My Big Break: Clare Smith, chief marketing officer, Scottish Government

THE Scottish Government’s chief marketing officer, Clare Smith, was named Communicator of the Year at the Chartered Institute of Public Relations’ Scotland awards, on Thursday evening.

When did working in the media first start becoming an ambition?

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I was at school. Like most kids, I flirted with lots of ideas across the spectrum – law, physiotherapy and PE teaching.

The only media-related occupation that I was aware of back then was journalism. I did like that idea but was fixed on going to university and, like many, I would worry about what to do with my degree once I’d got it.

I was asked to audition as a presenter for ‘The Word’ following an outspoken, bolshie appearance at the Edinburgh TV Festival – but dismissed it. I’ve no idea why…

What was your first media job?

After university, I had a year out, living and working in Canada. When I came back to Edinburgh, I started temping and one of my first jobs was on reception at Insider magazine. I loved it. The people were great, the atmosphere different from the law and accountancy firms I’d temped at before – so I pitched the sales manager for a job. He bought it.

I started in sales and quickly progressed to support the team with their sales and marketing materials. It coincided with the growth of the internet, so I worked on Insider’s initial web presence. I guess because it was a small, entrepreneurial business I was encouraged to carve out my own role, so long as I could demonstrate results.

It was a great place to work, full of interesting, clever people. I loved it and am still in touch with many of them.

It was here I got my first taste and love for media. I learned about the production process, how to sell ads, how agencies worked, how the business community ticked. I learned what made a story for the editor and, as my then boss David Roulstone said, I really got things done.

Describe, briefly, how your career unfolded between your first media job and where you are now.

My second job was helping to launch Business a.m., as marketing manager. This was a massive opportunity; we were launching a new newspaper for the first time in years and were very much the ‘cool kids’ in media terms, not least because the salaries were higher than elsewhere.

Again, I had the privilege to work with some great people and, unlike other newspapers, marketing was closely linked to the editorial team. This was really where I fell for PR. Marketing Business a.m. was complex, and PR was really at its heart. Reputation building was everything – positioning the journalists and editor as experts in their field was worth more than any straight advertising spend.

It was a young team, we worked hard and played hard. It was where I networked my way around Scotland and built up loads of great contacts and really started to understand how the country worked, politically and in commerce.

Sadly, Business a.m’s funding was pulled by the Swedish owners and, after two-and-a-half brilliant years, we closed the doors.

I joined KD Media, a PR agency and worked on some great projects with some great people. Again, a small entrepreneurial business where results mattered and we worked hard but had great fun doing it.

I moved from there to my first contractor role in government to work on promoting Scotland’s reputation, internationally. This was so different from anything I’d done to date, but I loved it. We had decent budgets and it was an organisation who truly understood the power of PR, although, at that time, it didn’t like to admit it. I worked on great projects – Scotland Week, the Fresh Talent Initiative and launched the inaugural St Andrew’s Day /Winter Festivals.

It was here I learned about nation branding and read everything and anything written on the subject. Again, I had an inspiring boss in Judy Torrance, who brought a wealth of experience from her days at SDI and previous roles – including a spell as publisher at Insider (although before my time).

A short spell at Edinburgh Napier University followed, where I worked on their re-brand to include Edinburgh in their name. This gave me great insight into how our universities promote themselves at home and overseas. And then a return to government to the central marketing team as PR manager where I started to build the use of PR into the domestic campaigns which we’re all familiar with today.

Any particularly big breaks along the way?

I think Business a.m. was my biggest opportunity. It was perfect timing, I was 26 and full of energy and ambition which was rewarded by the equally energetic and ambitious management team. Again, I was given great coaching, although not formally, and my drive was recognised as I was given more responsibility and included in the core of the organisation.

Who would you like to thank more than most?

It’s hard, the list is so long. The team at Insider – Dave Roulstone, Brian Cameron, Kate MacInnes – were all inspiring in different ways. Then, at Business a.m., there was John Penman and Richard Neville, for adopting the attitude that PR and marketing had an integral role in the newspaper’s compilation and also letting me ‘in’ to really understand how a newsroom works.

More recently, the leaders in our agencies have provided great inspiration to me personally and together with our teams we’ve turned some crazy ideas into results.

In my current role, John Booth and Fiona Wilson have been terrifically supportive this year, nagging me about my own welfare – I was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year – whilst respecting that I just want to get on and do my job.

My team has also been brilliant – even offering to have team meetings at the chemotherapy ward. Even I drew the line at that.

And finally, my husband, Frank [O’Donnell, editor, Edinburgh Evening News]. He’s put up with my Blackberry and Twitter addiction, and is a great support in everything I do.

What do you know now that you wished you had known when you started?

The power of networking.

I didn’t properly appreciate what ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ really meant.

It wasn’t until well into my first job when it dawned on me that knowing people in the same industry, in business, at agencies, and in government was vital. The people I was working with were connected, they could call in favours, pass on news, create news, sell ads – all because they knew people and doors opened. I immediately set about building my own contacts book.

I’m occasionally asked to guest lecture at various universities and if ever I’m asked what advice I would give to the students I say two things: 1) read newspapers and 2) network, and not just online.