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Uprising: Esther Phillips on How Competitiveness Moves Mountains

Advertising Agency
London, UK
From wanting to become Prime Minister when she was seven years old, to her current side project of cycling from London to Paris in under 30 hours for Women’s Aid, M&C Saatchi’s senior account manager Esther Phillips tells LBB’s Zoe Antonov about her creative journey

Climbing up every tree she came across was a day-to-day activity for Esther Phillips, senior account manager at M&C Saatchi. According to her parents, she was cheerful, confident and never afraid to raise her voice. According to her, she championed causes that she felt passionate about from an early age, which made her opinionated and inquisitive, with a special knack for learning. As early as seven, Esther was already reading a broadsheet newspaper and developing her interests in global affairs. “My family friend recalls me sitting in their kitchen at the age of six or seven, talking about the Arab-Israeli conflict.” Not surprisingly, at around the same age, Esther decided that she wanted to be Prime Minister - a dream she is happy to admit she put to bed. Her other career choice was “a princess on a motorbike.” So despite loving where she is now, she never really knew she’d end up in the creative industries as a child. Even when she was entering university, she didn’t expect this outcome, but she always knew that her “interest in people, socio-political issues and what is happening across the world,” would all play a part in her future. 

Growing up with nine siblings, Esther believes that the way she was raised had a huge impact on her current outlook. With such a range of characters and personalities, she learned how to appreciate people for what they really are and learn alongside them. “That definitely helps in my role as account manager, which requires strong people skills.” In this role, she has to bring people together to work towards a common goal - a skill she learned through having to see the world through many lenses. This is also what sparked her love for “getting people together” and her overall comfortability with large groups. 

Esther describes herself as an optimistic extrovert, with some less-than-ideal experiences in life, but nevertheless with the knowledge that everything happens for a reason. She is the type of person to throw herself a divorce party (which has happened) and use it to fundraise for the charity Women’s Aid (which also happened). “We had speeches, dancing and cake, and we raised over £2,300!” Overall, she is all about celebrating love, family and friends, while still keeping the focus on her passions.

Totally different from where she is now, in her university years at King’s College she did both a BA and MA in War Studies. As this was a very male-dominated course, there was a push to encourage young girls from London state schools to join, so this is how Esther diverged from her original idea of studying history or politics. Her first ever job was also quite far away from the advertising industry - at a company organising investment forums for businesses in the Middle East and North Africa, after which she lived in Barcelona learning Spanish and teaching English. 

Following that, we get to the “incredible accident” that pushed Esther into the creative industry - all happening at a bar in Peckham. “I got chatting to someone linked to the industry who offered me an introduction to the company. I had to go through the formal interview and presentation process and started as an intern on a temporary contract, but the rest is history.” This happy accident reinforced Esther’s belief in being open to people and opportunities. “You really never know where a conversation can lead you.” 

In her case, it led her to some incredible projects, all of which have played a part in honing her craft! “Every new project has given me the opportunity to learn new ways of thinking and working. At M&C Saatchi there’s a comprehensive professional development programme with talks and workshops from some of the best within the agency. I’ve learned and practised M&C Saatchi’s key principles - brutal simplicity of thought, and diversity of thought.” Principles that make her work more thoughtful and impactful. What she learned from the earliest days of applying those principles at M&C Saatchi is to be reliable and consistent. If you are, she says, “People will want to work with you and trust you, no matter how junior you are.”

Looking back at her very first project, Esther tells about the launch of Sesame Street in the Middle East. “It was a great initiation to the industry as it was fast-paced, the creative was super engaging, and we were live in multiple markets. I really appreciated the positive social impact of that project, as the show uses entertainment to educate and support children and build resilience in communities affected by conflict. I remember thinking how incredibly lucky I am to work on projects that are contributing meaningful change to people’s daily lives.” To her, this is the most important project - and the one that really changed her career - because it showed her first-hand how much of a positive and real impact communications can have. 

“I was really engaged by that project, and it confirmed for me that this is the industry I wanted to work in. I’d also say that, aside from a particular project, it’s the people I’ve worked with that have changed my career. I’ve had some incredible managers who truly care about me and want the best for me. I wouldn’t want to know what my career would be like without those influences,” explains Esther. 

Projects like Sesame Street are also what remind Esther that she loves every part of her workflow. She enjoys getting involved in every aspect of the project as an account manager, from working with insights and strategy, to briefing and reviewing creative and production, to media strategy, measurement plans, finance management and client relationships. “There’s a lot to account management! It gives you such a breadth of skills and exposure.” However, this diversity in the day job is exactly what challenges her at some points, especially when it comes to work-life balance. “But in true account management style, I help myself by having my own personal status document to keep on top of my extra-curricular and the things I want to achieve,” shares Esther.

When looking at the broader state of the industry, Esther is met with what she is interested most in - social and ethical issues. “Nowadays people care and expect greater social responsibility from the businesses they engage with and buy from. Consequently, consumer brands are having to live up to this and demonstrate it in their communications, which is a great opportunity for the broader industry to be instrumental in positive social change.” Part of that social change that must be seen, according to Esther, is the fact that there aren’t enough women in senior positions and in C-suite positions. She knows strides have been made in past years, but also says that there is much more to be done. “At M&C Saatchi, three out of the seven board members are female and there are several women at C-suite, which gives me confidence that I’m at the right agency. But that female presence is not standard across the industry.” 

Esther knows that this isn’t an issue that only affects women - it is one that is multilateral and spans many minority groups, be it relating to sexuality, race, or economic background. This is why Esther is a lead for M&C Saatchi’s partnership with Women’s Aid. “We’re supporting Women’s Aid pro-bono with nationwide research design and implementation, communications strategy support, media monitoring analysis and fundraising. What is so encouraging and empowering about the charity partnership is that it is entirely employee-led. Senior management do not mandate what should happen. It’s up to me and my amazing team of volunteers to identify the ways we can support Women’s Aid and then execute that vision. In my role as charity lead, I collaborate with the M&C Saatchi Equals network which offers a platform to represent, support and champion women across the M&C Saatchi Group.”

In fact, her current side project is cycling from London to Paris in under 30 hours for Women’s Aid! In the afternoon of June 1st, Esther is planning to leave the M&C Saatchi office and cycle 60 miles down to Newhaven, where she will take the five-hour ferry to Dieppe and following that, embark on the 108-mile journey to the Eiffel Tower. She has to arrive in Paris by 10pm French time to achieve the challenge, which totals a whopping 168 miles or 268km, in less than 30 hours and with less than five hours of sleep (that she will get on the ferry). “I’ll be cycling alone, unsupported, and it’s going to be really tough – mentally and physically. But nowhere near as difficult or painful as the experiences of so many victims of domestic abuse, who often suffer alone.” Here (link) you can support Esther’s cause through her fundraising page.

So how does she do it? How does Esther Phillips stay focused, inspired, optimistic and ready to fight for what she believes in? It seems to be simple when she explains it and it all comes down to her competitive nature: “Self-belief that I can achieve anything I put my mind to.”

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