Women in Business Q&A: Heather Wright, Executive Producer/Head of Partner Content, Aardman

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Aardman

Heather Wright runs the Partner Content business at Aardman. This division creates animated and interactive content for advertising agencies and third party brands and includes commercials, short films, websites, games and apps.

As part of the management team, she contributes to overall company strategy and determines strategy for the Partner Content team. She is responsible for driving new business for both the animation and interactive teams, sourcing and developing new talent and managing the production resources required to deliver these projects. Heather has been at Aardman for 16 years.

Prior to working at Aardman, she spent 7 years working as a freelance live action producer in London production companies including Stark Films, Rose Hackney Barber, Propaganda Films shooting regularly in studios and on location around the world.

This followed 9 years working her way up the producing ladder for a number of advertising agencies including Saatchi & Saatchi, Publicis, Weiden & Kennedy (Amsterdam), TBWA Chiat Day on blue chip clients such as Coca-Cola British Airways, The Independent, Procter & Gamble, Renault, Disney, First Direct & EA Games.

Outside of her day job, she is an active volunteer supporting charities and projects which help Bristol to grow as a city. These include; Trustee of The Creative Youth Network, a youth arts organizing unlocking potential in young people whatever their background, Business Mentor for NESTA (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) helping small businesses to develop and Board Member on the Learning City Partnership Board for Bristol City Council.

In her spare time Heather also enjoys yoga, walking and cookery.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I grew up in a middle class suburb in Hampshire and had a very close family and a very traditional education. My parents are of the no nonsense Scottish variety and they moved to England for work when I was very tiny. My father is a computer scientist who has always worked extremely hard and continues to do to this day. My mother is a very creative person who loves doing tapestry, embroidery and indeed almost any kind of craft. So hard work and creativity were an integral part of family life.

I always knew I wanted to work in TV somehow and I had a place to go and study TV & Film at University. However, in the holidays between leaving school and going to Uni, I got caught up in the whirlwind that was Saatchi &Saatchi. It was the early '80's and the agency was riding the crest of the wave after supporting Margaret Thatcher to her election win in 1979. I had a job as a secretary in the Recruitment Advertising department, not the most glamorous start but Charlotte Street was a buzz with champagne and flowers and I felt part of something. Needless to say, I never actually made it to University.

This meant that I worked my way up from the very bottom and Saatchi taught me that you work hard and you play hard, but you have to work hard to earn the right to play hard.

The advertising agency business in the 1980s was awash with mantras like 'Impossible is Nothing' and 'Good Enough is Not Enough'. There was a culture of 'you must stop at nothing to achieve excellence' and a lot of egos grew out of control and became divas. During the recession of the early 90's the industry woke up a bit and decided that actually you didn't need to be the most controversial or the most tyrannical to achieve the best, but that it was possible to do great work and also be a good person to work with. All that aside, the sentiment of pushing through for excellence never quite rubbed off and I still push for the best, in the nicest possible way.

The other big thing I've learned over the past 10 years particularly, is the absolute joy to be had in helping other people to figure out solutions and I've gradually taken a more and more mentoring approach to all aspects of my work. That doesn't mean to say that I'm not afraid to take the hard decisions when needed but I don't always feel the need to be credited or recognised on a day to day basis if I've helped someone else to make the decisions. If everyone around me is making good decisions - with or without help - then we all do better.

I am an insane advocate of team working and being true to our company values and will regularly preach on both these subjects. I never lose track of the fact that Heather Wright from Aardman calling is much more likely to get a return call than simply Heather Wright. Being Aardman definitely opens doors but it doesn't close the deal! Our pitches are judged against our competitors on a project by project basis and woe betide anyone who feels they may rest on their laurels. This might sound a bit preachy and worthy but I do believe that when you work for a great brand like Aardman, you are a guardian, you can never own it and you have to treat it with care, respect and humility and you have to help it to grow and be healthy.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Aardman?
After working in agencies for around 9 years I swopped sides and became a freelance production company producer.

All producers live and die by their contact books and as it's quite a small industry, people who started out when I did, are now sitting in senior positions of lots of different companies that we still work with. There used to be a mantra 'be nice to people on the way up because you may meet them on the way down'. I've always believed that to be good advice.

Being of the gamekeeper turned poacher type also means that I have a very solid understanding of how the agency business works and can understand a lot of the pressures our clients are under. This can help to cut through a lot of the issues that can come from inexperience or fear of treading on toes or doing the wrong thing. And actually, producers on both sides of the industry whether agency or production company need support in very similar ways.

When I came to Aardman, I'd never worked in animation before but the skills were absolutely transferable and of course I brought my contact book with me - the most valuable piece of the picture. It's attitude and work ethic that are the hardest things to find rather than specific skills - as long as you have the time to train people. I usually find our best performers are often those who have grown with us.

