My Media Life – Ally Owen

September 5, 2022


Welcome to My Media Life, where we chat with the movers and shakers in the worlds of business and marketing to find out what the media industry means to them. They share their advice for those starting out today and personal insights into their sources of inspiration and motivations.

This month, we’re thrilled to be joined by Ally Owen, the founder of ADcademy and the Brixton Finishing School, which provides programmes for talent from communities currently underrepresented by employers in the adverting industry.

Below are extracts from our conversation – you can watch the full interview in the video above or listen to the podcast here.

What does the media industry mean to you?

I find it fascinating. It’s like a repository for the world’s opinions, thoughts, feelings and positions. It’s all humanity’s views on the world in one place and, how that all connects, and how it all mixes together, and how ideas and concepts can travel within that massive ecosystem. I’ve just loved it since I fell into it nearly 30 years ago.

What’s the one piece of advice that’s helped you in your career?

Give less fucks, especially as a female. When I was younger, I used to give far too much credence to being concerned about what other people thought of me, trying to keep the peace. Classic people pleasing!

I would say I’ve been a lot more successful, well, a lot more relentlessly unstoppable, since I just focused on the thing I needed to do, which is to make change, make the industry more equitable, and stopped listening or concerning myself with stuff out of my control.

You can’t control what people think of you. Obviously not being a twat is an important part of that, but if you’ve done your best every day to be the least twatty human you can be, that’s pretty much as good as it’s going to get. People are going to think what they’re going to think anyway.

What do you enjoy most about your current job?

What’s my favourite thing about the dream job I’ve created for myself? Well, in a real Oscar-winning way, I’m going to say I can’t thank all the bits of my job enough, because they’re all equal for me. It’s just the fact that I’m part of something bigger than myself that’s working.

I’ve always been really passionate about equity, and change, and talent reaching its potential. And now we’ve got this amazing alliance of partners like yourselves, and talent, and it’s just this big change-making engine. And every day you actually feel as if you are doing something worthwhile.

We’re very lucky in the sense that we see the fruits of our labours all around us in the industry now. I had a lovely chat with my community manager this morning and she’s just been doing some work in our mentorship area. And she said the best bit about mentorship is she gets to actually see where she makes a difference.

She came through our programme, but she gets to see in quite a short term, that she’s had a positive effect – hopefully positive – on that person’s outcome. That’s just gold dust.

Was there a single light bulb that started the Brixton Finishing School?

It was in 2016 (but the first Brixton was in 2018) and I was at a very big media company. And they employed a right-wing agitator. Nothing wrong with being right wing – politics has nothing to do with it – but not being nice to people and deliberately being hating towards certain communities pisses me off.

You’ve got your right to an opinion, but you haven’t got a right to put other people down. And this particular commentator – it was Katie Hopkins – because of the work I was doing, I was contributing towards paying her salary through my labours. A strongly opinionated person who doesn’t like the communities I care for. This was not a personal crusade, but she doesn’t even like ginger babies!  So, thanks Katie. Thanks for making me angry, because out of that anger came this wonderful thing!

I just had a moment where I was like, if I’m going to work this hard – and I am, as we say relentless – then I want to put all my talent, all my relentlessness into something that makes the world a more equitable place and improves the industry.

I love the industry. It’s fed me. It’s clothed me. It’s kept me interested for the three decades, but it’s never really involved all the voices we need to make it as brilliant as it could be. We tend to be very lopsided. And this was the kind of touch paper – I just thought, no, not again. We’re not going to have somebody who always gets breaks, getting a break. Why can’t we hear other people’s points of view? Why is it always just one type of person?

What piece of advice you would give somebody considering entering this industry today?

Probably from a safety point of view, I would let them know that they’re going to be a pioneer if they come from communities that aren’t well represented. I think it’s really important that we let our talent know that it is going to be challenging coming into spaces where they aren’t represented.

And interestingly, the people we work with, aren’t actually a minority. They are the majority of people in the UK, is just, they’re a minority in our spaces. Our spaces are actually run by a minority. We’re very unrepresentative. It’s really interesting that we, the majority, are not the majority in places that communicate to the mass market.

And that could be anything. It could be age, it could be race, it could be ability. It could be location. It could be neurodiversity. Class is a massive one. There are so many intersections. It could be that you’re a carer or a parent.

I think [it’s important to] recognise that half the time, it’s not you, it’s the system that’s stopped you succeeding. The system is designed very carefully to let certain people succeed and certain people to support those people to succeed. And it’s going to take a while for us to all work together to make it an equitable system.

We know that’s the best thing that could happen because from a profiteering point of view, as well as a social justice point of view, we would be a lot more shipshape and make a lot more money if we include everybody in the system.

What is your secret talent?

