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Julia Arenson is Head of Creative Operations at Specsavers’ in-house agency. We had the pleasure of chatting with her about her early agency career, the alchemy behind in-house success, and the rewards of being a mentor.

You’re a Campaign 40 Over 40, and you’re Head of Creative Operations at Specsavers’ in-house agency. Will you share a bit about your background?

My family came to Canada as refugees from Russia. My mom was a teacher, my dad was an engineer, but their qualifications weren’t recognized in Canada. My uncle was in the diamond industry and convinced my parents to retrain as jewellers. So, in their 30s, with three little kids in tow, they started a whole new career. They eventually saved enough to open a little pawn shop where I helped them out on the weekends from the age of 7.  It gave me an early introduction to what it was like to work and an eye into how that’s mixed with creativity and making.

As a teenager I wanted to get straight into work. I didn’t believe that I needed school to succeed, so I dropped out of high school and went to work. I earned great money for a 16/17 year old, but quickly realised that I was wrong about school and went back – in the same year as my younger brother, which was awful! I then stepped back into the world of work, this time as a legal assistant. It wasn’t something I was passionate about. It was around that time that I started to fall in love with the idea of adland and soon after went to Ad School. Ad School gave me a great intro to that world, but I was still hungry to learn more. 

"I met my British husband on the internet - I feel like I was an internet pioneer!"

At university I studied creative writing, narrative non-fiction & philosophy. I loved it. I met my British husband on the internet while I was there. I feel like I was an internet pioneer in that sense, because nobody was really meeting people online back then! Internet dating maybe wasn’t the coolest thing, but we found each other.

While studying writing, I found that I really loved narrative non-fiction and telling someone else’s story. I think that’s how I ended up going into project management and creative operations; it’s a way to be part of telling & enhancing someone else’s story. That’s what I love, helping somebody’s idea come to life.

So you found your passion! Where did you cut your teeth in the creative industry?

I finished school and moved to the UK, returning to my love of advertising. I loved being around creative people and being part of the creative process, and I started working at a little design agency called 400 Communications. Then I got my lucky break at a big global agency and moved to JWT

At the time, traffic and production was quite separate at the agency. Every department worked in silos. They wanted to merge everything into project management, which felt like a great opportunity for me. It was uncomfortably quiet for the first three months. Then, in quite a dramatic shift, a lot of people in the project management traffic department left, which really threw me in at the deep end. I was finally doing my dream job at a time of huge transformation at JWT. It was sink or swim. Most people who knew the ropes were gone, so I had to figure it out. Luckily, some brilliant people there really helped me along the way. I cut my teeth at JWT and I learnt a lot there, building amazing relationships with people, pulling together and working things out while making some fantastic work.

It’s like the strong bonds built in trench warfare, right?

Totally. I’m still in touch with those people today. It’s really interesting, if you look at the people that came out of that environment, a lot of them are leaders in various agencies. They’re doing amazing work and they’re just the loveliest people and my god can they get things done.

After having my first child, I was approached about a role at VCCP Blue, a small sub-agency within an agency. I’d never heard of them, but they were offering me a head of department position. I was barely a mid-weight. Having watched The Apprentice with Alan Sugar, I said to myself, “Just say yes to everything.” So I went into the interview and said I could do it all. Of course, I couldn’t do it all, but they gave me the job! I was asked to resource the entire creative department, and run all the work through the agency. My sink-or-swim experience at JWT set me up really well and meant I was able to rise to the occasion.

Having watched The Apprentice with Alan Sugar, I said to myself,
“Just say yes to everything.”

I was at VCCP for nine years. We grew from an agency of 25 people when I joined, to 100 people when I left. We’d won Molson Coors, we’d won ASDA. Our billings, as a small 100 person agency, were bigger than Saatchi & Saatchi. We were agile, we did great work. We did Compare the Market, which at the time was a jewel in the crown for VCCP. We made lots of fantastic campaigns that our peers and the public loved in equal measure. It was a really exciting time.

About six or seven years in, I started to think about growth opportunities to broaden my skill set. One day, a friend of mine was asked to judge on an awards panel but couldn’t make it, so I stepped in. This gave me something to talk about on LinkedIn and was the beginning of building my personal brand. I then got other judging requests, and I also started mentoring for Who’s Your Momma?, which gave me the opportunity to meet new people. I loved that. It helped me build a profile outside of VCCP so that people could see me.

Your bio on X says, “Must make things happen.” Is this your driving force?

I think it’s just my job. That’s my team’s job. We just make shit happen. If you’re not making stuff happen then what are you doing? What drives me is that without production and operations, without people making ideas come to life, they’re just squiggles on a piece of paper. They’re never going to be given life if you haven’t got the people around them to make them happen. It has always been in me to champion great creative ideas and help them come to life. My passions now have grown into people management, operations, and structure. When building teams, I look for people who have passion for the work, and are just nice to work with – I saw a meme on Linkedin the other day that said ‘Never underestimate the power of being easy to work with’. It’s about passion and people, then giving them an environment to do what they love to do. Don’t stand in their way.

