'Business has got an image problem': Meet the Advertising guru who told Sorrell his £70m pay deal was too much

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Rita Clifton, at 58, has a slender figure many women 30 years her junior would envy. She also has a weight loss tip: become a chief executive.

‘I call it the CEO diet,’ she says, tongue-in-cheek. ‘I lost half a stone in two months when I became a chief executive. It was just the sheer adrenaline.’

If there really were such a thing as ‘The CEO Diet’, Clifton could sell it.

One of the most prominent women in Britain’s advertising and branding industry, she cut her teeth in the macho era of the 1980s.

The ad world in London back then may not quite have been the chauvinistic culture of three martini lunches of 1960s Madison Avenue portrayed in the TV series Mad Men. 

But it was bold, brash and male-dominated: the ad man in his silver Porsche was as much a cliché of the times as a Sloane Ranger or a striking miner.

‘It was such a different time back then,’ says Clifton, who had her first daughter, Alexandra, 28, in 1987 followed by Elizabeth, 23, five years later.

‘Only a couple of senior women in the industry had children. I was one of the first to come back to work full time. I felt I had to pretend, “Oh, yeah, I had a baby two weeks ago, so what?’”

Clifton rose through the ranks of Saatchi & Saatchi to become vice chairman and strategy director when it was probably the most famous ad agency in the world.

She worked on plum accounts including British Airways, BT and Procter & Gamble, before moving in 1997, aged just 39, to become chief executive of brand consultancy Interbrand. She stepped up to be chairman in 2002.

Dressed in a black sleeveless skater-style dress, black opaque tights and black suede boots, Clifton does not look like a typical executive – and she would take that as a compliment.

She believes the behaviour of businessmen and women has led to them being viewed with suspicion and distaste by ordinary people.

‘We, as business people, are part of an alien nation – what we wear, the way we speak, the jargon, our obsession with profit.’

‘The pantomime-style business programmes don’t help. They give the impression you need to be an ****hole to succeed.’

Outsized pay packets, she says, only add to the poor image.

W hen I first met Clifton, it was at a dinner when she publicly tackled WPP chief executive Sir Martin Sorrell, who was the speaker, about his rewards. Why did she feel the need to do that?

She explains: ‘Ah yes. I genuinely feel it is important for people to be able to justify what it is they are earning, because business has got an image problem at the moment.

‘There are a number of things that are alienating people about business and pay is one element.

‘People need to have a normal human understanding about why the general public might think their pay is inappropriate or undeserved,’ she says.

‘Martin has been one of our truly great chief executives, he has built that business from just about nothing. He is awesome. The only question mark is whether that awesomeness is worth £70million.’

Three years ago Clifton co-founded her own consultancy business, BrandCap, with some former colleagues, and also fills a handful of non-executive director roles. 

Why, though, if she believes it is easier for women to get to the top now, are there still so few female chief executives of FTSE 100 companies?

Opening the doors for older women to return to the fray after their children have left home is part of the answer, she says.

‘We need to get used to seeing women as chief executives at 60 and beyond.

‘After all, we are living longer lives, why cram careers into such a short span of time?’

One secret of success, she advises, is a good partner.

She credits her husband Brian, whom she met when they were both working at Saatchi & Saatchi, for being hugely supportive of her career ambitions.

‘When I give talks to young women, I tell them they must only have a relationship with someone who makes them feel good about themselves. It’s so important.’ Men, she says, are also starting to realise the benefits of having a successful spouse.

She is in favour of the UK remaining in the European Union, but feels that the EU needs reform.

She declares: ‘What a rubbish job the leaders have done on “Brand Europe.”’

Britain, she reckons, has some great brands, but has been too ready to sell them.

‘A lot of brands people think are British are actually not any more,’ she says, citing the example of German-owned Mini and Land Rover, owned by Indian conglomerate Tata.

‘Look at Cadbury. There are just too many great British brands that we haven’t been able to make work from an economic point of view.

‘Dyson is obviously very successful, but where is the British Apple?’ A very good question – and one to which there is no obvious answer.

OUTSPOKEN ADVERTS GURU

Name: Rita Clifton, 58

Family: Husband Brian and two grown-up daughters

Career: After reading Classics at Newnham College Cambridge, Rita rose through Saatchi & Saatchi, and was London chief executive and then chairman at consultancy Interbrand. Rita now has a portfolio of jobs including chairmanship of BrandCap. Also works pro-bono for Conservation Volunteers.

Working day: Rita wakes at 6am to write, read and deal with emails, drinking copious cups of green tea. ‘I get up early because there are so many things I want to do.’ Rita normally has at least one board meeting each week. In her spare time Rita reads, walks, and spends time with her daughters.

Best advice ever received: ‘Be yourself – you will never be as good if you are trying to be someone else. 

But I would modify that, and say try to be your best self. There are sides of us all you don’t want to bring to work!’

Unlikely crush: David Attenborough. Credits him for inspiring a lifelong interest in wildlife and conservation.