Being ginger! It’s not very secret, but I think being born ginger gives you a series of natural advantages and disadvantages in life. You can never hide. You get a lot of attention, and you very quickly learn to stand your ground. I’m used to being the only one in a room. It’s very rare but yesterday, I think I saw three people that looked like me in the street and I was really excited that I’d passed somebody a bit like me. You’re memorable, so I think you have an innate advantage, I’m going to always stand out whether I wish to, or not. And you get mistaken for other people! My worst fear is to get mistaken for another redhead who’s committed a serious crime!

Where do you get your daily news from?

I’m careful about what I read. I think I’ve got ADHD so I can get really over-interested in stuff. That’s not necessarily going to help me to get into what I need to do that day. So, I have some rules around when and how I consume my news.

I read a bit of The Guardian, but I did this thing that was recommended after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, which was to have a multiple system of news sources. So, I have a Muslim news channel that I read every day. And I’ve signed up to a black news channel in the States, which is really interesting. It’s called The Root. I don’t know who the celebrities are but it’s given me such a better understanding of a massive part of the world’s population’s news and views that I as a white female from Britain would never have. So that’s really interesting.

And I hate to say it, but a bit of Vice and Refinery 29. I’m not going to lie. And I do like a bit of Love Island news, which is really embarrassing.

Although I love Forbes. I love The New York Times. I love a bit of a meaty article as well, so I do have some of your partners on my list. I tend to avoid anything too sensationalist apart from Love Island.

That’s the beauty of the media. On one tablet or phone, I can literally be a thousand different versions of myself. And I think that’s what the internet has gifted us. I used to work in print, and I still love print, but the ability for me to have so many different voices in one place, from different parts of the world and with really different views – I think that’s an incredible richness that we can have as a daily media consumption, if we choose to be that varied.

And I would say to anybody, please fiddle with your settings, go find some stuff you don’t normally listen to. You never know – you may like it!

What other media do you consume?

My daughter and me are true crime fans. If you’ve got a teenage girl, that is true crime territory. I also love docudramas. I’ve been really into the BBC – Crypto Currency; The Heiress That Disappeared; all that kind of stuff.

In terms of news podcasts, because the current news agenda is really depressing for the audiences I care about, I have to be careful how much of that I take on board, so it doesn’t knock the optimism out of me at the beginning of the day. So, I’ll say, today I’m just going to get on with the work rather than listen to yet more austerity measures, because it just brings you down.

I’m on a mission to try and improve people’s outcomes and try and level people up. And obviously the news is a lot about policies and experiences which are narrowing people’s potential, or even the ability to feed themselves in this country. I find it quite stressing.

If you were stuck on a desert island and had to pick two or three media brands, what would they be?

I’m going to go with The Guardian. I worked there for seven years, so it’s Stockholm Syndrome! And also because it’s a nice mix of everything and it’s independently owned. It’s supposed to be a balance of views.

I’m also going to go with Refinery 29 and Vice, because even though I’m 50 next week, in my head I’m still 27, and it’s really nice to see the trends. There’s something really optimistic and hopeful about all the progress that generation are making.

When I think about when I was their age and even things like genders, LGBTQA progress – obviously there’s lots of parts of the world where that’s not happening, but I do feel there’s just so much nice, hopeful, equitable stuff in that generation.

How do you switch off?

I would say I’m either on, off, or in the gym. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of in between. I do a lot of physical stuff to switch my brain off. And I do a lot of lying very still, looking at a tree or a bird or a flower. It’s kind of like all out, then the battery runs down and I’m like, ugh, no more humans for a while please, I’m done for a couple of hours.

I’ll go somewhere quiet and I’ll just look at nature or I’ll do something really physical like box or lift something heavy. And that generally will switch off the doing bit. I’m yet to perfect the art of relaxing. Maybe when I’m 60 or 75, I’ll finally get the idea of downtime right!

Who or what inspires you?  

I mean, there’s a lot of people that have really inspired me in the industry. There are amazing females, and I think as I’ve got older and as we’ve all woken up a bit more to the fact we need to change the stuff around us, the women that have come together in groups, the other activists I work with, especially a lot of the black females I work with, that’s a constant inspiration.

Certainly, I felt from a white female class perspective, I was having a bit of a crap time at points. That is nothing in comparison to my black female colleagues. People like Maria McDowell who runs Lollipop Mentoring, which is a black female mentorship programme that’s amazing and Caroline Forbes at Clear Channel.

There’s a whole list of people that I’m constantly amazed at – how they’ve managed to be so successful. They deserve to be successful obviously, because they were more than talented. But they have not only done that but have brought their own brand of change-making within the industry to put the ladder down and also help everybody better understand what it is we need to move forward on.

I’m very lucky that a lot of people have partnered with us, and I get to spend time with brilliant people all the time. My trustee, Jenna Osler at Meta, my female trustees; my male trustees – they’re major and they’re all brilliant. My trustees are my most inspirational people.