When I first stepped foot into Alison Palmer’s class in London, it wasn’t your typical classroom. In fact, it wasn’t a classroom. We first met on the steps of Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea to view a selfie exhibition. I knew then that she wasn’t completely conventional, and as I learned more from and about her, I admired her bold nature, adventurousness, and intensity. While Alison’s expertise is apparent in her job title alone - senior vice president of strategic planning and strategic client relationships international for AMEA, APAC, LATAM at WE Communications - her charisma and confidence are radiating.
On her suggestion, we met at the quaint Narrow Boat Pub, overlooking a canal in her Angel neighborhood, where she spoke candidly about her voyage from America to London, from politics to comms, and all of the learning and wisdom that followed.
You hold kind of a unique position in the women I’ve talked to and have reached out to in the process of this project, because you’re not native to the UK - you moved here. How did you find your way to London?
So, I’ve been slowly moving east. As you know, I went to school in Boston, and that actually played a big role because I did the BU summer abroad program and got introduced to London and fell in love with it. After graduation, I really wanted to work in politics and so I graduated early to go and work on the Clinton campaign where I was given a pretty prime role. And after she lost, I went into political consulting and crisis strategy and comms. Which, then, as part of that agency, they offered me the opportunity to move over to Europe and grow their European presence, which is basically, come over here, do really big shit for clients, and win a lot of pitches. They moved me. And it was supposed to be a year stint, and I fell in love with it.
Why communication? You said you wanted to start in politics.
Yeah, well, I believe in it – which is such a hokey term in today’s age – but I believe that if companies actually talk about what they do, what they stand for, who they are, consumers are going to be smarter, have more options, and be able to live better lives. And that started in politics because I believe in the need for the state to serve the people, and the only way for that to happen is for them to have an education on what to vote for and campaigns are meant to do that. Now, have I lived and breathed on the dark side of comms? Absolutely. I’ve done crisis, I’ve done other things, but all in all, I believe in it. I was a philosophy major. It comes from there.
You said, there’s a dark side and you’ve witnessed it. How do you stay true to who you are when it’s easy to follow a vein that’s inconsistent with what you believe is right?
I think I’ve been really lucky in how I was brought up. I always tell this because I think it helps people understand who I am. I come from a family of lawyers. So, public speaking, making an argument, deep thought, were not things that were taught to me but were just very natural to how my family functions. I never once had a problem speaking up. Now, I think what I’ve learned the hard way sometimes, but I also was taught from a very young age, is you’re part of a team, you need to do your role, and sometimes your role is to shut up. Because it’s not about being argumentative or being right, it’s about saying, “have we thought of it this way?” If I’m being really honest, if I’m really against something, I’ll work until I find a way that I like better. So there’s been times that I’ve sat and said, “I don’t think that’s right, I don’t think that’s right, I don’t think that’s right,” and so I’ll go and I’ll do the analysis to come up with the next idea and say, could we do this? But yeah, there’s been times that I’ve seen things happen and I go, “I don’t think we should do that.”
Do you think there are elements in communication that would or could change if people were willing to do that extra analysis, dig a little deeper, or take that extra step?
Yeah, but it’s about you having access to the right people to make those decisions, because if you’re sidelined and you’re just trying to put smoke in mirrors that gets found out. So I think I’ve always felt that if companies were smarter about comms they would be smarter in the long run. There’s a lot of push right now to programmatic marketing and “how do we show sales?” and “how do we show every marketing dollar spent equals this?” I’m terrified of that, because I think the relationships and the role the brand plays and the role comms plays is valuable perhaps not in numeric dollars, and if we just get so focused on that we are all going to get transactional, and that’s when bad shit happens. When you’re working just for the vote, I mean, I always go back to my political start, and when you’re working for the vote rather than working for the people, you get led astray. When you’re working for the sell rather than for the long term relationship and what that can mean, you’re going to start to do stuff that really erodes the trust and erodes the right decision-making.
So, staying in this vein, what do you think, right now, is the most important quality or qualities for communicators to possess?
Creative thinking, guts, and care. So, creative thinking – I don’t just mean that in the “oooo big C creative.” I mean that in terms of how do I need to think about this? What angle to I need to come from? What don’t I know? Who should I talk to? Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. It’s always been in the comms world to come up with the next BIG idea – which I’m on a personal vendetta against – because it means shit, that’s transactional, it’s a stunt. So I think you need to be creative in terms of how you come up with a solution which could be as simple as a phone call or could be as big as a massive stunt. I think care because of the diligence that’s necessary and also you should care about what you do. And then guts to take this industry to a new place, because there’s a lot of it going into digital and a lot of it going into other agencies and I think that’ll be a shame because that means that we start putting channels at the center of what we do rather than the audience at the center of what we do.
Well that brings me to the question I’ve been dying to ask you. What do you think – and I know this is the term you hate – but what do you think the “next big thing” is in comms? Where do you think we are going?
I’m actually pretty afraid that the relationship between the consumer and the product is going to get further away. Like VR, you know, that’s really cool, but like, when I tried VR it was a floor of a house, and they told me, “This could be selling real estate!” And I’m like, yeah, but what about walking down the street to feel how quaint it is? Or going to visit the local pub? Or life, you know? So it’s not just how everybody talks about, “Oh, social, we’re losing our human connection.” I’m like, there needs to be a connection between what people buy as well or it’s going to become so transactional, and suddenly you lose all of the power that this mass choice has given people. The second, and what I think is coming next, is that with this whole rise in digital is that people become so obsessed with it, that again, they use it as the focus and the function rather than as the tool.
