Climbing frames, children, and centrifugal moments

A career is a climbing frame, not a ladder, writes Denise Turner, CEO of Route.

Denise Turner

CEO Route


I am sitting at the Newsworks’ Manchester conference in 2015. The room is quiet, the spotlights dazzle, I have a notebook ready, but I’m too moved to write any notes. Our audience of hundreds of people has just heard The Times’ chief investigative reporter Andrew Norfolk reveal on stage for the first time how he uncovered the systematic sexual abuse of white teenagers by men of mainly Pakistani background in Rotherham and other Northern towns. He also set out the complicity of social workers, police and local councillors who failed to stop the grooming, for fear of being accused of racism. As Andrew told it, quietly and without a trace of ego, if newsbrands didn’t tell this and other controversial stories, who would?

This was for me, in a terrifying way, a spine-tingling career moment, evidence of the power of the media as a force for change.

Having managed over 30 years in advertising and moved from Newsworks to be CEO of Route almost a year ago, I have been reflecting quite a bit lately on what a fulfilling career looks like, navigating life changes and making the most of opportunities. That led me to three conclusions.

If you think a career is a ladder, you’ll look down and fall off.

Denise Turner, CEO of Route

A career is a climbing frame, not a ladder

If you think a career is a ladder, you’ll look down and fall off (or at least I know I would!).

Careers are about learning, developing, and getting new skills. So, I prefer to think of a career as a climbing frame. It’s not straight up (or down) but rather an exploration of different possibilities. My now 17-year-old daughter taught me this – she was - and still is - fearless on a climbing frame. She just went for it! I started off in a very traditional media research role, but for me it was never a back-room function, what I did had to make a difference to the outcomes for clients.

So sometimes you must move what seems like sideways, but you learn new skills, you cement knowledge, and you gain a rounded view of the advertising world.

Having children changes your life forever.

That’s obvious of course, but for me it highlights how we balance personal and work lives (spoiler alert, the two should never be mutually exclusive.) I listened to a podcast recently where the host said something so true. “In parenthood the days are long, but the years are short”. My children are now 19 and 17 and I truly can’t believe where those years have gone. But they have always been involved in my work. 

My advice to women and men is to let your kids see what you do when you’re not at home with them (or nowadays when you shut the door to your home office!). My kids played several starring roles in media pitches when I was at Havas. When we pitched for YouView, aged 7 and 5 at the time, they recorded a version of the TalkTalk idents for The X Factor. My daughter still talks proudly about losing her first tooth at the Havas kids Christmas party. Now studying Sociology A level, she says: “Of course, Mum, working women are not a homogenous mass”. She’s a researcher in the making! What have I done?

Centrifugal moments

There are moments in your career which change the direction, and you need to be open to that. Many years ago, I sat opposite the wonderful late Tessa Jowell at a dinner, another one of the most memorable days of my life. She talked about centrifugal moments, and for her a moment which altered the trajectory of her life and the UK’s. She recalled having to choose between going to her 4-year-old son’s sports day or presenting a bill at Parliament. She truly thought she would have to stop being an MP. Another MP, on hearing this, said he would deliver the bill for her, so she could go to the sports day. Tessa then went on to fight for the Olympics to come to London for 2012. What a moment, and what a legacy.

I’ll never forget my centrifugal moments and I hope your career offers at least one, because they define your choices and make you think beyond the day to day. If you haven’t had one yet, be open to it.

Guest Author

Denise Turner

CEO Route


Appointed Chief Executive in July 2022, Denise leads the team at Route Research which is the official source for out-of-home audiences in Great Britain since 2013. She was most recently the Director of Research and Insight at Newsworks. She is known for having a deep expertise in media research and previously held roles as Chief Insight Officer at Havas Media Group and Head of Research at Starcom. Holder of a highly coveted IPA Fellow award, Denise says: "I am very lucky to be able to ask why for a living".

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