The Specsavers brand has a down-to-earth, comforting vibe that invites everyone to the party. The “I don’t go to Specsavers” ad for its in-home service is super fun, but also very homely and welcoming. Tell us a bit more about the thinking behind this successful campaign.

The “I don’t go to Specsavers” campaign is one I’m really proud of. When I joined Specsavers we were figuring out how we should talk about the domiciliary part of the business, where we go to people’s homes to support them because they can’t come to a shop. As you can imagine, that message can be presented in many different ways. The classic approach is to focus on how vulnerable these people might be; that’s one way you could expect it to go. What was amazing about that ad is that we were very keen to hero our customers, to empower them. We didn’t want to show them as vulnerable, because they’re not. They’re just regular people who can’t get to Specsavers. We really wanted to communicate that, but also make sure that people are aware of the service.

Every time it airs, our engagement levels go through the roof and we get lots of people calling us. So it’s not just a great ad, it’s really working and helping more people get access to our care, which is amazing.

"Thinking about the people that you work with not as clients, but as colleagues, changes the dynamic"

After four years of operations at the SpecSavers in-house agency, you’ve learned what works and what doesn’t work in an in-house environment. What are the core principles that help an in-house agency generate great creative output?

The number one thing is it’s all about the people. Those people don’t necessarily all fit into the same boxes that they would’ve fit into in a traditional, external agency. Purely from an operations point of view, I thought VCCP was a really well run agency, and I brought a lot of that thinking with me. But the reality is that an in-house agency works differently. People’s roles and responsibilities are different.

There are things that people will be doing in an in-house agency that they’ve never done before. For me that was part of the appeal. Thinking about the people that you work with not as clients, but as colleagues, changes the dynamic. It changes how you think about partnering with different areas of the business, and how you set yourselves up to create great work. We don’t have retainers. We’re constantly looking at our resources and juggling lots of priorities. We need to have different types of conversations about how we do things, and why.

As an in-house agency we’re involved much more upstream. We’ve got skin in the game. Our objective is not to make more money for our agency, our objective is to create an environment where we can get better sight and hearing out to everybody. So we’re all focused on that cause. As an in-house agency we’re committed to creating a great place to work, and making great work.

You mentioned that building an in-house agency is about the people. How would you describe the Specsavers team?

At Specsavers we’ve got a real mix of people. All have a deep knowledge of the brand, some have decades of understanding of who we are, and others have more outside experience. That alchemy creates something really interesting; different to what you’d get from anywhere else.

"We're based in Guernsey, which is a little island in the English Channel. Maybe that's why the tone of voice is so down to earth."

We’re also based in Guernsey, which is a little island in the English Channel. So, we’ve also got that dynamic of being quite isolated from everything else. Some of us commute, but I would say 70% of the agency is on the island. That’s got to seep into the work somehow. Maybe that’s why the tone of voice is so down to earth.

A lot of people ask me, “why did you go in-house?”. I really believe that the stigma of in-house is a thing of the past. I feel really lucky to be at Specsavers, where we lead the brand strategy. We’re very much set up to fulfil the needs of our business, and our business needs us to be creative and strategic, which is great. We’re at the table and we’re driving those conversations.

Tell us more about your volunteer work for Who’s Your Momma?

I mentor with Who’s Your Momma? And I also mentor with Lollipop and Migrant Leaders. Who’s Your Mama? is a women’s mentoring network to help build the careers of women in marketing and advertising. It’s been really great. It gives people a sounding board, a network, an ability to work out how they want to develop their careers, where they want to go, and ask any kind of question. It’s really valuable for them.

It’s also valuable for me. I’m building my network of women who are hungry and keen. Anybody who has put themselves out there to be a mentee is ambitious in developing their careers. These are really good people to know, who are invested and driven. 

Lollipop started out as supporting Black women in career development.  I’ve been a mentor for them for a few years. It’s for all different kinds of skill sets. It’s not just marketing and advertising. They’ve branched out to helping anybody from a diverse background. For me it’s about tapping into those people. I don’t see those people every single day. You can’t just rely on recruiters to give you a diverse talent pool. I’ve got to make sure I’m taking it upon myself to build my network and connect with people who are diverse and have a different lived experience to me. If I can help anybody along their journey, put them in contact with somebody or develop them in some way, then I think that’s a really good use of my time.

Do you have any thoughts on the importance of diversity in teams to render great creative outcomes?

I think you need every kind of diversity in a team; gender and sexual orientation, race and mobility. I really believe that if you haven’t got people up at that strategic end who are diverse and are coming from a different place, you’re just going to keep getting the same outcomes.

I think diversity of thought is imperative to create great work. I think it’s one of the most important things. We try very hard to make sure that we are speaking to people in a diverse way. We have a lot of conversations. At the end of the day, Specsavers speaks to everybody, and we want everybody to feel like we’re speaking to them.