Bajan Brit who’s gone places . . .
Karen Blackett is no ordinary woman –– even if you’re beguiled by her warm, down-to-earth personality. She is powerful –– having broken glass ceilings in the advertising industry across Britain as the chief executive of MediaCom, one of the country’s largest media agencies.
The 43-year-old, whose parents are Barbadians, is the first businesswoman to top the Black Powerlist 2015, which celebrates the most influential people of African and African Caribbean heritage in Britain. It’s no small feat, considering that she is ahead of Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen, Google’s Adrian Joseph, British MPs Chuka Umunna and Helen Grant, and Mercedes’ Formula One racing driver Lewis Hamilton.
“I still find it difficult to come to terms with the powerlist, and where I am on that list, because the people on that list are people I respect and people that I admire. When I was growing up my dad was so focused on education and making sure that you are the best that you can be at whatever you were doing, that that has always been my ethos and philosophy.”
Blackett has been racking up accolades as she climbs the ladder of success. Back in June, she was awarded Order Of The British Empire (OBE) in the Queen’s Honours List for services to the industry. In addition, MediaCom beat out its competitors to be named Agency Of The Year.
She also sits on the board of Women In Advertising And Communications, London.
With a smile, Blackett says she’s humbled by the achievements, but her focus is already on the next chapter in her journey.
“Is there more I can do? Absolutely. Will I do it? Probably. What it looks like, I don’t know.”
It was simply by chance that Blackett developed a career in advertising.
“When I graduated from university, I applied for a job that I saw in the national newspaper in the UK, which was a media auditor; and, if I am truthful, I really didn’t know what a media auditor was.
“My sister had friends who worked in marketing; so they were able to help me. And when I went for my first interview, they decided that I would be better at the planning and advertising campaign rather than the auditing of it, and that was probably the wisest move that I made.”
But when she stepped out into the industry in 1993, she was startled to discover that they weren’t many people that looked like her.
“I thought it was ridiculous, because the UK has got a strong black population. There were a handful of the people that were black in the industry. So I knew that whatever position I was in, I wanted to influence and change things . . . . So when I became CEO of Mediacom, I asked myself what can I really do.”
She worked hard and success came. Still, she was quick to point that all the credit belonged to her hardworking parents who helped her developed a strong work ethic and a relentless drive to achieve.
“Coming over from Barbados to the UK, they experienced all sorts of racism in the 1960s. My dad is probably one of the brightest men I ever met. He came over to work as a bus conductor for a year in London; then he trained as an engineer and that took a lot of guts.
“My mum came over as a nurse from Barbados. Trained in the UK, she got a position at a major hospital but again . . . . She worked long and hard at nights and she brought up two girls.”
Blackett’s own journey to success has not been free of racism, which she says she has never experienced to her face but most certainly behind her back. Blackett recalls a painful incident after she failed to win a bid for business with a well known breakfast cereal company.
She found out from an industry colleague why MediaCom did not get the job, and it wasn’t flattering.
“The two male clients said MediaCom didn’t look bad but there was ‘no way we were having a female account director, let alone a black one’.
“That’s hurtful; that’s not about what I do; it’s not about work; it’s not about my ability. It’s personal; it’s about my gender and my skin colour –– neither of which I want to change.”
Though painful, it was not enough to sidetrack the tenacious executive who manages 1,000 workers, five offices across Britain and 200 clients, featuring impressive names like Coca-Cola, Audi, GSK, Lucozade, Proctor & Gamble and Volkswagen. She still considers herself fortunate to encounter more good than bad in the competitive industry where being a woman and being black appear to be disadvantages.
“The advertising industry tends to be fifty-fifty men and women, but when you look at very senior positions it is 26 per cent female at that CEO level. So I do think I have been genuinely fortunate to have bosses who looked at what I can do and not what I looked like and not what sex I am.”
Blackett is fully enjoying her view from the top, particularly since there are no typical days. Chuckling, she admits she has a short attention span and does not like routine.
“MediaCom is a wonderful agency. I feel blessed every day to work with some incredibly talented individuals. I learnt I can’t map out how my day going to be. I would say abut 60 to 70 per cent of time is with clients. On any given day I could be talking to Sky TV about programmes they are bringing, or I could be talking to Coca-Cola about their Christmas campaign.”
Blackett’s favourite achievement is the apprenticeship scheme she launched two years ago for 18- to 24-year-olds to encourage more business to recruit more apprentices.
But work is not her only love, and in fact takes second place to the apple of her eye –– her five-year-old son Isaac.
“All of Isaac’s schools activities and important dates are in the calendar and they are blocked and they are not movable. My employees know that; my clients know that,” says the single mother who leaves work at 6 p.m. most evenings to spend time with her son.
They are currently in Barbados for their first Christmas ever here and they are loving every moment with family and friends. Blackett, who travels here at least two to three times a year, says Barbados is home.
“I love the friendliness. I love the fact that I can go to the beach with Isaac and it is completely safe. I love the weather. I struggle to find somewhere as beautiful in terms of the beaches of Barbados.
“My grandad on my father’s side is still alive –– he’s 95; my aunts are here; so I love that sense of family that you get more of when you come back here.”
She will be spending Christmas Day with her godfather in St Philip, and she’s excited –– though Isaac is wondering whether Santa Claus will find his way to Barbados.