Hive in the blood – an interview with Helen Balcombe

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Whether you’re a newbie to the agency world, or looking for the next great career opportunity, choosing where to hang your hat can be daunting – especially in the world of duplicate cookie-cutter agency manifestos. But what most people want to know when they join any company, is ‘am I joining a place that genuinely wants to invest in me?’

What better way to answer that question than to speak to Helen Balcombe, who progressed through the ranks at Hive from Account Manager in 2008 to Managing Director at the start of 2018.


Starting out


Hi Helen – tell us a little about yourself and what first brought you to Hive

HB: I studied science at uni, specialising in Pharmacology and Neuroscience, which I loved. But when uni finished I had no idea what to do. I didn’t want to go into a lab and I’m terrified of blood and needles so medicine was off the table. I was chatting to a friend of my brother’s in the pub and she mentioned ‘healthcare advertising’. I went and did some work experience at Paling Walters (now TBWA/World health London) and eventually took an Account Executive job there. Not long after, Hive’s founding directors Jas, Tim and Ian left the agency to set up Hive and I followed them about 8 months later, joining the 6 strong team as an account manager.


Does this tally in any way with what you envisaged for yourself growing up?

HB: When I was younger I wanted to be a marine biologist because I thought it meant travelling to exotic places and scuba diving. Failing that I thought I would be a travel rep or run a restaurant so no, not really! Joking aside, I always loved science, understanding behaviours, what makes people tick and the physiology of how everything works. So from that perspective I knew or hoped I would end up in something that meant I could be out-going but equally a bit of a science geek.


When did you decide you wanted to work in account management, and how did you set about pursuing this goal?

HB: It came organically. I had worked a bit in sales and a large amount in hospitality and loved the interaction with people, being at the coal-face and having to build strong relationships quickly. I also love a spreadsheet and a colour-coded list or two, so account handling seemed like the right balance for me.


Company values


What first convinced you to join the agency?

HB: I had worked with the founding members before, and knew that when they said their ethos was about putting people first, it wasn’t just rhetoric. It was a deep-seated belief. I also knew that the team they had started to build around them were as passionate and amazing at their jobs as they were. On top of that, the prospect of being part of a company in its infancy and having the chance at helping to shape and grow it was super exciting as a 24 year old!


What was your first impression of the place and the people?

HB: When I started we were 6 people in a tiny office on Regent Street. All of us were just a little weird which helped I think, but it was a buzzing, challenging and exciting environment. Everyone was keen to do great stuff, not afraid to do things we had never done and we were slightly making it up as we went along. But from the word go, the people and culture was all about having fun, challenging one another (and our clients), a showing a bit of tenacity and a lot of entrepreneurial spirit. I loved it!


How has the company changed over the last 10 years?

HB: It has changed massively and not at all, which is pretty perfect. We have obviously grown both in size and expertise and with that have evolved the type of work we produce, the platforms and channels we operate in, the amazing talent that I’ve been privileged to work with and obviously the office space. We have more rigour in the way we do things – I’m no longer trusted with fixing the photocopier or running social events! – and we actually have some processes to guide us, which is essential. But at our core, nothing has changed. We still have a group of, tenacious and self-starting individuals, a culture that is all about our talented people – helping them thrive and develop, and one that recognises that everyone’s voice and point of view helps us do great work and solve problems differently.


The typical UK employee entering the workforce today can expect to have nine jobs and one complete career change over 50 years of working*. What are your thoughts on this, and how have you managed to buck the trend?

HB: I think ultimately people change jobs for new opportunities or better cultures and working environments – whether that is the role, the work, the people or the physical space. Hive is a family that smashes culture, people and working environment above and beyond anywhere I have ever experienced. On top of that, the team have always found ways to challenge me and open up new opportunities, pushed me personally and championed new ideas that have helped me to focus on self-learning and development. I have no doubt that at some point in the future the challenge I’m seeking may push me beyond these 4 walls and that’s ok, but for now I don’t know what more I would be looking to find. The challenge for us is to ensure that as new individuals join us and as the world around us continues to evolve and change we rise to the demands and expectations of new generations entering the work force, and ensure the same motivation, respect, trust and challenge is something we can inspire everyone with moving forwards.


Working at Hive


A recent survey by 4A’s and Linkedin concluded that fifty-four percent of people who left advertising said a major reason they changed industries was because they felt there was little opportunity for advancement**. What, if anything, makes Hive different from other agencies?

HB: We help people find those opportunities. Sometimes they are with us and sometimes they are elsewhere but our job is to help every individual get the absolute best from their careers. We aren’t afraid to create new opportunities, and craft jobs for people, not just find people for jobs. Most importantly, we listen to each other and to what people need.


What do you know now, that you wish you’d known when you started out?

HB: That you don’t need to know everything. Everyone is winging it just a little and that often jumping in feet first is the best way to learn and evolve.


What advice would you give to someone starting out in their career in advertising, at Hive, or anywhere else for that matter?

HB: Enjoy it – embrace every minute and strive to be proud of everything you do from the small to the big.


The Future


Do you ever think about your legacy at Hive?

HB: For sure – especially having recently moved into the MD role. I think as you are given the opportunity and privilege to lead and make business decisions that will affect the future of the agency and the people that make it, you definitely start thinking about the legacy you want to leave. For me this is about the diversity of the work we do, the types of problem we solve and the way we solve them but first and foremost about how we continue to look after our people and the community we serve. So a greater emphasis on health & wellbeing and our broader contribution to society are pretty high on my agenda.


If you had a crystal ball, what do you think the future holds for you?

HB: Who knows! One day I will live by a lake, run a pub and B&B, eat lots of cheese and get a dog. Until then, I’m excited for the ride!


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