Executive Producer Gemma Conway believes in hard work as much as in embracing one's own differences. Now living and working as part of a world in which no two days are ever the same, Gemma started from much humble beginnings – "a Media degree from a mediocre university" and a set of characteristics which did not match the necessary criteria to enter the then ad industry.
It's been some time since that young woman from the East Midlands could be seen running around London, trying to land her first gig. Gemma's early career has now turned into a story of great resilience and ambition, a priceless source of inspiration to anyone aspiring for greatness. A degree in 'Media' may not be seen as 'real' in the worst parts of this industry – but Gemma's story clearly shows that your background does not define you.
Today we are Getting to Know Gemma Conway, Executive Producer at adam&eveDDB, who learned to embrace her uniqueness and forge ahead through thick and thin – without ever looking back.
Tell us a bit about your role! Is there a “typical” day?
I love mornings. I think they’re the best part of the day so I like to wake up a few hours before digging into work for some personal time. It’s taken some years to master (and not feeling guilty) but I believe it makes me a better producer and colleague so I strive to start my work day around 9:30am with a second coffee in hand. I begin by checking my schedule and emails and hitting up my team members to get any overnight updates across my projects.
I am an Executive Producer who self sufficiently produces my own projects, whilst overseeing most of our agency projects and puts value into mentoring the younger production squad just as much.
No two days are rarely the same in the world of ad-land and production which I thrive off. I stay close to the creative development on any given project and scope out the work for the Brand’s budgets and needs, so I can keep the team honest, help problem solve and manage everyone’s expectations. I oversee as many projects as required, across the department and use this period to help navigate the overall timings for everyone. Scheduling is a huge part of my job (along with plate spinning!) and understanding how to break down a piece of work to be on both time and in budget is paramount.
Depending where I’m at with a project (or three) I can be scouting for the perfect production partners or figuring how to make a Client’s budget match the seemingly never ending list of deliverables they require. Or I could be in the Pre-Production phase casting for a LA studio shoot or alternatively shooting within the busiest crowds of a Lagos neighbourhood. On the rarer occasion, I could be on a ‘run and gun’ project and figuring things out 24 hours before, which can be a bit wild but often creates creative spontaneity. It really depends on the Client’s brief and the Creative’s vision.
And thinking. Always lots of thinking.
If I’m at the end of the project then I am in the post production phase, which I happen to really enjoy. We have some incredible talent in our industry and that comes from every corner. I have never underestimated the power an Editor, VFX artist, Colorist or Sound Engineer can bring to a project, let alone a piece of music. Assembling the best team is a part of the job I relish and it’s rewarding to bring talented people together.
What was the biggest challenge in getting to your current position?
Getting my foot through the advertising door was a feat looking back. The majority of ‘newbies’ got in based on who they knew and not knowing much or having an ‘Oxbridge’ degree and being on the Grad scheme. There were (often unpaid) internships but that only worked if you were lucky enough to live within the M25 rent free.
I didn’t match any of that criteria.
I was a young woman from the East Midlands who studied and eventually left with a Media degree from a mediocre University. To this day I can still hear people saying, ‘that’s not a real degree!’ and they might be right but I didn’t care, I was proud to be putting myself through University as I was the first within my family to do so. During those years I worked in all kinds of hospitality to support my studies and in my final year worked as a temp which allowed me to save some money so I could head to the Big Smoke straight after graduating.
And that’s what I had to work with when I arrived in London in the summer of 2005.
I landed my first job on my birthday and it was the best gift I could ever ask for.
After about 2 months of optimistically running around London with my C.V and chasing after well known radio DJs down the street (another story) I thought I had made a terrible mistake. I couldn’t seem to get any meetings or interviews anywhere and my networking circle was small.
So I began speaking to the people that I did know, about my situation and I’m telling a friend who I had met at University and had previously worked as a legal secretary and she suggested and introduced me (the important bit) to her recruiters. They weren’t the most encouraging, if anything, condescending, but that spurred me on. My first advertising gig was at Fallon who were based in Soho at the time. During those 2 weeks of running around London like a headless chicken, I was offered an interview for a Business Affairs role at BBH and even though I didn’t fully understand the job description I knew that was the job I wanted and so I hassled the BA team at Fallon and got them to tell me everything I could absorb in preparation for my interview.
Three rounds of meets and greets later and the job was mine. I landed it on my birthday and it was the best gift I could have asked for. I was up against others with knowledge and experience that I had yet to gain but here I was and I was about to make the best of it.
