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Frances Dickens left school at 16 with few formal qualifications. She is now CEO of the UK’s largest media barter specialist, Astus Group, and was a finalist in the recent NatWest everywoman awards. She says her career progression is not so much due to forward planning, but more down to hard graft and seizing opportunities that have come her way.
Frances’ first job on leaving school was at an insurance firm and when the firm relocated she got a job selling insurance. From there a recruitment firm suggested she move into billboard advertising. More O’Ferrall, the firm she ended up working for, advertised at airports and she went to Gatwick to prepare for the interview. She became very excited about the prospect of moving into billboard advertising, but on the day of the interview the recruitment company she had signed up with rang to say the firm didn’t want a woman. Frances told them to say they couldn’t get hold of her and turned up to the interview anyway. “I was in a feisty mood,” she said. It clearly helped. She got the job and stayed for several years and says being a woman was never an issue after that. She loved the job and travelled a lot.
She was then headhunted for a job at out-of-home communications agency Posterscope. She later joined Meridian Outdoor, a joint venture between Posterscope and media agency ZenithOptimedia. She is credited with leading Meridian Outdoor from a struggling start-up to a thriving multi-million pound global outfit and admits the job was quite challenging. “It was a partnership between the number one and number two media groups in the country who were at loggerheads most of the time. I sat in the middle of representatives from each group. Both CEOs were women who were very tough but fair. I learnt a huge amount from them,” she says.
While she was there she had her son. She only took six weeks’ maternity leave as a key member of her small team resigned the week she went on maternity leave. “I had no choice but to go back because I didn’t want to let the team down,” she says. She returned two days a week for the first few months and her parents looked after her son. Then he went to a nursery, but she cried every day when she left him, although he settled well. Her husband had just left the military and was trying to carve out a career for himself so most of the childcare responsibility fell on her. “There was a lot of negative stuff in the press about working mums at the time, but my son has done fine. I would tell any woman to ignore all the negative things they read about working mums,” she says.
In 1999, three years after her son was born, Frances decided to branch off into the media barter sector, a niche business practice within the media industry which involves advertisers and media owners trading without having to pay 100% in cash for what they want. She joined a US-owned media barter company and it was there that she met her current business partner Paul Jackson. “We worked out quickly that they had a really clever model and if they tweaked it a bit for the British market it could deliver,” she says. At the time media barter had a poor reputation as it relied on a system of trade credits which all too often left advertisers out of pocket.
Frances presented her views on how the business could be improved at a seven-hour meeting, but felt the company wasn’t listening. She and Paul decided they could do better on their own. It took a couple of years to find funding and in 2003 the Astus Group was launched.
The model they used was anti-sales. “We shot the salesperson. Barter media was so badly sold, by a team who did not know how to deliver deals. They were not accountable so we went with a delivery first model which meant advertisers got the media they required before being asked to part pay for it. We must have been insane, but I’m so glad we were because it has worked. Our company is twice the size of the company we left,” says Frances.
The new ethical model of media barter was adopted by other barter companies and the reputation of media barter in the UK improved. These days the UK media barter market is worth around £350m and Astus is the UK’s biggest media barter company with clients including Jaguar, Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group and StudioCanal.
When the company started it began with a team of six men. Now it has a 50% female staff, with higher numbers among the younger staff. Several have children and the company offers tailored flexible working arrangements for staff, including men. “For every working woman there is a partner who we think should do their bit as well,” says Frances. She is keen to build a female pipeline to senior jobs and says one of the best ways is to make it easier for women to return to work after having children. When she started the business her son was seven and had the same nanny – who had worked at the nursery – until he was 15. “I was really lucky, but I also treated her properly. She was an important professional to me,” says Frances. For a year Frances had to be based in Australia and her son remained with his father.
She says the business’ success is in large part due to investing in people who share the same vision. “It’s more about the vision than the skills they have as these can be taught,” she says. “We have a mantra of integrity, transparency and accountability.” Frances’ plans for the future are to deliver great customer service to existing clients. “It’s not about growth so much as about ensuring we look after every client to the very best of our ability,” she says.
In addition to her business work, Frances is also a dedicated rugby fan and has become heavily involved in charity work, particularly for the Matt Hampson Foundation which was set up after the rugby player – who she had known for several years – broke his neck. She was asked to help out with a fundraising dinner at the last minute and had just 10 weeks to set the whole thing up. She managed to get the entire England team to the dinner, sold 900 tickets and raised a quarter of a million pounds. The event is now annual and she continues to chair it and the charity has expanded to help other young people injured in sport.
In business, as outside it, she has seized opportunities that she feels passionately about. She says she doesn’t consider herself a particularly good salesperson as such, adding that Dragon James Caan once said he would not hire her, but she is good at promoting something she really believes in. When the two are combined there appears to be no stopping her.