On her childhood: I grew up in Staffordshire, the youngest of three children. My mother worked full-time as a teacher so we all learned to be pretty independent as kids. My brother used to march me to and from school each day and we’d spend hours after school playing outside on our bikes. We haven’t changed much over the years and still love time together – but thankfully he’s stopped pushing me into hedges and pretending we’re not related. We were all very practical kids and taught ourselves to cook. I can vividly remember my mum’s joy returning from work to find a cake we’d baked – messily but reasonably effectively.
On her early career: I did a French degree at the University of Birmingham which involved a year of studying and working in Limoges. That year away was transformative for me; I had to stand on my own two feet, make money and get fluent. My early French language efforts were pretty shoddy. In trying to advertise my services as an English teacher, I was apparently implying much more risqué services and my copy had to be rapidly corrected. I loved Birmingham University and years later returned to sit on its council. That gave me the idea to start an alumni mentoring scheme, which is now in its eighth year. We persuade Brum uni alumni to mentor final-year students as they start job hunting.
After graduating, I went straight into the world of advertising, starting out as a graduate trainee in account management with Allen Brady & Marsh before moving to Ogilvy and Mather. I joined AMV BBDO in 1992 – and worked my way up to group CEO and group chair. Over the decades, I’ve had the privilege of working on ad campaigns for clients ranging from BT and Guinness to Asda, Walkers and The Economist.
On her defining career moment: Quite early on in my career there was a call from Michael Baulk, my managing director at the time, for volunteers to work on an urgent, work-intensive and seemingly tricky new business pitch. I thought it sounded quite fun and put up my hand. It gave me an insight into the leadership challenges of competing for business and although it was all new to me (and way beyond my experience at the time), we won the assignment. Importantly, it gave me an early taste of responsibility – and winning. The bond with that MD endured for decades, taught me tonnes and propelled me through the ranks. To this day, he is my biggest champion, supporter and sponsor.
On her toughest challenge: I stepped down from AMV BBDO at the end of last year and am a few months into my portfolio or “multi-hyphen” career. I continue to sit on the board of Derwent London, and chair the Women’s Business Council and the GREAT Private Sector Council. I’ve always enjoyed side hustles and non-exec projects so going plural was a natural transition for me – but making the decision to leave a job I loved after 26 rewarding years was hard and daunting. There’s a lovely quote from Havelock Ellis that says: “All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on”.
On her go-to style: My wardrobe consists of smart workwear and walking-the-dog-slobwear, with nothing in between. I’ve always struggled with “smart casual”, a phrase that terrifies me. My work involves lots of meetings across London and quite a few evening events so I’m fond of clothes that can work for day and evening, and be dressed up and down. Lugging a dress carrier around all day and changing into evening wear in a toilet is my idea of hell. So I stick to flexible classics and everything is geared to comfort.
On her power suit: You can’t beat a well-tailored black or navy trouser suit and I revert to both of these routinely and consistently, in many combinations.
On her inspirations and role models: Too many to name. Everyone from my former global boss Andrew Robertson, to the impressive leaders on the Women’s Business Council who are dedicated to driving gender equality, to the super-inspiring and collaborative women in WACL [Women in Advertising and Communications, London].
On staying sane: Having three kids has always kept things in perspective and they are my number-one priority. They all lead busy lives at work themselves now but home is still an anchor point for all of us – with a crazy and spoilt cocker spaniel ensuring we get out, walk a lot and embrace the outdoors. We also have a bolthole on the Isles of Scilly. It seems to have magical restorative powers.
On her most powerful piece of advice to other women: I absolutely subscribe to Madeleine Albright’s mantra that “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women”. Women are still under-represented in leadership roles in most sectors and the pipelines need filling. Gender equality is a moral and commercial imperative: diverse teams get better results. So my advice is to support other women. Let’s make sure the next generation outshines and outnumbers us.
Interview: Kate Bassett
Photography: Harry Borden
Dame Cilla wears: Le Marais Wrap Jacket Navy, Le Marais Tailored Culottes Navy, Hepworth Blouse, Le Marais Tuxedo Jacket Black, and Le Marais Tailored Trousers Black
Accessories: Dame Cilla’s own
Shot at The Fold store, Chelsea
THE FOLD SESSIONS
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