Fast forward a hard working decade later and I was fortunate enough to move to New York. I hustled my way into Mother, 72andSunny, Periera O’Dell and Johannes Leonardo until I landed my first formal EP role at adamandevenyc. My journey wasn’t necessarily difficult but I worked very hard. For most people progress comes down to experience and confidence and you can’t force any of that. You really have to work on a variety of brands and jobs to gain that. I’m happy to admit that I didn’t push myself to be promoted from an Assistant Producer to a Producer until I felt absolutely ready as I felt I had so many silly questions I needed to know the answer too but the truth was, they don’t stop and we’re always learning, relearning and asking silly questions.
What is your personal background and what role did it play in your career?
I come from a hard working single parent family and my mum instilled in me that I could do whatever I wanted, providing I was willing to work for it. When I was 13 I was driven to a relatively fancy restaurant for a waitressing job. Mum dropped me off and told me she’d be back to pick me up in a few hours. I remember feeling nervous mixing with all of the adults without my mum around and I didn’t fully understand why I was being made to go work when most of my friends didn’t but little did I realise then, that this was the start of my character and career building. It was also a neat way for me to be out of the house for 4 hours a day. Clever mum.
I worked at that restaurant for 4 years and in that time went from clearing tables for a few hours on Sunday’s to working in the silver service restaurant all weekend. Anyone who has ever worked in hospitality or retail can vouch that you really need a thick skin, the patience of a saint and a solid smile.
Because I am an only child, I think mum felt she only had one chance to get it right so I got the opportunity to learn gymnastics, play instruments (terribly) and sign up for all the dance classes. Despite not having much herself she made sure I never went without and so I have always wanted to make her proud.
As a Producer, I have to be able to read a room and wear multiple hats. I need to be unflappable in the most flappble of situations and make myself approachable and willing to find solutions, even when the challenge seems impossible. I believe all of my personal experiences taught me discipline, time keeping, how to work within a team, how to work solo and confidence. I definitely learnt how to be confident.
What is your biggest career-related win? What is your biggest loss?
Aside from the hurdle of getting my foot in the door at Mother New York, my first gig was for the 76ers who are the Philidephian basketball team. The Client’s were sold an idea based on a 2 minute mood film that on my first day I reviewed and ballparked at 7 figures but was swiftly told they had a quarter of that budget and asked if I think we could do it. I wasn’t sure if I could truth be told but I wasn’t going to say no. It was an opportunity.
Once I’d signed up I felt as if I was a teapot made of chocolate. Whilst it is not uncommon for this kind of pitch to happen, I wondered how on American earth I was going to pull it off and stay working after. But we did and it still proudly lives on my reel.
The key was having an open mind, finding passionate people to be involved and making new friends quickly. We hired TWIN as the Director’s who are basketball heads which instantly gave the project the enthusiasm it needed, so that was the first good move. From there it gathered further interest and became a labour of love all round and we ended up with a really effective film for the Brand. I learnt A LOT from that project and was grateful for the opportunity because it paved the way for my next adventure at 72andSunny and the next.
Understanding my biggest loss got me thinking. It means admitting that something was wasted or unresolved and in my mind every loss or mistake is a lesson learnt. Fortunately I don’t feel like I have had a failure that wasn’t fixed, however one of the scariest moments in the earlier part of my career was clocking a deficit of £20k on a job. Yikes! I had neglected to notice squiffy formulas on a corrupt excel estimate before the job had fully kicked off but as soon as I saw the error I quickly held my hands up, brought the wider team in and it was openly resolved with the Client. Confirming to any future employers reading this that nothing like that has ever happened to me since. That’s the beauty of mistakes.
What’s your secret to remaining inspired and motivated?
Getting back to those mornings. They’re magical. To stay motivated I’ve mastered starting each day with time for myself. This is important to me as it helps me give my work the 110% I want to give. My early mornings consist of good coffee, a bike ride, some yoga or just 10 minutes on the swings in the park if I have my laundry to do. Whatever the day, depending on where we’re at in the project I allow myself these hours so I can be a better, happier, calmer Producer. I think it’s wise to try and create a routine that sets you up for success, even if that takes some time to cultivate. Everyone is different and thrives differently.
My inspiration comes from the folk in our industry and Production generally. I love all kinds of film processes and I like to form sincere relationships with people who know more than me about everything. I encourage reps and creative talent alike to share their latest work or something they’re excited about for discussion. I’m always reviewing reels. Whether I’m scoping a project or on the hunt for new emerging talent and techniques, watching reels is a really inspiring and fun part of my job.
