Helen Weisinger accidentally fell into the advertising industry via a 1980s sitcom. Now CMO at Tag EMEA, she tells LBB how her four month role turned into a love affair with production and business transformation
When you speak to professionals in the advertising industry it's quite often they say they found themselves in a role by complete accident. It's normally because many of us creatively-driven business people didn't know what career paths existed to us until we were already working in one. However, for Helen Weisinger, her first intrigue in the advertising world started with 80s drama ‘Thirtysomething’. The genre-defining series focussed on a group of friends in their 30s living in Philadelphia and whose characters hop from one ad agency to the next in what many would say is the golden years of advertising.
Her dream to work in such an ad agency took her down a more surprising route into the business, first doing work experience at an advertising agency in her hometown of Cardiff and moving on to ad sales for HTV (ITV’s regional branch in Wales). But unlike many who find themselves cold-calling local businesses, Helen ‘absolutely loved it’. It turns out convincing people about the power of advertising - in all its forms - would be the shape of many happy accidents to come.
When her life took her to Dubai, it fortunately collided with the opening of Saatchi & Saatchi’s local office and an account management role that later continued at Saatchi & Saatchi New York. From there another unexpected turn occurred. On joining DLKW, Mark Lund (now president of McCann Worldgroup UK & Europe) spotted something in Helen that she hadn’t even realised herself. She’d joined the agency with the premise of being an account director. However, Mark recognised her skill for selling ideas, asking instead if she would become a new business director. Enjoying the creative pitch and unsure whether to accept, Helen was told if she didn't like the role she could move back into account management within six months - but that never happened. In love with the transformational aspect of marketing and new business, her career snowballed into roles at some of the world’s best agencies from DLKW to TBWA, Fallon London to McCann, Dare, The Portas Agency, HeyHuman and Brave.
Before joining Tag, the rapid proliferation of media channels in the mid-2010s and a love of outdoor advertising enticed Helen to a role as Chief Client Officer at Outdoor Plus. Whilst many would see this jump from creative to media as a completely new arena, Helen saw an exciting new way to show brands the untapped creative potential of a new space and her move to production at Tag was fuelled by the exact same thing.
Here, she speaks to LBB about how these happy accidents came together and why a four month stint at Tag turned into a full time role and a love affair with production that helped transform the business entirely...
LBB> So tell us about your happy accidents, what was it about ThirtySomething that got you hooked?
Helen> I was a bit lost as a kid as I didn't really know what I wanted to do - it drives me nuts when people ask ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ because it’s not that black and white for most people. All I knew was that I wanted to work in a place like Michael, an advertising agency set in Thirtysomething, an 80s popular American drama series.
I happened to find my passion through that programme and it kind of pointed me in the right direction. So rather than go to university, I sought out opportunities and from that time onwards, I’ve always had the good fortune of having people get behind me and believe in my abilities. Advertising through its many different paths has brought me so much luck and inspiration, I’ve been able to travel, experience different cultures, countries, and eras.
A trailer for ThirtySomething, Helen's first intrigue into the world of advertising
LBB> So, accidents waiting to happen can be a good thing for a career in advertising?
Helen> Well, the way I have progressed through my career has been very accidental - it’s been all about going with the flow. That's what I would encourage people to do - don't be rigid or fixed about what you want to do. Everything is a lesson, everything is an opportunity, even through bad times (and trust me, there will always be some, no matter who you are) but often those things that don’t work out are just as important as the giddy highs that do. They teach you something – and that’s having the ability to roll with the punches.
LBB> So when you eventually got into an agency environment was production ever on your radar?
Helen> No never, it wasn’t even a consideration. Don’t get me wrong, I love great creativity and have had the absolute joy and privilege of being brought up in an era of amazing creativity (Sony Balls, Cadbury’s Gorilla, fcuk, Wonderbra) and while you can’t have a good ad without good production, it seemed so far removed from what I did.
LBB> So, what changed?
Helen> Well the industry for one, seismically! As we all know, the world of advertising has evolved enormously over the last 20 years, and not just because advertising channels have multiplied and because audiences have fragmented, but because the role that data and tech now plays, enables more touchpoints with consumers, and more chances to connect with customers. Production today too plays a hugely different role. It is now critical to the creative process, rather than just being part of the process - and done properly, it unlocks growth, fuels stronger creativity and brand amplification.
That’s why the good agencies and brands recognise that they need to involve production at the start of the process, not midway through. It’s this opportunity and the changing landscape that makes it so exciting - I genuinely love it. It's been one of the best jobs that I never expected to have.
LBB> So, tell us about Tag, what turned your four month role into a permanent one?
Helen> What truly excited me about working with Tag originally was our CEO Andria Vidler. She has a phenomenal reputation for transforming businesses and I’ve been fascinated by her journey, since she became the Capital Radio client of ours at DLKW.