We’ve talked a bit about what scares you. Now, what inspires and motivates you and how do you sustain that motivation in spite of all of those scarier, more negative factors at play?
I love, love solving problems. I love it. I get such a high off of it. And that’s basically what I do for a living. Whether it’s building an agency – so, how am I going to get more money? How am I going to make the board structure? Da,da,da,da,da. There’s a client, what should be your platform? What’s wrong? How do I have to do that? Or, you know, talking to clients. How do I get you to like me? I like that. I am a shiny object person, right? I’m like, “ooo, the glitter.” I love the Tate Modern for that reason, because I walk in and I just feel cooler and I’m like, “what could we do with that?” So, my basic answer to that is I like it, I believe in it, I like solving problems, and I like solving problems in a way that at least gets whatever tiny bit of creativity I have out into the world. And I didn’t want to be a lawyer.
How do you sustain that inspiration and motivation?
Well you’ll get a company that you think is so boring. And, it’s true – I’ll give you an example that’s just happened over the last few weeks. There’s plenty of people going out there and doing really bad things with water, and with oil, and all those kind of things, and we just did a massive pitch for a company that basically runs all of the machinery for major water plants – desalination, de-watering – stuff that I don’t know shit about. It seems so cut-and-dry and boring. But then you take a step back, and you figure out my problem was: how do I make this jump? How do I make this something I’d wanna work on and exciting and all that kind of stuff? And we were in the final pitch against one of the biggest agencies there is out there, and we should not have been in that room, and we started with a video that had Bruce Lee in it. How do we connect those things? That’s where it gets cool and fun.
I hear your passion for your career, but what are some of your greatest influences on how you’ve decided to shape and mold your path? Has it just been the “universe” or are there particular moments, influences, or mentors that have helped you decide, “This is where I want to go next”?
I’ll start at the beginning. I think I’m equal parts my parents, which is really interesting if you meet my parents. One is a 5’3” blonde pixie who has more energy. When they pick me up from the airport after flying 12 hours, she’s not allowed to come near me for a minute because that’s too much energy. And then my father is 6’3” um, stoic cool guy. He was a surfer, I hear stories about him going down to Mexico every once in awhile, but he’s like this very golfing-playing-lawyer now. Both of them instilled in me, like, you’re not going for a job you’re going for a career, and in that, you need to get ready to do the work. It’s actually one of the reasons I got my first job, because I said it in my final interview and they’re like “Well, what about long hours?” and I was like, “Well, I’m looking for a career not a job so it’s not a problem.”
I think I’ve always been very lucky that people have taken the time to speak with me and mentor me and give me the opportunity, and I hope that at every juncture I’ve risen to it. I think I’ve just learned a lot also from listening and hearing people. I did a lot of work with Richard Edelman and, you know, when I turned down Richard Edelman’s offer to be his chief of staff he looked at me and he said, “I understand why, but I want you to know and what I want you to remember when it gets hard is that I think you’re amazing, and never forget that I think you’re amazing.” And that means a lot.
Wow, definitely. You’ve said - and I see it in this conversation – that everything you do has a story to it. I think right now, considering everything we’ve talked about and everything going on in the world, storytelling is increasingly important and unimportant to different people. In your opinion, what is the significance of storytelling?
There’s two answers to that. The first is the hero’s journey. The hero’s journey has everything, you know? And, it’s true and we all want a hero, no matter how big or how small, we all want to be one. And you don’t get it every time. You gotta put out a product story, I get it. But that’s the power of storytelling – to grip you, to teach you a lesson, to give you joy, to make you think, and so yeah, that’s why I think it’s important.
The second element to that is much more in my day-to-day job. An analog world is straight. It’s literally a single plane that’s literally what analog is and what it means. In a digital world, digital at its very core is essentially slices – lots and lots and lots of little slices, okay? You have one IP address that’s right next door to next door to next door until finally, you’re on the other side of the world. We live in a world of slices now. That’s not a bad thing or a good thing, it’s just what it is. But to take people from one slice to the next slice to the fourth slice, to the eighth slice, to the hundredth slice with you, that doesn’t – you cannot possibly give them a deal at every slice. You have to create a journey for them. You have to get them to say “You screwed up today, but I’m willing to listen to the next chapter.” So I think in a digital world, coming up with creative storytelling that people can get bite-size is huge, because it’s the only way you’re going to get them to listen to the next chapter. Otherwise, they’ll leave you. Our attention spans are too short.
This project is another effort in storytelling. I’m talking to three – hopefully four – women in London as part of an applied blog series about work, success, failure, power and risk. Anything else you’d like to add?
I guess what I would add to that as a female – and it’s something that I deal with a lot – I cry when I’m frustrated. And everybody tells you not to cry at work – and don’t – try your best not to cry at work. But if you think that crying at work is the worst thing you can do, God, you’re going to have a long career. There’s, I mean, we’re more biologically prone to cry, the way that we process information is different, our triggers are different – so by no means am I saying sit at your desk and cry, but there will come a point in time where you need to go, “I just have to go to the bathroom right now.” And I believe in letting it out.
Alison, thank you so much.