Melissa has been in the industry for over 25 years, starting at Grey London before joining Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy in its infancy, and later becoming Managing Director.
She was a co-founder of the creative agency, Now; was a Director of the women’s lifestyle platform, The Pool; and has been a vocal supporter of gender equality. She has worked across most sectors, helped launch brands and consulted on some of the UK’s biggest businesses.
She is now CEO of Dark Horses, a creative agency focused on sport, fitness and health. She has written extensively about how businesses need to more actively respond to the challenges of menopause and has created an open source Menopause Policy for any business to adapt and use as their own.
What big lessons have you learnt over your career so far?
1. Everyone in the room is shitting themselves.
The narrative around imposter syndrome might be controversial (as Viv Groskop succinctly said 'If 90% of people report they are suffering from a condition, then it's very likely to be the disease known as the human condition'), but the feelings are very real.
It's so easy to convince ourselves that we're making it up as we go along, and that everyone else understands/knows/gets it. But it's absolute bollocks. Instinct is underrated, and there are no right answers.
Don't let your reptilian brain win - you need to constantly remind yourself that you've got this. You've done it before, you've got good instincts, people trust you, it's ok to ask questions.
2. Honesty is always the best policy.
There's something of a myth in the industry that there are some truths that shouldn't be told. Yet the best relationships I've developed in my career are founded on transparency and candour.
Having difficult conversations doesn't require confrontation, in fact you're often confronting issues or potential challenges before they become formally confrontational. If you keep your feelings and opinions bottled up, they turn to resentment, frustration, and even fear. If clients know they can look in the whites of your eyes, and 100% trust you, you're far more likely to be a keeper.
Similarly when it comes to so-called taboos and stigmas. I was really struggling, and continue to do so, with challenging menopause symptoms (word holes, anxiety, numbness and achiness amongst a bunch of other stuff). If I hadn't come clean to my team at work about it, I'm not sure I would have coped. I would have been dealing with the issue, whilst keeping it buried, faking 'alrightness', whilst being torn up inside. Bringing it out into the open, and talking about it will always, always make things better.
3. You're great. Be up for learning, but don't change yourself.
It's too exhausting and debilitating to pretend to be anyone other than yourself. Margaret Thatcher took elocution lessons to deepen her voice to make it more 'commanding' and less 'shrill' (essentially to make her more appealing to men). But she often sounded robotic and patronising - or both.
Too many people have suffered burnout from the sheer effort of putting on a persona, or changing their natural tendencies. Obviously you can continuously learn and develop, but you'll always be at your best being you.
If you had to make a big change, what helped you through the process?
I did make a big change. I started an agency with some people I didn't really know that well. It worked well for eight years, but there was always an underlying tension/misalignment on where we took it and how we ran it. Ultimately I had to decide whether I could live with what felt like a compromise, or not. I couldn't.
The frustration and stress was taking its toll on my family and, whilst I had an important work family, the real one was my priority. I decided to leave, without a job to go to, because I wanted to take 6 months off without thinking about work. A proper sabbatical. It was like leaping off a cliff without the safety net being in place. But what an incredible six months I had.
I didn't go anywhere, but I ran, and played tennis, and had lunch with my husband and kids. I was very present for the family and I bloody loved it. It made me realise that I'm going to rock retirement. But back to the question of what helped me through.... it was my family, my friends, the support of colleagues. And the other thing that helped was relaxation, exercise, socialising, and not looking for a job whilst I had my time off.
What would you recommend to anyone feeling like they're in a similar boat?
You'll always regret the things you didn't do. If you're feeling miserable or lost, don't sit it out. Demand change, or get out. The deeper you get sucked into a situation you aren't happy in, the harder it is to get out. So be decisive, and be kind to yourself. You'll thank yourself later.