A cheerful forensics fan, an analytical artist and a production champion with a strategic mind – LBB’s Laura Swinton chats to Prettybird’s UK Head of New Business
“I find so much beauty in the grotesque,” says Mia Powell. There’s a self-aware chuckle, mindful of the drama of the statement, but Mia leans forward with a quiet earnestness.
We’re talking about her empathetic-yet-macabre personal art projects and her surprising background training. Before delving into a career in advertising, Mia studied a degree in Photography with Forensic Science – a coming together of art and science, creation and death, that encapsulates the woman who, these days, is the Head of New Business at Prettybird UK, one of the most in-demand production partners in the UK production industry.
Unignorably dynamic, witty, smart and with an impressive line in berets, Mia’s combines a deep passion for creativity with a strategic, analytical mind that has turned her into a production industry powerhouse in just three years. Working closely with Prettybird UK’s founding partner and EP Juliette Larthe, the pair have turned the company into a company that resonates with relevance. But it’s so easy to be caught up in Mia’s fast-moving energy that one can easily overlook the quieter, more thoughtful, almost bookish - yet mischievously macabre side - to her personality. Make no mistake, though, it’s that depth and tension that makes her so good at what she does.
Given her own paradoxical personality and interests, Mia’s inspiration is the original Renaissance man, which feels appropriate. “Painting is my passion. At college I did quite a lot of art and Leonardo da Vinci was one of my major influences. I wanted to do something which combined both art and science at university,” she explains. What followed was three years of cell biology, anatomy and learning to see the world through a camera lens. “I wanted to go into forensic photography and take pictures of dead people, which is wild,” she says, ‘but you know, I'm a bit too happy-go-lucky, I think, for that world.’
Instead of snapping grisly crime scenes, Mia was drawn to the world of advertising – where her artistic flair and methodological mind could be put to use.
Mia’s first steps into adland, though, predate her fascination with forensics. In the year 2000, a tiny Mia toddled onto the set of a Target ad, where she sat on Tina Turner’s knee (and yes, the ad is on Youtube, for anyone who’s curious). Growing up in West Sussex, with a mum who works in banking and a dad in the auto industry, Mia describes herself as an ‘anomaly’ in her family. Her obvious creative spirit and big personality led her parents to put her into acting classes – something that’s stayed with her as she presents to agencies and engages with public speaking. Her next experience with the world of advertising was a work experience stint at Iris at the age of 15.
But while a job in the media clearly beckoned, her first job out of university wasn’t at a cutting edge agency or punky production company… it was at the Encyclopaedia Britannica, where Mia worked for about a year, sharpening her sales skills. She then found out about a ‘Potential scheme’ at Iris, where she worked as an account executive for six months. From there she went to MullenLowe Profero, where Mia worked in the marketing and new business team.
“I fell in love with new business and the whole sort of masochistic kind of craziness pitch,” she laughs. “And it kind of became addictive.”
It was there that she stumbled upon the world of production, where she saw Naomi George, the then Head of New Business at Blink, presenting to the agency. She was immediately inspired and picked up the phone to the Advertising Producers Association, to find out if there were any jobs going.
“I'm a cheerleader and I love collaborating. It just felt like a natural progression for me to go production side. It’s where the magic was really happening, where you could really see the ideas come to life. And that's what I was missing - seeing all of these ideas, bubbling to the surface, and production companies were the ones that were making it a reality,” she explains.
When the opportunity to interview for a job with Prettybird came up, Mia approached it with the same passionate drive and careful, strategic planning that runs through her work. She did her homework on Juliette, spoke to everyone she could to make sure that she pitched herself just right. These days the two are a tight team, and Juliette’s strong principles have had a big impact on Mia, making her feel immediately welcome and empowering Mia in her own growth as she navigates an often slippery industry.
Since coming on board, first as new business coordinator in 2017, Mia has been involved in navigating the company through a truly tumultuous time. Internally, Juliette and Mia have been carefully translating the Prettybird brand, roster and offering to the UK and Europe markets. And then there’s the radical cracking open of the production landscape, as agencies and clients have built their own in-house studios to produce quick turnaround content, and production companies have worked increasingly direct-to-client.
“It's been amazing - as I said, I'm a bit a masochist. So, I find that these are not problems, these are challenges and I'm a very solutions focused person,” says Mia of the past three years at Prettybird. “I just find it amazing that we're in this ever-evolving landscape of media and finding new avenues and solutions for both direct-to-client and agency. This has been a really quite amazing part of the job because of my strategic, forensic mind being able to disseminate what it is that people want and need, and delivering on it. It just is so fulfilling.”
And that fulfilment comes in many guises. Whether it’s turning around a pitch for an H&M Christmas campaign in 24 hours bang in the middle of Cannes Lions – and winning it or nurturing up-and-coming directing talent, there’s a lot in her work that gives her a thrill. She’s super proud of recent projects like Tom Noakes’ bombastic Glenlivet ad from February. And while she’s not as involved in the music video side of the business as the commercial side, she’s keen to get rising promo stars like Yousef (the twisted genius behind the mind-bending ‘Braindead’ promo starring East Enders star Shaun Williamson) in front of agencies. She’s also doing her bit to push the industry forward in other ways. She’s been named a ‘Superwoman’ by Pitch Magazine, is a board member of POCC and has been open speaking about her experience as a woman of colour.
Beyond the mechanics of business, wider society has also seen disruption as movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter have pushed the industry to right historic imbalances. At Prettybird, that has seen the company reaffirm its commitment to representation behind the camera, within crews – though it’s something that has come quite naturally to the company.
“I think it's organic, it's part of our DNA. So, you know, we're not pushing it, we're not fighting, you know, we're just doing it. And I think that's how everyone should be approaching it,” says Mia. “I think we'd feel quite disingenuous having, um, two founding partners that are seen as minorities - we’re female and black owned. It just couldn't be any less disingenuous if we didn't push that through to behind the camera.”
Ultimately, though, to focus on the sharp business mind, the problem solving, and the sheer determination is to miss out on Mia’s own creativity. She still paints where she can, delving into her love of biology while exploring the darker aspects of the human condition – during our conversation she shares a haunting series of paintings of women post-rhinoplasty operations. She’s an avid animation lover (she namechecks Adult Swim series The Venture Bros). Science fiction is a huge influence too. Weaving all of this together allows her to empathise with the directors that she works with, understand their own visions and artistic ambitions.
“You know, I feel like I am a translator of some, some sort. I feel like I can read between the lines. Agency talk isn't necessarily always that straightforward and I love it. I love dissecting and analysing what they say and being able to regurgitate it in a more palatable way. And then also doing the creative development with the directors is so much fun. You know, it's a big part of why I love what I do. I feel like a bit of a hybrid and it works well for, for a position of new business thing… I feel like I'm so involved with my art because I love it as well. Yeah. It's, it's a really great mix.”
That genuine passion – for the work and for the Prettybird team – has been more crucial than ever. Mia is working hard with Juliette to shepherd Prettybird through what has been a rocky year for the whole industry. They’ve managed to keep their directors busy – an indication of the pair’s ability to understand and solve agency’s problems – but no doubt that 2020 has more sneaky challenges up its sleeves. Looking to the future, when Covid-19 is a long-distant memory, one wonders where Mia’s artistic inclination, shrewd mind and love of the weird will take her. For the foreseeable, she’s focused on Prettybird and its forward momentum, helping it to adapt and evolve.
And beyond that? “I mean I have big, big dreams," she says, before laughing: "World domination is on the cards, let’s say that.”