Cary Wakefield, CEO, Ovarian Cancer Action

"You can always find the right channels to reach people even with small budgets, but getting them to notice, care or do something is where stories come in."

Izzy Ashton

Deputy Editor, BITE


One of the major problems with raising awareness of ovarian cancer, says Cary Wakefield, is that you can’t see it. And “when you can’t see things, visualise them, touch them, you don’t think about them.” This is where the greatest challenge lies for Ovarian Cancer Action’s CEO. The other is that “women don’t put themselves first enough.” This is an attitude that Wakefield is intent on changing.

Having studied Business Studies and French at Edinburgh University, she went into “quite classical marketing” at GSK before joining Quaker Oats across the UK and Europe, living in Brussels and commuting between Madrid and London. She first went into the BBC on a digital project after the birth of her daughter. She loved it, saying, “I was able to learn really quickly and become more valuable because I didn’t understand anything about tele.”

[I'm] not in the business of regrets because I think it’s a complete waste of time. And I don’t have time for that. I am hoping my proudest moment is still to come.

Cary Wakefield

After her son was born, she freelanced in interim marketing director roles for a few years. But she couldn’t keep away from the BBC for long, going back on various project-based roles, and then eventually deciding to stay. As she says, “it’s very hard to leave the BBC because you’re working on such amazing stuff.”

Her love of change won out in the end. Wakefield founded a start-up media business with friends, On Purpose Group, as well as becoming a non-exec for a “big London housing group” and mentoring a number of people; “You never mentor someone, it’s a two-way process.” When the job at Ovarian Cancer Action came up, Wakefield joined on an interim basis with the sole purpose to find them a new CEO. But she got sucked in and ended up the new CEO herself.

You never mentor someone, it’s a two-way process.

Cary Wakefield

The charity is strong in terms of funding research having grown out of an international forum called HHMT. But for Wakefield, it’s also awareness and education that are key to fighting the disease. She wants people to feel “more comfortable talking about it,” both the women who can get the disease and the men around them.

As our conversation steered from AI bias to the first time she said the word vulva in a presentation, the importance of fair internship schemes and the wonder of Gillian Anderson, it is clear that people are front and centre in every part of Wakefield’s life and work. They are, she says, what she is most proud of, “seeing people grow and realise there’s a world of possibilities out there and they can do anything is so fantastic.” Ever the restless spirit, Wakefield says she’s “not in the business of regrets because I think it’s a complete waste of time. And I don’t have time for that. I am hoping my proudest moment is still to come.”

Ovarian Cancer Action volunteering.jpg
Creativebrief: As CEO at Ovarian Cancer Action, what is your primary focus?
Cary Wakefield: This sounds quite worthy but my only real focus if I’m honest is to understand what will improve survival rates for ovarian cancer because they are so poor - the UK lags so far behind most of Europe and around the world, which is ridiculous. The focus is then to ensure we are tackling the areas that make the biggest difference. We definitely need to increase the amount of money we raise in order to fund the best research from around the world. We also need to just put a much bigger spotlight on the disease and symptoms. Ovarian cancer used to be known as the silent killer, but the only reason it is silent is because it is not talked about enough.
Creativebrief: In your experience, what do you think is the most impactful way to raise awareness?
Cary Wakefield: I am having to leave some of the rules of what I know works behind in this role. In previous roles I have been incredibly lucky to raise awareness about things people can’t wait to hear about like Sherlock, Bake Off, Strictly Come Dancing, Peaky Blinders, Planet Earth II and many more. What I learnt at the BBC is that brilliant storytelling is at the heart of impact. You can always find the right channels to reach people even with small budgets, but getting them to notice, care or do something is where stories come in. Telling a simple yet unmissable story of why ovarian cancer matters, how to spot it early and treat it better is a great challenge. #MeToo, period poverty, menopause have all laid foundations for stories about injustice against women and ovarian cancer is an injustice. Women on behalf of other women are rightly outraged that the prognosis is so poor. Equally ovaries are completely overlooked and underappreciated. We never think about our ovaries; we can’t feel them or see them, yet we all come from ovaries and they are life giving. When they go wrong though with something like ovarian cancer, it really isn’t great and it’s a horrible disease. I think there are stories in all of that.
Creativebrief: Do you see marketing forming an important part of that awareness campaign?
Cary Wakefield: I definitely do, but the challenge of how we use marketing is probably very different and far more important than in my other jobs. For a start what we are doing at Ovarian Cancer Action could save lives. Fundraising for research for example will ultimately make the biggest difference to survival and, more immediately, so will raising awareness of the disease and symptoms. However, it is not the easiest marketing challenge to take something quite so serious and get women in particular to take notice and remember the symptoms. We also have small budgets, but I still feel very positive about what we can do. Having a great cause means that if you can create brilliant messaging and campaigns and make your voice positively heard through social media, it will encourage people to emotionally connect, share and act. I would also like to think that we can also use more mainstream media to shout louder at some point though, as that would undoubtedly increase our impact.

You can always find the right channels to reach people even with small budgets, but getting them to notice, care or do something is where stories come in.

Cary Wakefield
Creativebrief: What has been your proudest career moment to date as part of Ovarian Cancer Action?
Cary Wakefield: That is a difficult question. In many ways I have been more humbled than proud as every day I meet incredible patients, families and friends that have lost mothers, sisters, wives, daughters as well as meeting very talented scientists, clinicians and healthcare professionals. Many things do make me proud though. From when we help a woman get a second opinion and her treatment then takes a different turn to the incredible research we are funding like a potential screening tool at Oxford University which would be a game changer, or various programmes to better detect and treat ovarian cancer at Imperial College London, the first centre for ovarian cancer in Europe that we set up in 2006. Probably the biggest thing is having smart and very driven people in the team who could choose to do many other exciting and interesting things but decide to work for Ovarian Cancer Action because they have the belief and excitement in what we are doing and what we might possibly achieve.
Creativebrief: What are your ambitions for Ovarian Cancer Action over the next few years?
Cary Wakefield: My main ambition is to help take a big leap forward in the rate of survival. Helping to drive much more money into research is high on the list as that ultimately will be the biggest factor in survival and secondly to create more of a voice and platform for the disease. Otherwise the odds become even more negatively stacked. An ageing population where women tend to live longer combined with a lack of screening and poor early diagnosis treatment is not a bright future, but it is one we can do something about. I am an optimist and so this isn’t the future I want to help create. Great marketing, comms and PR will really help.
Creativebrief: What other organisations or charities do you admire?
Cary Wakefield: Coppa Feel as they take something quite serious and make it very accessible and practical, particularly to younger women. Also, Patagonia as they have been true to their beliefs since they set up and have just become more and more committed and single minded about their purpose. I love their latest mission which is “we are in business to save our planet”. They do walk the walk. For example, they recently announced that they would donate the $10million corporate tax cut they have received to non-profit groups working on climate change.

Related Tags

charity Brand Leader