Valerie Ludlow: ‘I’ve reached my goal of getting to the top as I’d planned to, but I don’t think that I have peaked yet...’
The Big Interview: Valerie Ludlow
It’s portrayed as one of the most exciting industries in the world — and also the most glamorous. Now, Valerie Ludlow has stepped into the top job at ASG & Partners in east Belfast, one of the top advertising and marketing agencies in the province.
It means that Valerie (40) has fulfilled her ambition of becoming a chief executive right on schedule. “It’s proof that ambition and hard work dopay off,” Valerie says.
Ms Ludlow, who lives in Newtownards with her partner and their daughter Evie, has worked for the business for seven years, most recently as deputy chief executive.
She has 17 years of experience in the industry and started her career in London before returning to Northern Ireland.
Company co-founder Colin Anderson has stayed on as executive chairman and described Valerie as “the ideal person to take the company into the future”. It now employs 41 people and has a multi-million pound turnover.
From Bangor, Valerie went to school at Bloomfield Collegiate and studied politics at Queen’s University, graduating in 1996. She is one of three children. Her sister Gillian works in ASG as an account administrator — “hired by the previous chief executive”, she adds. Brother James is a joiner.
And she’s proud of reaching the top of the industry. “It is traditionally a very female industry but only until you get to a certain point and it’s only just beginning to change. It had still been fairly male until fairly recently.”
Achieving a work/life balance can be a challenge in the industry. “Working in an agency can be hugely demanding. We’re at the mercy of clients and their schedules and it can be very hard to juggle family life as well as taking on the level of work which is required,” says Valerie.
“But I have a very supportive set of parents who have been there to support me by doing pick-ups for my daughter.”
And her partner Gareth Hammond is creative production manager at rival agency Genesis. “Both being in the industry brings its own set of challenges. You can’t bring work into the home. We have to leave it at the door,” she says.
“You can’t talk about clients and you really have to switch off, which is probably a really good thing in this era of mobile phones and internet access.
“But he knows what advertising is like and the demands of the industry, and is supportive.”
The couple met while they were both at university, where Valerie was studying History, English and Politics. She’s modest when she sums up how she got to where she is today.
“To say that I planned to get to where I am now at that stage is generous.
“I studied a degree that I was very interested in and got a 2:2. And, at the end, I realised I’d had three years at university and had really loved it, yet I wasn’t really equipped for the working world.
“I decided I’d go to London and study a Masters in media and communications. I then started working in research for what is now Kantar.”
Her father Jim is retired while her mum Peggy works part-time — as well as indulging in her “main obsession” of golf. But there was no pressure from them as parents to achieve. “I have to say they were quite laid-back but they were supportive of our own drive,” says Valerie.
“Gillian and I were very academic in the routes we took, though after James did his GCSEs he decided that was him and he wasn’t going to university. They were supportive of that and they’ve continued to be.”
Her decision to leave for London was also supported by her parents. “I finished Queen’s and announced I was moving to London. My friend and I got on a flight and moved to London. I knew my parents thought it was madness but didn’t tell me. I just headed off with my backpack.”
She lived in the north- west of London to begin with. “They absolutely were professionally probably some of the hardest years. The pace and competitiveness was very, very intense.
“Those really were some of the most challenging times. I was one of the graduate intake and competition was cut-throat and you had to work just to keep your place on the scheme.
“I used to shake terribly when giving presentations but after a year of training there wasn’t a situation when I couldn’t present.”
Valerie then returned home and started work in internal communications for Virgin Media before joining Lyle-Bailie — the advertising firm best known for its hard-hitting, government-funded road safety advertisements, before it folded earlier this year. She worked with founders David Lyle and Julie Anne Bailie.
“They gave me my start into the agency world, and they were at the time a massive TV agency,” she says. “I had the luck to manage the road safety side and I remember standing up the Craigantlet Hills on a Bank Holiday Easter weekend for a drug-driving ad. That was a great learning experience and I got to do so much.
“David and Julie Anne were always very generous with their mentoring and Julie Anne understood the pressures of being a mother.”
Hearing in June this year that the firm had ceased trading was “a very sad moment”. “I had to have a private moment at that time. I had kept in touch because of involvement in the IPA (Institute of Practitioners in Advertising).
“Personally, I was very sad to see them go, but I think it was a warning to the industry that we have to continue to evolve.
“Their model was fabulous, but TV and government were the two sectors that have been very hard hit. We now have to be much more fitter and leaner.”
And adapting to digital has been the key part of becoming fitter. “It’s probably formed some of the most difficult decisions we’ve had to make about where we put our money and focus when it comes to solutions for our clients,” says Valerie.
“We represent such a diverse body of work and have design, PR, advertising and recruitment within our portfolio, and the requirements for each of those are all very different.”
Traditional skills have had to evolve, with TV production experience adapted into video and social media coverage, including filming events on mobiles.
They’re also developing infographics, videos and motion graphics for clients — and almost all have to be turned around quickly. She cites a Queen’s University Thanksgiving event, which was filmed that night — with the agency also taking over live-tweeting while it took place — with the video edited and ready for social media by 6am the next morning.
In addition to Queen’s, the firm also has major brands on its books such as Marks & Spencer, menswear fashion label Remus Uomo, and Forestside Shopping Centre in south Belfast.
A campaign for a new store opening by Remus Uomo, which is part of the Douglas Grahame family, had a major social media focus, including the use of Instagram.
Such campaigns have meant joining up with social media influencers — usually bloggers whose use of products in online videos can be a major seal of approval.
It’s also used social media and a Northern Ireland blogger in a campaign for Bloc Blinds, which recently opened a new studio on Belfast’s Lisburn Road.
And it teamed up with stylist and fashionista Sarah O’Neill for the creation of vlog content to promote Forestside Shopping Centre, with Sarah advising on the top 10 winter coats and how to wear red lipstick.
Valerie says she has always had an interest in social media and alternative means of reaching an audience. For one of the road safety campaigns with Lyle-Bailie, the company used guerilla-type advertising tactics to reach Xbox live gamers who are the typical male demographic which the adverts wanted to reach.
ASG also reached Google Partner status, which has helped staff get to grips with reaching audiences online.
But there is no room for complacency, Valerie says. “It’s harder and harder to keep up and there is so much going on. I got into digital marketing at a fairly early stage but I’m far from being a native.
“I constantly read, listen to podcasts and attend conferences and just continue to learn.
“I’m being taught by my nine-year-old. Her world is so different it amazes me how at the age of two she was looking at my laptop and trying to swipe it. In her world, everything has to be touchable and tactile.”
The firm has been on a major recruitment drive, with five people joining in recent months to service new contracts. It’s now discussing growth plans at board level and she believes it will be time to hire even more people.
“This is a very positive time. The last seven years have been difficult as we’ve had to revisit everything we do and how we think about it. But 2017 has been a very positive year and we’ve had a number of business wins throughout the departments,” she says. In her free time, she’s “a bit of a stitcher” and an “obssessive collector of food and sewing magazines”.
“I’m constantly thinking up ideas and projects and I’m a constant scribbler and planner,” she adds.
“I’m also a heavy reader and if I get time I do like to lock myself away and read. But I’ve no ambition to write and I never push myself to do anything I wouldn’t be good at.”
And aware that she’s achieved her ambition on target, she says: “I had personally set my goal for trying to get here in my early 40s so now it’s just deciding what’s next and how I grow that.
“I don’t think I have peaked yet but I haven’t decided what my next plan is.”