July 19, 2023

Olivia Downing receives Honorary Master of Arts from Leeds Arts Uni

In recognition for her work and support for women within the advertising industry

Olivia Downing

Associate Creative Director

Olivia, Continuous’ Associate Creative Director and one of The Drum’s ‘50 under 30 Outstanding Women in Creative and Digital in the World’, has been recognised at a ceremony in Leeds on Monday 10 July 2023.

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In a ceremony held at the Royal Armouries, Leeds Arts University’s Chancellor, activist and lead singer of multi-million selling rock band Skunk Anansie, Skin gave an inspiring address to its graduates before the awards were handed out. 

Receiving her honour alongside producer and director Louise Malkinson, Olivia’s award is in  recognition of her achievements within the advertising industry – her work and support for women within the sector, embodying Leeds Arts University’s values and being a role model for its students.

Below is Olivia’s story of how this outstanding achievement came about.

“When I first created my event ‘CIA: Chicks in Advertising’ aged 24, the intention was very simple: to hear from more women in the creative industries, while being open to all genders, professional levels and disciplines. I was tired of being the only woman on my creative floor at the time, and I found it difficult to believe that there was no one out there like me. 

“What I didn’t anticipate though, was the onslaught of students that supported this event, all predominantly female. It surprised me that, while the workplace was undeniably male dominated, the academic institutions were filled with young women. I didn’t do a creative degree at university, so I wasn’t aware of this dilemma.

But even more strangely, it seemed to me ironic that my industry was bemoaning the lack of women applying, when to me the solution was simple: there needed to be more representation: someone they felt they could approach and relate to at a younger level – and particularly in higher education.

“So I took my CIA event to these institutions. I gave a talk at Salford University to the design students, and mentored one Sophie Stevens, who now is a successful art director in Leeds. The news spread. I’ve mentored consistently throughout my career, judged School of Thought in Manchester, given talks and written articles for the DMA and Creative Lives in Progress. I’ve also been asked into other academic institutions, in order to help with this drop-off problem. This includes Manchester Metropolitan University where I gave a creative diversity talk to their STEM students and UCLAN, where I became a part time lecturer, specialising in copy on their Creative Advertising (BA) course.

It was important to me that I maintained my career as a copywriter, not only because it meant I was bringing an up-to-date working perspective to my students, but because part of the problem is not seeing themselves reflected in the jobs they want.

I’ve lectured part time at UCLAN in 2018 and 2022, and my students have gone on to win several D&AD New Blood pencils. I also grew a great relationship with Leeds Arts University’s Creative Advertising (BA) course, eventually expanding my Chicks in Advertising event to Leeds as well as Manchester, because of their keen attendance. I’ve been into Leeds Arts University several times to set briefs, and brought them into my own workplace to present back, and get a taste of what this job is like. I’ve attended many a wonderful degree show (For LAU in 2018, I even dressed in funeral gear in keeping with their theme), and students stay in contact with me way after they finish their degree, which I really deeply love.

“It’s not been easy. I’ve had push-back and negative comments from people who believe my event is sexist, jokes made at my expense, and even been turned away from jobs because of the extra-curricular event that I run. However, I have never let that stop me, because of one thing: I believe I am in a position to help young women behind me have a better experience than I did, and that they in turn might go on to help others.

The recognition from Leeds Arts University is not just an enormous honour, that I am so grateful to receive with my students graduating on the same day. It is validation that all my work is seen and appreciated by those I’ve been helping to grow and succeed all these years. And that for me, is the greatest reward of all.” 

Olivia has also been recognised by multiple awards bodies, featuring in The Drum’s ‘50 under 30 list of Outstanding Women in Creative and Digital in the World’, as well as Creative Equals’ ‘Future Leaders ‘Ones to Watch’ list in 2021. She also won the creative competition School of Thought in 2017 - taking her to Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity, and has judged ‘Writing for Advertising’ for D&AD 2021 and The Drum Roses 2023.

If you’d like to find out more about Olivia’s work, our internships, or our recent projects, email  


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