Rebels, misfits and innovators: 50over50 – Clare O’Brien

We think it’s time to recognise and celebrate the true talent in our industry, the creatives, technologists, founders and leaders that are really driving our industry and shaping society, who just happen to be over 50.

50over50 is a series of interviews with our most influential and inspiring industry leaders aged 50 and over. 

Clare O’Brien is Head of Media Effectiveness and Performance at ISBA. She has long played an important role in helping steer the digital industry to do better. After a long stint at the IAB, behind innumerable important industry initiatives, she is now playing an equally important role at the advertisers’ trade association ISBA.       

 What is the biggest mistake companies – brands or the industry – are making in their attitude to age today?

Not recognising the corporate value of wisdom and experience and too often going for ‘cheap’ and unworldly – especially in the digital media field.

Apart from the inevitable gender bias and outright prejudice, as a woman who started out in media in the 70s, my time in digital is the only other period I have ever experienced the feeling of a gratuitous ‘ism’ in the company of narrow-focused people who honestly believed that something as radical and disruptive as digital media couldn’t possibly be understood by a grey-hair.

What one thing are you proudest of in your career?

Being there in some kind of Gumpian fashion at the front of so many waves of change in the media industry: from the earliest commercial radio in the UK (Piccadilly), free newspapers (Eddie Shah’s Messenger Group), desktop publishing with Linotype, Adobe and Apple, to launching AOL in the UK two years ahead of Google’s invention.

Change has underpinned every single part of my career – working to understand what it means is fascinating and exciting and invaluable to my current media role for ISBA. 

What creative heights are you now capable of that you wouldn’t have been able to achieve at the early or mid-point of your career?

A wider, more open mind, team work, knowing so many accomplished people and being able to connect them and their ideas and bring them together in different ways to make something worthwhile or amazing happen.

Also the confidence to say no (or indeed, yes), being more relaxed and going with the flow (honestly, I know there will be those out there unconvinced, but it is so true).

What gives you the most satisfaction in your role today?

Working for advertisers, the budget holder, lets me think about media and tech in a completely different way and refocus on audience as the most important and stable part of the whole model.

Let’s keep it human! At this end of my career, what’s important is just focusing on the work and not the politics of ambition.

What is the biggest lesson you have learned in your career?

To look three times at any opportunity that comes your way. This is what comes with a broader mind.

That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of 21 year olds out there who were just born wise, it’s just that in my case, I wasn’t as wise as might have been more profitable to my career.

What advice would you give your 25-year old self?

Listen – with eyes engaged.

What are you most excited about in your industry over the next 10 years?

The unknown.

 What is your biggest regret about the industry today?

That we seem somehow to be in a place where the very principles of how advertising works have been forgotten in the pure pursuit of numbers – audience reach on the one hand (more than ever the media and the message are inextricably connected); unsustainable tech giant revenues on the other.

Everything else in between is having the life squeezed out of it and we will be a poorer society and democracy unless sense prevails and somehow we realise that a world without decent, accountable, quality content, provides a very poor environment for consumer trust and brand safety.

I find it hard to believe that it can happen – but when so much capital and power is centred in the hands of unregulated business, all kinds of unthinkable become possible. 

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