Renée O’Drobinak is a communications manager at an AJ100-listed architecture practice and a catsuit-wielding contemporary artist, depending on the time of day.
By day, she is in charge of the development and implementation of the conservation architecture practice Donald Insall Associates’ graphic identity as well as its external and internal communications strategy. In four years, she has developed and grown the practice’s communications function, and has worked with external consultants, architects and client-side communications teams to get maximum exposure for key project completions, including the restoration of Temperate House at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, which re-opened to the public last year.
She was recently appointed to become a trustee of the practice’s Employee Ownership Trust, and has been working with the Employee Ownership Association to advocate Employee Ownership as a more ethical business model in the built environment sector.
By night, Renée is the graphic-churning one half of the performance and print-based artist duo Ladies of the Press. With her co-founder Ana Cavic, Renée has delivered audience engagement-led art and design commissions for cultural and civic oganisations such as the Tate, the Southbank Centre, and Camden Borough Council to name a few. She became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 2016, and has guest lectured at art universities such as Metropolitan State University Denver, USA and the Oslo National Academy of Arts, Norway.
Describe your background in 5 words max?
Tokyo bred Japanese Slovakian-American.
How did you get into PR/comms/creative?
I moved to the UK to study fine art at the Slade School of Art, UCL. I’ve always been the creative type and I love making art, but I found most commercial galleries and museums disengaged and static – I spent my time at university questioning the commercial art industry, dabbling in performance art and being confused as to where to take my career. I started flirting with the creative media industry by way of internships at Black Dog Publishing and Tate Etc, where I picked up picture research and editing skills.
I graduated just as the financial crisis was unfurling, which meant that there were no jobs for immigrants with an art degree and a temporary visa. So I spent most of my 20s stringing together various visas, café jobs and admin jobs while doing performance art gigs, gradually building up a reputation as a live artist specialising in direct audience engagement. In 2013, I did a postgraduate degree at the London College of Communication to formally study graphic design, which was becoming a key part of our art practice.
I joined Donald Insall Associates shortly after I graduated from LCC. I initially joined as a temporary admin, then I had the opportunity to show off my newly acquired design flair working on a pitch with the Deputy Chair – it was on her recommendation that I was able to secure a permanent job, initially as an assistant specialising in graphics and comms. It was then that I’d begun to make use of the range of experience I had working in both art and media; I clawed my way into my current position and I’ve been leading the comms function of the practice ever since.
What do you love about your job?
The most rewarding aspect of my job is unearthing hidden narratives, be it through the projects or people I work with. This can be finding out about fascinating stories behind a seemingly unglamourous building conservation job — like the time my colleague was recounting how he had to find a way to give 300 fish a ‘fish MOT’ before they could be released in the wild to enable works on a disused Georgian lido. Or that time my colleagues discovered a hitherto unknown interior likely designed by the architect Robert Adam, having taken down some plasterboard walls when converting the use of a building in central London.
Coming from an arts background, I simultaneously appreciate and loathe the flowery verbosity that comes with both architecture and contemporary art, and I enjoy the challenge of translating ‘art-speak’ into everyday language for a wider audience without diminishing its intellectual rigour.
What are you most proud of?
A mere few years ago, my life was a sob story: I was in the UK on a precarious visa and I was awaiting a court date, having instructed solicitors I couldn’t afford to appeal the Home Office’s rejection of my indefinite leave application. I was shackled to a badly paid zero-hour contract job in an office that was being asset-stripped, which I juggled with a full time postgraduate degree I was barely scraping by in. I was evicted from home twice in three months. I was eating an inadvertent raw food diet thanks to a property guardianship scheme that didn’t come with a cooker. I meandered from one toxic relationship to another. I was in debt. My art career finally started acquiring paid commissions, but an unfortunately timed exhibition in Belgrade during my university assessment meant that I operated on very little sleep for a long stretch of time. My physical and mental health effectively collapsed; my confidence was ripped to shreads. There is nothing more crushing than feeling like there’s nothing you can do about your current predicament because your hands are tied with visa problems.
