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Dee Russell's lack of a degree kept getting in the way of her career. Now an MA Advertising and Multimedia Communications graduate, Dee has just wrapped her first TV-led ad campaign for a national charity – and won CharityComms' Inspiring Communicator award 2020! It’s been quite a year…

24th February 2021
Marketing, communications and public relationsPublic relations

Solent mature student Dee Russell has spent most of her career in comms, focusing on charity communications since 2011 – but the lack of a degree kept getting in the way.

“I did consider getting a degree,” she said, “but confidence stood in my way for many years. So I was unable to apply to certain roles, despite being very well qualified by experience, because a degree was a requirement. While I don’t agree with this practice, it was definitely a driving factor in my decision making to undertake a master’s degree.”

Living in Southampton, having a family and a job, Dee’s options were limited. “But on visiting Solent and speaking with mature students and lecturers, I knew that qualification by experience was encouraged by the university in a way that it simply isn’t in other universities.”

Starting out

Starting her career with an HND in graphic design, Dee worked her way up from fundraiser to fundraising manager – then stepped sideways to take on a corporate partnerships and marketing management role, before moving again just before starting her MA, to a role in a creative agency who wanted to work more closely with charities.

“Starting out in the third sector is challenging,” Dee says. “Because they’re often under-resourced in the comms field. You can be expected to deliver the Earth with shoestring budgets. With very few colleagues, you become pretty adept at upskilling, often becoming proficient in bodies of work that would have entire teams working on them in the commercial world.

“Choosing the MA, I wanted to choose a course that would complement my work, and where my work would enhance my studies. Advertising was a particular area of interest – big money can achieve big results, but charities have such notoriously restricted budgets!” 

If you’re keen to get into third sector comms, be open about what your first role looks like – and really think about which causes you can get behind.

Studying at Solent

As a mature student balancing study with work and family, Dee had a lot to juggle during her time at Solent. “The biggest challenge for me was I had no experience in academic research or academic writing,” Dee says.

“In fact, week 1 of your MA is all about how this level of study is ‘much more challenging’ than undergrad. With no undergrad as a reference point, I spent a week thinking, ‘well I guess this will be hard then’! But with no real concept of what I was letting myself in for…”

Support from the teaching staff was a big help. “One of my lecturers offered to read and critique 300 words to gauge whether or not I was on the right lines. Needless to say there was room for improvement, but the process reassured me and pointed me in the right direction.”

“The uni is well equipped no matter what your need. The online facilities are excellent and if there’s a journal or book missing online, the school will endeavour to get access for you.”

The MA experience, for Dee, was a highly collaborative one. “Because I brought industry experience, I was able to contribute well in units like professional practice. And I learned a lot from students who had studied for undergrad degrees because they had experience that I didn’t.”

And that collaboration included the course’s lecturers, who brought their own professional experience and research into the classroom. “At MA level, you’re working peer to peer with lecturers who are working on their PhD, or who have recently completed their own research projects. You’re respected as an expert in your own right, and have opportunities to mutually challenge. I found my lecturers brought a lot to my approach to academia, and I valued their openness - especially once we entered the pandemic.”

For Dee, the pandemic and lockdown brought additional challenges – dramatically affecting her final consultancy project. “I set up my proposal during my first year, and had planned to work with a charity client. But my creative agency role drew to a close towards the end of my first year, so I took a contract in London and negotiated my working hours to accommodate lectures in my second year.

“As a result of my change in circumstances, I had to rethink the possibilities, and remit of the project. With the support of my supervisor, I reframed the piece to explore whether small charities employ campaign planning techniques in income generating campaigns.

“I then reframed the project again with the onset of the pandemic! Working with three charity membership organisations, I delivered a research project that answered, ‘How might we support small charities to deliver income generating campaigns on a shoestring?’”

“Now CharityComms, Media Trust, and the Small Charities Coalition are using that project work to shape their support for member charities!”

Leading the campaign

And even while she studied, new opportunities were opening up in Dee’s professional life. “When I started the MA in Advertising and Multimedia Communications, I may have dreamt that, one day, I’d make a charity ad campaign,” Dee says. “But in my wildest dreams, I couldn’t have imagined I’d be making my first ever TV-led integrated ad campaign for a national charity while completing my final project!”

At the beginning of 2020, Dee was two months into a maternity cover role leading the content team at Parkinson’s UK, focusing on a content strategy to elevate research in the charity’s brand and comms. By the end of the year, she had delivered her first TV ad campaign – and the charity’s first in 14 years.

“It was probably one of the most stressful periods of my life – but both the TV ad and my final project are proud career moments for me. Since launching on 20 November, the integrated elements of the campaign have raised around £500,000.”

After graduating

With the world still mostly on lockdown, it’s hard for Dee to say what opportunities her new MA will bring. One thing’s clear though, she says: “A big change for me is my confidence in speaking. As I was completing my final project, I joined a panel debate with a London brand agency and experts from two other charities. More recently, I gave a presentation at a CharityComms brand breakfast.

“These are activities that I’ve always thought were for ‘experts’, ‘professionals’ and I think my experiences over the last two years has shown me that we can all contribute in these environments.”

Dee’s initial contract with Parkinson’s UK came to a close at the end of November, but she was asked to take on another contract to focus on crafting a campaign for World Parkinson’s Day.

In 2020 the charity decided to hand over the reins and be led by the Parkinson’s community, and Dee’s new role is to learn from last year’s activity for 2021. “The main challenge I have to overcome is a history of paternalistic ways of working that are commonly prevalent in charities. This year, I’m exploring approaches to partnership working, leading to a co-designed and co-created event and campaign for World Parkinson’s Day in the UK – and an approach which can be used as template material for partners around the world.”

“It’s such a great opportunity for Parkinson’s UK to work very closely with people who live with Parkinson’s. The charity already does this in many ways, with service design and clinical research as examples. I can’t wait to see what happens as we work closely in a comms environment.”

The icing on the cake, though? “Not one, not two, but three of my colleagues nominated me in the CharityComms inspiring communicator award 2020!

“I was alongside 11 other very worthy winners and cannot believe what my colleagues wrote about my comms work in the pandemic. A touching end to an incredibly challenging year.”


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