We’ve known each other over the years through the industry and WACL, but not well. When she invited me to meet her for breakfast to talk about a potential opportunity, I was definitely all ears.
She asked me to join Tag on an interim marketing basis. My job was to help unify our production house capabilities (the artists formerly known as Smoke and Mirrors, Big Buoy etc) to simplify our business, making it an easier organisation to navigate, for our clients and our staff.
I had a very specific, precise four month brief that saw us unite those amazing Tag brands and businesses and bring them together under two powerhouse strategic units, now known as Tag Collective Arts and Tag Sourcing Network.
As we progressed on that journey, Andria asked if I would be interested in taking on a full time growth role and with a love of the business and production truly sparked - I couldn’t say no.
LBB> How has Tag pivoted and transformed as a business since you joined?
Helen> Well, it’s been one hell of a year and the change is extraordinary! Andria once said she wanted to make Tag a business that Steve Parish would be proud of and I totally think he would be. It remains a strong independent business with an entrepreneurial spirit laced through its veins and Tag today is a huge global organisation with agility and scale, and the ability to continually reinvent for the needs of its clients.
With clients today demanding quality, speed, scale and effectiveness they recognise their future needs production in it, front and centre. We pinned our transformation around this key factor and our heritage to drive it – with it comes new Tag and its endless end-to-end marketing production possibilities, via our simplified structure, Tag Collective Arts and Tag Sourcing Network.
LBB> Reflecting on your experience here so far, what still inspires you?
Helen> When I reflect back on all of the things that we have done as a team and as a business, it is phenomenal the changes we have made and I have to keep reminding myself to take it all in. The work we’ve done to develop our proposition in the marketplace, our stature with clients, our relationships, our people, our ways of working, our inclusivity as a business and our communication internally. It’s really extraordinary, particularly given the lionshare of it has been done remotely.
But even the little things we’ve achieved too. We're a big organisation made up of hundreds of people, and without sounding cheesy, we’ve found a real sense of being together throughout. For example, this Christmas we counted down to Christmas via daily ‘xmas crackers’, moments of joy, all culminating in one holiday celebration. Honestly, it was as good as it could have been with everyone in the actual room, everybody interacting and being part of something really good.
It was light years away from the business that I first entered and a massive shift in energy, spirits, life, belief, positivity and warmth - all of those brilliant things we need in these mad times.
LBB> Looking to the future, what new innovations or trends are you most excited about in the future of production?
Helen> I'm excited that sustainability is at the top of the agenda and the spotlight is very much on production playing its part in addressing the impact of climate change on the planet (solar spotlight, obvs!). There are so many innovative production solutions out there, but as it stands, many brands are grappling with where to start, so we’re launching our very own, ‘Know to Grow Greener’ guide to help bridge that knowledge gap.
In the last 12 months, thanks to Covid, some significant steps have been made in reducing the impact of carbon, mostly through a pause of location shoots in far away places. With it too, new behaviours and ways of working have emerged for the better with people and brands emerging more conscious – do we really need to fly to South Africa for that one-off fabulous shot? Now we think about how we create more shoots in one trip, how we remote direct, how we create as much as possible locally, how we recycle and reuse existing content – or even something I learned last week, how to turn an air filtering city poster into tote bags.
While the future looks greener, we’re not there yet, so we’re continually hunting out new and interesting innovations right across the production spectrum so we can be kind to the planet, all while ensuring we still deliver great work.
LBB> During your career you have also been an Executive Committee Member at WACL (Women in Advertising & Communications). Can you tell us a bit about how this group supports women in the industry?
Helen> WACL’s purpose is to accelerate gender equality in communications and marketing and it supports those that work within the industry, inspiring future talent, raising money for charity, and campaigning around important issues like the gender pay gap. Given Covid has actually decelerated gender equality, it's very important that we continue to push these important conversations and empower women.
We hold a huge number of events throughout the year and keep people informed, updated and inspired. To be part of an organisation that is all about supporting and growing talent, I personally find incredibly motivating and I’ve made some lifelong friends along the way.
I’ve had the joy and privilege of chairing the last two Christmas Galas, WACL’s annual big fundraiser event. 2019 was a huge swanky black-tie event held at The Savoy for 350 of the good and great from across the industry. This year we obviously had to take it virtual with The Show Must Go On (line) and whilst organising live events on that scale are a big undertaking and not for the faint hearted, going virtual in 2020 was so much more challenging than I ever would have expected! But with the help of a magnificent committee, instead of another dreaded Zoom call, we made it a fun evening of entertainment for the whole family. We had magic, a DJ, a spontaneous poet, a live auction - lots of things that brought our members, their families and the industry together, all while raising a huge pot of money to support our charities. I’m really proud of that.