When I was finally granted permanent residence, I said to myself: no excuses now. I proceeded on a ruthless life-choice purge before people in the UK have really heard of Marie Kondo. I said sayonara to the horrible job, the horrible men, and importantly, my own negative thinking. I became proactive and got a new job, a new relationship and a cooker. Finally sought help from the GP for my range of physical and mental health issues. Asked for a promotion, and got it, which is how I ended up in my current job. I was determined not to let the downtrodden immigrant narrative to define me.
I now have a rewarding day job which I’ve kept alongside an art career, a fiancée and a flat (with a cooker!), and I enjoy pretty good health. I take none of these things for granted. I am, in short, proud to have survived, and turned my own life around.
What’s been the hardest lesson to learn?
That it’s ok to want things.
I grew up in Japan, where girls are taught to shut up, smile, and be subservient. And despite my rebellious mother’s best efforts, my naturally obnoxious personality and an international school education, I still somehow ended up with a doormat mentality: feeling a terrible sense of guilt when asking for even the most benign things, both personally and professionally. I still find it difficult to overcome. I felt physically sick the day I sat down my bosses to ask for a pay rise, but given the current statistics about the gender and ethnic pay gap in the industry, I knew I had to do it.
Who are your favourite people in PR and why?
Laura Iloniemi, who is an architecture PR specialist I worked with on a number of campaigns over the years. Her ability to eloquently engage in architectural discourse and produce writing that is both intellectually stimulating and accessible in delivery is always a delight to see. Her thought pieces on building an architects’ image in an age of relentless corporate marketing without losing integrity is both thoughtful and important in an industry that impacts the day-to-day lives of countless people. Integrity matters. I also have endless admiration for her ability to inspire a room full of architects to fundamentally re-think how their work is being represented – not an easy feat!
What skill do you think every PR/comms/creative has to nail?
An eye to see a narrative in the less obvious places, and the ability to ask the right questions to draw them out.
What is your favourite social network and why?
I’ll be honest, I used to hate Twitter for the venom-pumping shouting factory it can be all too often, but I’ve learned to love it over the years for seeing on-the-go insight and commentary from journalists in real time. Oh, and #PyramidMuseumOverloads.
Who is your favourite journalist and why?
I have a lot of respect for Christine Murray, editor-in-chief of The Developer, former editor of the Architects’ Journal and Architectural Review. She is a rare voice in the architecture world that asks all the difficult questions that hardly anyone else dares to ask, including Brexit, diversity in architectural visualisations, climate change, development and town planning that ignores the needs of families and cyclists, the Women in Architecture initiative she founded herself and directly faced the tough questions it posed when it transpired that the number of women in architecture had in fact since fallen. The list goes on.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
It was one of the last tutorials I had at the Slade. I was sat with the artist Klaas Hoek, having a last moment of questioning my own work when it was essentially already too late to come up with something entirely new or make major changes to the work – or so I thought. I can’t remember the exact words he said, but it was to the effect of learning through experimenting, and letting the ‘doing’ part of the work lead me to the next stage. For someone who struggled to get projects off the drawing board, usually out of fear, it was tremendously good advice – very much applicable to both facets of my career.
Best campaign of 2019 so far?
56 Black Men. It needs no explanation – it is pertinent, necessary, and powerful.
Finally, on the D’ word… What can the sector do to encourage diversity?
Day-to-day actions speak louder than campaigns. Businesses, I welcome the incentive set by the Social Values Act, but please cut it out with the poverty porn and stop peddling the white saviour narrative in the name of social values. Managers, ask those uncomfortable questions: why is our recruiter only giving us well-spoken white male candidates? Why is there a distinct lack of BAME people in the boardroom, or even at entry level? Marketing teams, look at your visual material. Do your CGIs and images of the place look like an ethnically cleansed version of the area? Do you still use the one BAME person in IT as your token marketing model? What kind of language do people use to talk about immigrants and minorities in the office? Is there a fundamental cultural issue?
And while I’m at it, can we stop it with the relentless interrogating of people who vaguely don’t look white, asking them to explain where their facial features, gait, accents, hand gestures, dietary habits and where their great grandmothers are ‘originally’ from and what global catastrophe prompted them to migrate the minute you encounter them? What seems like benign curiosity to you is a subtle way of reminding the person that they are an ‘other’.