they say, is history.
After losing dad to a sudden stroke, and mum to secondary cancer, I came to the realisation that life is too short. A lot of my happiest memories were when we had nothing. So money doesn’t define my happiness, though admittedly it gives you more choice. My brothers and I have had a ‘colourful’ life, which has made us more resilient and adaptable. We also have deep empathy and humility which I believe are essential traits in shaping long-term relationships, be it in business or not. These life experiences have shaped us all and I’m so proud of everything we all have achieved. We never would have been able to, if we didn’t have the mother we did.
Shilpa Dhere> Being Indian, I have old family values and coming to work in the UK, I feel strongly about equal opportunities regardless of things like race and gender. My parents taught us to treat people equally and with respect.
I have been in the creative industry since before I moved to London seven years ago. It started with my art teacher in school encouraging me to do an art degree and I found out about the ad industry from there.
Becks Montgomery> I lost my dad when I was 17 then nearly lost my Mum when I was 19, this made me realise not only the importance of life and living everyday as your last, but also seeing life with a positive spin, because it can be taken away from you so easily. Therefore whenever I’ve had my heart set on something I’ve not stopped until I’ve achieved it.
I started out as a runner, moving to London from the north. Alongside that I did bar work so I was working 70 hours a week running from job to job in tears, and so tired but I do think this experience shaped me. The beauty of starting as a runner is you get to be on set and meet directors, art directors, the camera crew and producers and you can see what everyone's doing live on the job. The people through my career who have given me those opportunities and who have opened those doors for me have helped me to be humble and kind toward others. During that year I realised that I wanted to be a director.
LBB> And what does a typical working day at Recipe look like for you?
Shilpa> At Recipe I was fortunate to be trusted to build the team with training and design direction. I’m always coming up with ideas and feel like I can make an impact. Day-to-day I work very collaboratively across all our different teams and everyone is treated as equals which is really nice.
Oya> Ha.. typical? I’m sorry, that’s far too ‘normal’ for me. I find routine extremely uninspiring and demotivating. I like fast paced, dynamic environments which is why I loved working in radio (many years ago) but also why I think I found myself in new business and sticking with it. What I’ve come to realise is, it’s not just about the role you do, it’s the environment in which you belong that enables you to do your best work, and for your best work to always remain ahead of you.
Becks> The general working day is split between managing the team and looking after the creatives and overseeing live projects. If I can support them, it makes the output of what we create so much better. The other half of the day is for pitching and going to meet new clients.
Some days you can be dealing with somebody’s personal issues, other days you can be against the clock trying to come up with a cool creative idea for either social media, an ad, or a cinema trailer.
Eilis> It could be lots of different things. I have a list of regular tasks but outside that, there's lots of random stuff that happens. My main focus is making sure cash flows in and out of the business smoothly and that overall more money comes in than goes out!
LBB> Recipe believes in the power of “not normal” to create and deliver the best work. What are your personal views of this philosophy and the impact it has on work?
Eilis> I would say that it's in our DNA. There's no bureaucracy. So when we have an idea and we want to do it, getting from A to B is really straightforward. There are no major approvals or hoops to jump through. When we work with clients, we also get to meet all of the important people involved from all levels which is quite empowering for the whole team. So that's what “not normal” embodies in my mind.
Oya> Ironically, this ‘not normal’ approach has me doing more work, in less time, which in turn is giving me a better quality of work / life balance. My efficiency is at its highest - why? Because I’m constantly being stimulated, encouraged to be entrepreneurial and being allowed to own areas that I really love and enjoy. Not having the luxury of a full working week (I’m trying out part time employment to focus on writing my mum’s life story), I have to really focus on what needs to be done.
Having a focused working week makes me feel like I’ve always got a deadline to meet, resulting in a great sense of achievement at the end of every week. It’s amazing how much more you can get done, when it doesn’t feel like you’re ‘working’ and job satisfaction is high.
