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Bossing It: Why Ally O'Neill Is Leading as an Open Book


Ardmore's media director on keeping it simple, being a reluctant leader and the importance of saying yes

Bossing It: Why Ally O'Neill Is Leading as an Open Book

Ally O’Neill is the media director at Ardmore Advertising, based in the UK. Her role involves planning and buying media predominately within the European market. She has a passion for the media world and consistently looks for ways to upskill and motivate her team. This is a big passion point of hers and can be seen in the culture she has created within her team – fostering innovative media planning.

LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

Ally> As an athletically challenged hockey captain. I remember being really surprised I had been voted to Captain the team as to be honest my actual playing ability was fairly shocking however I had a bit of a knack for bringing people together and giving everyone in the team a voice. 

LBB> How did you figure out what kind of leader you wanted to be – or what kind of leader you didn’t want to be?

Ally> In many ways I have been lucky to have some fantastic leaders in my life. I keep it fairly simple and look for patterns. There have been teams I have thrived in, wanted to give 140% and really grown in. Those were the leaders I gleaned tips/habits/outlooks from. Conversely, I have seen teams where people stay quiet, they don’t feel safe to give ideas and a leader has to create a culture of psychological safety. That is imperative for me. 


LBB> Did you know you always wanted to take on a leadership role? If so how did you work towards it and if not, when did you start realising that you had it in you?

Ally> No – I was a reluctant leader in many ways. Probably a bit of a lack of confidence initially. I adored working alone and keeping my own timelines. The thought of leading a team was probably a little scary. Though I have always gravitated toward upskilling and empowering staff so it was an inevitable conclusion and honestly – I really enjoy it. Business mentoring helped me overcome my initial worry about not being good enough, not knowing enough etc.

LBB> When it comes to 'leadership' as a skill, how much do you think is a natural part of personality, how much can be taught and learned?

Ally> Honestly, I do think there is an element of it being a natural part of your personality. As I mentioned, it's something I gravitated to because I enjoy it. Not everyone does and that’s fine. It’s a leader’s job to ensure you are playing to people's strengths. Pushing people into a role that doesn’t suit them isn’t the wisest thing to do in my eyes. Everyone has a role to play and it's fine for that role to be different for every person. Do I think leaders can get better with training? Absolutely yes but inherently; for me, it’s a natural skill. 


LBB> What are the aspects of leadership that you find most personally challenging? And how do you work through them?

Ally> Classic – imposter syndrome. I am a fairly young leader and struggled with that initially as I was working with a lot of boards who saw me as a little different, a little young and female. To deal with it – simply? I talk about it. I challenge the status quo and I ask for help/training/guidance from people I respect. 

LBB> Have you ever felt like you've failed whilst in charge? How did you address the issue and what did you learn from it?

Ally> Like anyone I make plenty of mistakes. The failure for me in mistakes is being afraid to tell people or not wanting to look like an idiot. It's taken me a while but I am confident enough now to feel like mistakes are a thing of beauty. A mistake allows us to see a test that shouldn’t be run again. But hey If we never tried, we never would have known. 

LBB> In terms of leadership and openness, what’s your approach there? Do you think it’s important to be transparent as possible in the service of being authentic? Or is there a value in being careful and considered?

Ally> I lead as an open book. My team don’t need (or want) to know what I had for breakfast but if they know I’m having a crazy time in my home life they might understand why I am a little frazzled. Its human empathy and without being open I don’t see the team gluing together as well as we have. 

LBB> It's been a really challenging year - and that's an understatement. How do you cope with the responsibility of leading a team through such difficult waters?

Ally> Be honest, keep the physical contact points high and leave openness in the team. If no one feels like they can ask what’s happening or if they don’t understand the direction of travel for the team – they aren’t tethered to anything. Uncertainty can breed a lot of fear!

LBB> This year has seen the industry confronted with its lack of action/progress on diversity and inclusion. As a leader how have you dealt with this?

Ally> Diversity of thought is absolutely vital for me. Looking around ad agencies you seen ten carbon copies of each person. If we keep hiring the same people, we will continue to get the same output. I have launched myself into this and look for ideas and staff in different places. For instance, working with a local LGBTQI+ charity to go to schools and talk about my experience in the industry as a young gay leader and also going out to colleges to do the same. Raising the profile of the ad industry in general as a viable route for employment. 

LBB> How important is your company culture to the success of your business? And how have you managed to keep it alive with staff working remotely in 2020?

Ally> I eat sleep breathe culture. It's not something you can put your hands on but you sure as hell know when it's bad. As I find it so important, I have a secondary role at my company looking after our culture. I started with the facts rather than assumptions by deep dive surveying staff to see what their thoughts are versus a top-down look from the board. This was invaluable for spotting patterns and allowing me to work with the board to build out initiatives to keep driving forward a positive and engaging culture. 

LBB> What are the most useful resources you’ve found to help you along your leadership journey?

Aly> Not an overt resource but in general saying yes. Go to that annoying after work event, head to the conference, make conversation, make connections. You never know where they might go. 

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ardmore, Mon, 08 Aug 2022 08:04:09 GMT