Talent stories: Alison Copus, Director of Communications and Engagement, Wales Millennium Centre

Talent stories: Alison Copus, Director of Communications and Engagement, Wales Millennium Centre

Thursday 8th August 2019

Here at Goodson Thomas, we love nothing more than placing a candidate in a role that is perfect for them and watching them shine.

We have placed hundreds of talented senior executives and board members over the last four years, all with their own unique career stories and journeys.

In a new series, we'll be putting some of these people under the spotlight, sharing their inspiring stories with you.

First up is Alison Copus, an award-winning marketing senior executive, whose stellar career has taken her all over the world. From building Virgin Atlantic into one of the world's most admired brands to launching Tripadvisor, her CV glitters with global business success.

Alison is now back in Wales, where she is Strategic Director of Communications and Engagement at the Wales Millennium Centre. Her stated mission is to build a "national arts centre that will make Wales proud. We have big ambitions to inspire the nation and impress the world". Here, Alison shares the story of her career to date.

Grab a cuppa - it's an impressive one, packed with brilliant career advice.

Hi Alison. Can you give us a potted history of your career journey to date?

My original career aspirations are in the dim and distant past. On leaving university I wanted to work in advertising because that seemed to be a creative and interesting industry. I didn't get the role I wanted but it was a useful start. I worked in an agency, on data analytics. It has proved to be very helpful to have a numerical background, given the way marketing has evolved to being digital and data driven.   

I was offered a job by my favourite client, American Express, which was a very good training ground. It was intense - all champagne, shoulder pads and shag-pile carpets, and far too corporate for me.

After six years learning the ropes, I realised I wanted to work in a more entrepreneurial company, so I applied for a role at Virgin Atlantic.  At the time Virgin had only four aircraft. It was a small company with big aspirations. I spent the next 12 years at Virgin, launching new routes and products. I learned so much from Richard Branson and my colleagues and had such a great time that it felt more like a mission than a job. 

I was lucky enough to work with Richard on philanthropy too. My proudest achievement was to set up the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship in Johannesburg. This was in the years after apartheid.  The aim was to help young people from the previously disadvantaged community learn business skills and set up their own businesses.

Unexpectedly and very luckily, a friend and former colleague from American Express offered me a role at TripAdvisor to launch them into Europe. In the six years I was there, TripAdvisor became the world's largest travel site and I learned digital marketing at the cutting edge. 

The digital and brand marketing skills I had acquired made me a good candidate for a new role at Nord Anglia Education in Hong Kong. They wanted to take their business through a digital transformation and build their reputation as the leading international schools group. I loved this challenge of a new sector, and another international role with loads of travel. Three years in Hong Kong was not enough but I wanted to return to Wales for family reasons. 

Luck and a good network played important roles again for me.  Sian Goodson helped me identify the very best job for me in Wales.  She helped me track their strategic development so that I was able to apply for the job I currently hold at just the right time. Now I am the Director of Marketing & Communications for the Wales Millennium Centre and I couldn't have imagined a more rewarding opportunity. We are working hard to be the national arts centre that will make Wales proud.  We have started a digital transformation and have big ambitions to inspire the nation and impress the world. It is a joy to be able to use my skills and experience towards a mission I am completely passionate about, and to work with people who all share the same goal.            

That's quite the career journey! What hurdles have you faced along the way?

I didn't get the job I wanted from university but each job has taken me to the next point in a journey which has taken me around the world, working in many cultures and industry sectors from financial services, to an airline, digital commerce and now the arts. 

Is there anyone you've encountered along the way that you are grateful to?

In every role I have had mentors and advocates who have been invaluable. I must thank Jon Epstein who employed me at American Express and gave me the opportunity to learn the basics I needed to get me on my way.  Steve Ridgway at Virgin was a huge help.  He promoted me to Marketing Director and allowed me enormous latitude to build a great team and do some work that I am still proud of. Steve has a talent for leadership with an understated style that I admire.    

Who have you learned the most from in your career to date?

It would be remiss not to mention Richard Branson. At Virgin I learned the value of a mission, the confidence to take risks and never to say no but rather 'yes, but...'   

What is your approach to work life balance?

I never managed to find that balance. I tend to believe that if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing to excess.

Who or what inspires you?

Since being back in Wales I have rediscovered the joys of exercising by the sea.  It's magic. Also, there is amazing power in experiencing live music and I am lucky enough to be very close to that now.

What is the best piece of career advice you've been given?

I had some difficult things to work through at American Express and was told by someone older and wiser that you can learn something from every situation, even if it's how not to do something.  

What piece of career advice would you give to someone starting out in marketing today?

Throw yourself into your career.  It will pay you back many times over.  But never fall in love with your job as it won't love you back.   

What is your approach to continuous professional development?

Don't wait for anyone to offer you an opportunity.  Grasp any exciting new idea or chance that comes your way because no one will develop your career but you.

What are the best and worst bits of your current role?

I absolutely love working with the WMC team.  We have a remarkable bunch of passionate people who are all trying to make the world a better place.  We don't move as fast as I would like but we are making good progress which is immensely rewarding. 

Who do you look up to?

Richard Branson; not because he is rich but because he has taken so many big risks with his career. 

In your experience of recruitment, what is the key thing when it comes to spotting - and retaining - talent?

Attitude is everything. Skills can be acquired. Knowledge can be learned but attitude is how your mother brought you up and is very hard to change.

Describe your dream job, if money was no object.

My current role is pretty close to ideal. I want to build a brand and an experience that will make Wales proud.