Becks> ‘Not normal’ is something I've always valued because I haven't had the traditional way into a creative agency. My background has been running and climbing up the creative production ladder. I think my approach is great because it means half of our creatives are creative producers that sit in a hybrid role of not only writing creative for pitches, but also having that understanding of budgets and timing so the production becomes the heart of the brief. I don't think that's restrictive. It ensures that you're not going to pitch something that is going to be off budget. On every pitch you can also work with the producers earlier on to be savvy with what the creative response will be. Producers can add their creative spin to an idea by allocating the right team, i.e. choosing the right director, and if the budget is considered at pitching stage, the whole team can ensure the output goes above and beyond.
My hybrid role as head of creative at Recipe isn't normal either. You might expect the head of creative to have gone through an agency’s creative director background, but I've always considered production at the heart of any project which I think is special.
Shilpa> When I moved to London, I was faced with a lot of hurdles in getting a job at the same level that I was at in India because I came from a different country. At Recipe however, I was instantly trusted with my experience, it didn’t matter where I had learned my craft - what mattered was my skill. I feel like everyone at Recipe has that quality of treating people with respect and that runs through the whole company. Unfortunately I did not get that same feeling from some of the other places I interviewed at, so in that way Recipe stood out as “not normal”. Because we are all treated with respect, we work better together. And our bond creates better work.
LBB> And how does “not normal” play out in your role?
Becks> When I started at Recipe about eight years ago, there were four of us in the creative production team - two of which were creative producers and an editor. Now we've grown this team to be more than double in size. These creative producers client manage, are creative and have production and budgeting backgrounds. They work on a lot of pitches and also post-production projects, they will take an idea from script to screen, which means our clients have this one person at the heart of the process. Alongside the creative producers we have our team of creatives, with expert skills in copywriting, art direction and directing.
Merging these teams has been really important for my role as it will give me the opportunity to select the right team for a job. Depending on whatever project or pitch that comes in, we might mix up an art director from our traditional creative agency with a creative producer and see what they can come up with together.
Oya> ‘Not Normal’ definitely starts with the people who make up the team at Recipe. Be it 18 years ago when that team consisted of three friends in a bedroom in Chiswick, or today with a family of 57 that’s grown into what we call our ‘talented tight teams’. Those three friends, our founders, are far from normal, and they’ve done a brilliant job finding the right people to bring into Recipe - helping our agency become the successful business it is today. I’m proud to say that I’m now one of them.
I 100% believe that my thinking and approach aligns with the company’s mission. As an individual, I have both a creative brain, but also have a penchant for numbers and finding innovative and efficient ways to fortify business growth. My experience to date (spot sales, radio sponsorships and promotions, broadcast partnerships, AFP development, experiential marketing and media planning and buying), enables me to offer a fresh perspective into how we can think big, creatively, but also challenge how our ideas practically translate to comms planning. This approach ensures our creative thinking is constantly evolving and developed to be ‘fit for purpose’, with creative impact and effectiveness as our north star.
Shilpa> We have a high level of equality and respect, without hierarchy, which helps people feel confident enough to put their opinions forward which leads to more ideas and more creativity. Everyone’s opinion matters and no question is a stupid question. At Recipe we say ‘leave umbrellas and egos at the door.’
Eilis> Having worked with much bigger agencies before, making things happen from a finance perspective is usually very difficult. Whereas at Recipe, the refreshing thing is that it's easy.
LBB> What have been some of your proudest achievements through your career so far?
Shilpa> It’s not a particular moment but in general, taking risks and believing in myself. I definitely faced more problems in my career when I moved to London as a person of colour. But I kept trying and believing that I will find someone that will give me the opportunity. There is always a way and a solution.
Oya> I’m really proud of the relationships I’ve made and the network that I’ve built. They have been fundamental to my success. I am also super proud to be a role model to those from underrepresented and disadvantaged backgrounds, with a total of 13 mentees to date.
