Reroute: An interview with Olivia Downing
Launching head first into a brand new year, it’s common for everyone to talk about the improvements they want to see in the world; mainly, within themselves. Gym memberships are snatched up, wardrobes cleared out and quickly refilled with end-of-year sale items and resolutions sworn in over a third bottle of wine on a Wednesday night; a time of real change, truly. A time to bully yourself into believing you’re the worst version of yourself imaginable, and if you could just get that promotion, or just meet that person or just drop that dress size you’d be grand.
At this time of year people are so consumed with change, that they never think to be proud of what they have achieved. Well, this is not a blog for resolutions; it’s about revolutions.
Let’s change the language that frames the New Year and celebrate all of our past actions; first and foremost our failures, as our greatest lessons and the most character building experiences. Our biggest failures are often what lead us to our greatest successes, and that is worth remembering and carrying forward into the New Year.
We kick off this series with the fantastic Olivia Downing. A quick glance at Olivia’s CV, you would be forgiven for not believing she had ever had a brush with failure in her life. Winner of the prestigious School of Thought competition which took her to Cannes Lions in 2017, Olivia then went on to establish a remarkable career as Creative Copywriter with one of the UK’s most distinguished network advertising agencies, as well as setting up her very own women in advertising collective, CIA: Chicks in Advertising. In her spare time, she gives lectures on advertising at the University of Central Lancashire and mentors aspiring creatives, supporting them in their studies. It’s really no wonder she was named one of The Drum’s global 50 under 30 outstanding women in creative earlier this year. Yet for all of her success, Olivia is insistent that it was in fact her mistakes, or rather missteps, that have led her down the path to happiness and career fulfillment she is now on.
“I was supposed to be going up to read English Literature at Oxford,” she reveals to me, mimicking a posh, Oxbridge student style voice. “But I didn’t pass the interview. And because the rest of the universities I applied to thought I would get into Oxford, they all rejected me. That was my first big failure; I only got into uni through clearing.”
Olivia ended up studying English Literature and French at her home school, the University of Manchester. And as much as she loves her hometown, she admits that at the time she was disappointed; she wanted the real university experience of moving to a new town, meeting new people and finally experiencing the freedom to truly realise herself- whoever that was. And French was not her first choice either. In fact, she just had to choose an elective so that she could continue to study English Literature; she had every intention of dropping it the minute she got the chance. Fast forward a couple of years, she had fallen in love with the language and was now living and studying at the Sorbonne in Paris for her Erasmus Year Abroad, and loving every minute of it. “Over the years I’ve learned a lot about the futility of accidental choices,” she tells me confidingly. “Had I gotten into Oxford, which is all I wanted at the time, I would never have been forced to take French. And if I hadn’t taken French, I would never have spent the time I did in Paris, which really became the making of me.”
During her first year of studying in Paris, Olivia became involved in the Parisian comedy circuit, first as a spectator and then eventually as a performer herself. Away from the stare of familiar, Mancunian eyes, she had the opportunity to try something completely different. And because she was alone, she had nothing really to lose in trying it out. Finally, she was getting that university freedom she had so desired; sans the dreaming spires but in Le Paname Art Cafe. It was on the comedy scene that she met some of the most influential people in her life, including Alexander Van Walsum - a comedian and creative director, although she didn't know what that was at the time. Following a performance one evening as Olivia bemoaned the lack of financial stability in the comedy circuit, it was this accidental acquaintance that first suggested she consider a career in advertising. It was this barely banked suggestion that would come in hand in just a few months time.
Having returned to Paris following her graduation for another year in the city she loved and to stave off decision-making, Olivia finally decided to come home to the UK. She would be moving with her boyfriend down to London where she had accepted a job at a law firm, and would be living with a friend; it was all very sensible. That is, until a couple of weeks after her return that her boyfriend broke up with her, the job in London fell through and she had to bail on both her friend and the flat. Fuck doesn’t cover it.
“Yeah it wasn’t the highlight of my life,” Olivia laughs. “Having to move home with my parents with no job and no partner, having given up the life I loved in Paris wasn’t easy for me. And I definitely spent a couple of weeks moping around the house in pyjamas and feeling sorry for myself, as you would do.” But following this stint and some hard truths courtesy of her mum, Olivia was up and at it again. She landed an internship with leading communications agency AMV BBDO in London, an experience which led her into her role as account executive at Refinery in Manchester. At this point, she’s thought that she’d made it; she’d seen Mad Men. She was ready for the sexy offices and long boozy lunches spent schmoozing clients. Unfortunately that wasn’t quite her reality; just lots of hours poring over spreadsheets and becoming more acquainted with calculator functions than what she deemed necessary or even bearable. “There was this guy that used to come into the office, and I couldn’t stand him,” she confesses. “He was the freelance copywriter, and he just didn’t appreciate the opportunity he had. I’d look at him and just be so angry at how sloppy his work was. How dare he be so ungrateful, when he was doing my dream job.” Finally though, her lucky break came. Refinery was looking to take on a full time in-house copywriter. Getting all the creative work together she'd done in her own time, Olivia pitched to her own boss and creative director to let her go for the role. Olivia maintains she would never have had the zeal to approach her bosses about this, had she not stuck it out in a role she hated. “Knowing what you don’t want to do is just as useful and just as important as knowing what you do want. And you only get that knowledge from trying things out.” If anything, she confesses that she now feels better placed within her current role to understand things from every perspective, as well as to better appreciate her own role.
But for Olivia, it hasn’t been enough to simply sit back and enjoy; she’s committed to sharing her experiences with others and creating similar opportunities for her peers. Speaking of her decision to start up the outstanding Chicks In Advertising initiative, she owes it simply and hilariously to her chronic sense of FOMO. The regret of not even trying to create something new is so much worse than that of messing it up, a conviction that has powered her throughout her career. And at every turn, it’s paid off; CIA is a resounding success throughout the north of England with over 800 members, and has seen calls for events to be run in London as well as north of the border in Scotland. A melting pot of women, men, students and professionals, CIA is the perfect platform for people to meet and discuss creative ideas as much as burning industry issues. As if this weren’t enough, Olivia frequently gives lectures on advertising at the University of Central Lancashire and is a mentor for aspiring creative copywriters and advertisers in her spare time. For Olivia, it’s not about making things difficult for those coming up in the advertising industry. “This old school mentality of because it was hard for me it should be hard for you, is so stupid,” Olivia states. “It’s really important to me to always be accessible, and to be supportive of new talent. I never had that myself, and so I don't understand why I'd not help other people achieve their potential.”
Perched on the edge of the high bar stool and sipping my flat white as Olivia chats chirpily away, one phrase stands out to me above all else. She describes all the things that went wrong for her, from Clearing, to her failed London move and disappointing career choices as “the perfect storm of stuff”. In one sentence, she has encapsulated the experience of being a young person, professional or otherwise, in 2020; the sense of no control and of things just happening to you. But there’s assurance in her description; a belief that when everything around seems wild and beyond understanding, there’s method there somewhere; it’s just a case of trying anything and everything out, until eventually the storm passes. “When talking to mentees, I call it my Dr Pepper philosophy”, Olivia laughs. “Just give everything a go, what’s the worst that could happen?”