I also enjoy mentoring people who have an interest in the production sphere, whether they are completely new or are already producing their own work. I read the other day that everyone should have a mentor that is older than them and a mentee who is (most likely) younger than them and that resonated with me. Never be shy to put your hand up or share your learnings with others.
Which individuals and/or agencies do you gain inspiration from? Do you have any heroes in the industry?
The late Frances Royale, who gave me my first job and therefore my first foot-in-the-door-opportunity. Her own story saw her start as a personal assistant before rising through the ranks to take ownership of the BBH TV department, which at the time had one of the best reputations in the world. A Mancunian who never lost her accent after years of living in London, she inadvertently (or not) taught me that a woman from up north can make it and I really respected that. And her badass shoe collection. Her reel includes many well known Levi’s, Lynx and Audi spots and I am still both inspired and grateful to her and her lasting legacy.
Ava Du Verney is one of my favourite Directors. She nails everything she makes in my eyes and I can rewatch her work repeatedly. Whether I know about the story she documents prior I can’t help but rabbit hole into the topics after. She has opened my mind and heart.
I really admire the ‘Who Gives a Crap’ brand. In a nutshell, they make forest friendly toilet paper and have donated over AUS$10million to non-profits who are helping to build toilets for everyone on the planet. They’re on a mission and I’m into it. (https://us.whogivesacrap.org)
How has COVID-19 affected you?
I was in LA finishing day 5 of a 5 day Samsung shoot when Covid hit and productions were shutting down across Tinseltown. I was able to deliver that project due to technologies evolving and partnering with some incredibly smart production people who helped figure it out and that is why I love post production. The team work never stops.
Not being in the same room as your Creatives and Director or Editor has posed some stressful challenges along the way but since then I have made an ambitious commercial for Jim Beam, an activation for Miller High Life, created work for Peloton and filmed a stunt for JetBlue all from my living room and that’s given me a new set of skills and outlook.
If you could go back to your teenage years, would you have done things differently? Do you have any regrets?
I don’t like to say (or feel) like I have any regrets but have I messed up? Yes! I failed my A Levels pretty miserably and it was as if my future career was living in the balance of being great. My mum is a firm believer in higher education but I was not a natural academic so I did a horrible job of studying but everyone else was going so I followed them assuming it was the right approach for me.
After I failed to get into any of the Universities I had applied for, I started working at my local newspaper during the week, a well known pharmacy on Saturday’s and my local pub at nights, which was my rude awakening into the real world. It was during this year that I really started to focus on what I really wanted to do and how I was going to achieve it. I should have probably done this sooner and not followed the crowd to college but hindsight is a wonderful thing isn’t it.
Something that never ceases to make me smile is when I worked at my local newspaper for a year, I sold advertising space and I hated it because I was rubbish at it and I never made any money so when I left that role I vehemently expressed that I would NEVER work in advertising so it was not an avenue I was actively exploring but it appears the Universe had other plans for me which taught me to keep an open mind and ‘never say never’.
If you weren’t in your current industry, what would you be doing?
I love the ocean and animals so working on some kind of stray dog or cat beach sounds heavenly but I often think about what it would be like to be a florist. To be honest I haven’t ruled these ideas out just yet.
What’s your one big dream for the future of the industry?
That it is fully inclusive and diverse across the board. From the top down, to the external partners we work with. I have been in the industry for 16 years and up until a couple of years ago, this was always a relatively unspoken topic and I was not equipped to understand what I now know and am championing. We’re making progress but have a way to go.
What is your one piece of advice to aspiring creative professionals?
Don’t assume there is only one route or approach to getting you to where you want to be. By all means study if you wish but to get your foot in, you want to set yourself apart and by this I mean finding ways to make you shine. This could be a part time job or scheme or various volunteering projects. Or perhaps you could set something up for you and others to enjoy that doesn’t exist. It doesn’t have to relate to the industry necessarily but showing your personality and interests outside of the curricular world is a way to stand out.
And embrace the differences in yourself. It’s what makes you interesting.
Do you have any websites, books or resources you would recommend?
It depends what makes you tick but if you have a love of film and commercials then watching Editor reels is a great way to learn who’s out there doing what and it ultimately sends you down a rabbit hole - for hours! My top 5 Editor houses to keep an eye on are Whitehouse Post, Exile, WORK Editorial, Final Cut, and Rock, Paper, Scissors (RPS).