I’d say I’ve had a few ‘fist in the air’ moments where I’ve walked out of the office with a ‘She-E-O’ badass strut (in slow motion, hair blowing in the wind with everything I walk past going up in flames of course). One that stands out is when I facilitated the leadership away day here at Recipe.
Firstly, I’ve never facilitated before, let alone with an audience who are the leaders of a business. I was always a participant so the imposter gremlin was rampant for weeks leading up to the session. I also had some initial observations that I knew would either go down like a lead balloon, or acknowledged as a key area of focus but either way, were provocative and uncomfortable at best.
Hand on heart, it was one of the best days of my career so far. The leadership team were open, transparent, engaged and vulnerable but equally, decisive and aligned as a team in how to move forward. It was at that point, I became even more excited about joining the business.
Becks> Getting my first break when I worked at Disney. I worked as a promo producer where I made ads for the Disney Channels. When I was ready for a new challenge, I knocked on a lot of doors to try my best to work for a creative agency, as I wanted to work with a variety of brands, not just kids. For a long time, no one would give me the chance, but I think my persistence paid off when I finally got a job at Recipe.
As a team, I'm so proud to see how we've grown from 20 to over 60 in the last eight years. To be able to be part of the leadership team and support people's achievements through the company makes me happy.
LBB> And what about some of the challenges you have faced - how did you overcome them and what did you learn from them?
Eilis> Time is always a big challenge with 2 young children and a full time job but I try to keep on top of it by having a daily to do list and I always enjoy being thrown a curve ball to lead me away from this list…
Becks> Coming back from maternity leave, going back to work, and then going straight into lockdown was super hard, during this time imposter syndrome really kicked in. If I’m not careful, imposter syndrome can outgrow the happy voice in my head. I call it “the mean voice”.
I’ve learned to deal with “the mean voice” or “imposter” over the years by listening to it rather than shutting it down, as otherwise it starts shouting! I let the voice say whatever it wants to say, consider it, then choose to think about it differently. I find that having this conversation with the imposter works, but it is an ongoing process.
I spent many years wishing I didn't have this voice, but now when I reflect on my career and where I am now, I don't think I would have got here without the imposter. I dreamed of having this role when I was 18. The imposter pushed me and pushed me and pushed me and made me consider every choice that I was making along the way. You need to acknowledge the imposter but choose what you want to take onboard. It’s your mind and your choice.
Oya> I think the one big challenge that really helped define me was quite early in my career where I was the target of an underperforming manager who didn’t deal with the pressure well. Unfortunately that resulted with me being used as a scapegoat for his shortcomings.
Being so new into my career, I really didn’t know what to do, who to turn to or how to manage the conflict. It was quite a toxic environment which really knocked my confidence completely. I was ready to leave media and start a new vocation entirely. Luckily I was given the chance to change teams and that’s really where my career took off.
My new manager, who is now a dear friend and mentor, saw my potential. Honestly, I had no idea what I was doing, but all I knew was that I was not going to let this man down. He nurtured my strengths and didn’t chastise me when I made mistakes. Instead, he made me accountable and supported me as we worked together to find a solution. Working with him saved my career and taught me some big lessons that continue to serve me well now:
- Remember, everyone has to start somewhere - always make time for juniors or those new into their career, they might one day become your boss (or client!)
- Leave your ego at the door
- Have a mentor, irrespective of how senior you are - you’ll never know it all
- Observe and learn from both the best and worst managers you have - this will help shape the type of manager / leader you want (or don’t want) to be
- Never let anyone tell you you’re not good enough (that includes you!)
- In moments of conflict, breathe, don’t respond with emotion, reflect and come back with a considered response
- Be realistic about your limitations and commit to improving them
LBB> What is really exciting you about the industry as a whole right now?
Shilpa> There are a lot of people in the creative industry trying to work on diversity at the moment. I love speaking about this and raising awareness on it too. I am really excited to see how we can shape a more inclusive future.