What have the highlights and challenges during your tenure at Aardman?
Development of CGI - When I joined Aardman in 1998 the CGI department were 3 people in the corner of the room who were treated with some caution, understandably. The storytelling business, whether for advertising or television or cinema, has always been about great ideas and great characters and I think I helped Aardman to understand that CGI was just another tool in the armoury and not something to be wary of. It's another way of telling stories which adds to our company as a whole rather than diminishing the stop frame work. I then nurtured and grew the cgi team to be a strong creatively ambitious unit who regularly achieve at the highest levels. Of course the stop frame business is still fighting fit and doing amazing work but now we have a strong computer animation team too. Oh, and very often they work together.

The Tate Movie Project - In 2010 we embarked on a project with Tate Museums and creative agency Fallon to make a film by children and for children. It was funded by the Legacy Trust as part of 2012 Cultural Olympiad and had to involve as many children from all over the UK as possible, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The project involved a 53 city roadshow, workshops in galleries, at festivals and in schools a website which collected hundreds of thousands of ideas, jokes and drawing and culminated in a 30 min film. The scale and ambition, the bringing together of Tate, Aardman and BBC was a collaboration that made the project much greater than anything any of us could have done on our own.

Aardman Nathan Love - Over the past year or so I have been heading up our strategy to grow our business in the United States. We are currently finalising our acquisition of a 51% stake in New York based animation studio Nathan Love and we officially launched the partnership as Aardman Nathan Love in September last year. It's a small studio at the moment but we have big ambitions for it. Watch this space!

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
A diverse team of men and women from a myriad of backgrounds is a stronger team and companies with strong teams are more successful. Women play an equal and vital role so if you don't feel equal and vital, act as though you are. Act the part, become the part. Stay confident.
Also, just keep your head down and your chin up. Keep playing the game in a truly professional way, keep reaching for excellence and keep moving forward. Let the results speak for themselves.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
It's all about the team. It's about collaboration and partnerships. That's where our future lies. Together we are stronger.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I go home at 6 o'clock.... most of the time, although I am guilty of taking calls or checking email in the evening if there's 'a situation' happening and I don't take my phone into the bedroom. I also turn off my email when I'm on 'proper holiday' as opposed to a day off at home when I'm keeping half an eye on things. I delegate... a lot.

I also believe in the power of physical hobbies - yoga, rambling and ceroc. They require concentration that take you away from screens allowing your mind and body to reset so you can sleep better and perform better the next day.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I kind of hesitate here a bit, because in all honesty, for most of my working life I don't think I've been discriminated against for being a woman that I'm aware of... I've been extremely fortunate. The Aardman Management Team has equal numbers of men and women and as a company we take this issue extremely seriously... maybe it's because we have enlightened owners and an equal split at the top?

Having said that we are an industry who has little respect for family life so guarding the work life balance is hard. Evening phone calls and emails, early morning/late night trains, international travel all take their toll. For working mothers especially, dealing with the practical sides of running a family alongside the constant internal voice telling us we're not doing anything properly is exhausting. We should remember that there's no such thing as the perfect mother, partner and work colleague. We need to put all the guilt aside, and just be the best version of ourselves in each situation, living in each moment separately.

As a country, I do feel the serious lack of women in politics both at national and local level is holding us back. If there were equal numbers of men and women at the cabinet table, I'm sure there would be a much more consensual approach to problem solving. It's back to the idea of a diverse team being a strong team.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I've had a few really great mentors in my time. My first one was Tim Mellors who was a Creative Director at Saatchi and Saatchi when I was a young Producer and our paths crossed professionally on a number of occasions. He was the one that gave me the confidence to know that I didn't have to shout out the answers all the time, I had to listen more than talk and he wanted me to know that when I did speak that I had good things to say.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Michelle Obama - She could easily have decided to stay quietly in the background but she uses her position as First Lady to support causes for girls and women in a meaningful way. And she does it with quiet strength and humility, using the status she's gained for the good of all of us. When she first went on twitter with the #Bring Back Our Girls, she demonstrated that she clearly understood the anger and frustration that people everywhere were feeling and she did something about it. She made us all sit up and say 'wow' here's someone to be reckoned with. I was lucky enough to hear her speak on the subject of girls education in Central Park last September as part of The Global Goals festival. I have so much respect for her. I'm really interested to see what she does after Barack Obama's term ends.

What do you want Aardman to accomplish in the next year?
I want the production of Nick Park's new film 'Early Man' to go swimmingly ready for a 2018 release.

I want our new New York office Aardman Nathan Love to be growing and doing even more amazing work.

I want us to develop lots of exciting brand new stories and characters and unleash them on the world.

I want us to have a great big party to celebrate our 40th Birthday!