My team at Recipe is really diverse with people from backgrounds, such as Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, Jamaica, Wales. I am so proud of that and proud to work somewhere that gives people from different backgrounds a chance. I want more people from different backgrounds to feel like they have opportunities in whichever country they want to work in. They don’t have to go back home to be accepted. We should all be accepted all over the globe.
Eilis> The thing that excites me the most is targeted advertising - actually getting the ads that people would be interested in. It’s become a lot easier through digital and it makes advertising a bit more like something people want to see rather than having to sit through.
Oya> So much! Things are being shaken up and it’s pushing everyone to raise the bar. Digitisation has meant that traditional operating models are being ripped apart and reshaped to suit the world we’re working in today. There are more advertisers starting on digital with in-house marketers, then growing to move into TV advertising.
Consumer behaviour continues to be ever evolving, looking at creative effectiveness is no longer about reach and hitting a predefined demographic with content that entertains them. It’s much more complex, yet the best ideas remain the simplest. Now more than ever, for brands to stand out, they need to not stand for normal - and really, the only way to do that is to challenge the status quo and think outside the box.
Last but not least, the industry as a whole is really focused on improving the diversity of the talent we have within it. I absolutely loved what Channel 4 did last September with their one-off revival of Big Breakfast, Black To Front. Initiatives such as this are helping us all to move in the right direction in shaping a new more inclusive future.
Becks> TikTok. You can see how audiences and consumers use the app to produce content in their own way. I feel lucky to have young social media savvy creatives who can understand it well and help us crack different briefs that aren’t just for TV. With technology, who knows what tomorrow is going to bring and how advertising will work in the next five years versus the last five years. It keeps you permanently on your toes, advertising isn't this linear approach with TV anymore. It’s across lots of different mediums and I think it really makes you hone in on what that big idea is and then from that big idea, you can execute it in so many different ways. These days, you get an audience response immediately and you can see how people react to your content. We need to try and tap into that as creatives.
LBB> How do you hope to see your role and Recipe grow over the coming years?
Shilpa> I work on a lot of print campaigns at the moment and I’d love to do more out of home and digital campaigns too. It would also be fun to work on things like packaging design and just grow our skill set as a company.
Becks> I hope to support the people in our company to grow and fulfil their ambitions and dreams. I'm excited in the months to come to see how my different take on creative from a production point of view could influence our output and our pitches. I want to see if combining that with a more traditional creative agency can modernise how we approach briefs.
Oya> The end goal… it would be pretty awesome to be Recipe’s first ever chief operating officer, or a role with the same remit associated with this title. For me, it’s more about what I would enjoy doing based on where my passions lie. Overseeing the company’s daily business operations and administration would be challenging but fulfilling certainly. A role that requires both business acumen and creativity in my opinion that would be focused on both the business strategies and organising the operational capabilities.
Eilis> At the moment, it's a relatively small finance team. It's just me and one other. Hopefully, as the years go on, and we grow as a company, that team will develop and there'll be more people in it and more interesting analysis coming out of finance.
LBB> If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?
Becks> Listen to the imposter. Reason with it, but don't take it too seriously because often the imposter is lying or fabricating the truth. In that, be kind to yourself, and be kind to others. If we can be kind to ourselves and others, then the world would be a better place.
Shilpa> I would say follow your gut and trust your instinct more. I moved to London when I got married, but as my career grew, my husband was intimidated by it and didn’t support me. In Indian culture women are often expected to adjust and compromise the most so that impacted my ambition. Then I finally had a wake up call and realised that I shouldn’t push myself down to make someone else happy.
Eilis> Have as much fun as you can while you're young!
Oya> Don’t fear failure, embrace it. Trust your instincts, throw yourself into uncomfortable situations and take the jobs your imposter tells you you’re not ready for. Because you are. The worst thing that will happen is that you realise you’re not quite ‘home’ yet.
When you are finally home, you’ll have learnt a hell-of-a lot more from challenging yourself and positively growing rather than staying stagnant and festering self doubt. Life is too short to be concerned about unknowns. Better to test and try, than have regrets later down the line.