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What I’ve Learnt: Marylou Thistleton-Smith, CEO, The Voiceover Gallery

Marylou Thistleton-Smith, CEO, The Voiceover Gallery

Marylou Thistleton-Smith is CEO at The Voiceover Gallery,  an audio production company specialising in voiceover, localisation, dubbing and sound services.

The Voiceover Gallery recently celebrated its 20-year anniversary since launching in Manchester in 2004.

Since then, the company have evolved from a small boutique agency to opening a second office in London, working on major videogames, series, ads and creative projects such as Thomas & Friends and with brands such as John Frieda and Thorpe Park.

The Voiceover Gallery works with over 1,000 voiceover artists from around the world in over 90 languages and says its committed to bringing more awareness to diversity and accessibility within the industry, especially when it comes to neurodiversity.

From failures to lucky breaks, Marylou Thistleton-Smith shares all the lessons she’s learnt across her life and career with us…

Which single daily habit or practice could you not do without?

My business coach is infuriated with me because I have no process and no routine. I jump between one job and another and have a million screens open on both my computers. As we speak I’m writing 4 emails, navigating 7 spreadsheets, responding to slack messages and have 44 tabs open on Chrome. I’m not suggesting this is how anyone should work but I have no habits and no discipline. But having just celebrated 20 years of The Voiceover Gallery I must be doing something right!

That said, I always think it’s important to thank the team. It’s not something I do every day but it is something I am very conscious of doing. When I worked in TV, no one ever thanked you for anything, you were just expected to be in the office until 2am or cancel your weekend at short notice. I do make sure that I am aware of the team’s loyalty and hard work and hope I thank them as much as I should.

What’s been your luckiest break?

As I was setting up the business I did a lot of research on what equipment to buy for my studio and spent a considerable amount of money on having it all delivered. It was all nicely stacked in boxes in the sitting room of my house when I suddenly realised I had no idea how to plug it all in. I had a sleepless night wondering where I was going to find the budget or the person to help me.

Later that morning I was posting a letter when I bumped into a neighbour who turned out to be a sound engineer. He popped over for a cup of tea and over the following 6 months he helped me build the studio, the demos and essentially the business. I will never forget the day we bumped into each other and talk about the Cosmos having my back that day! Thank you, Alan Sheldon.

What’s your best failure?

As someone who started a business on their own, I am always looking for that person to share it with and build it together. I have spectacularly failed in this and have twice got into the wrong ‘marriage’ with the wrong business partners, which has only added more workload for me rather than less! I have now learned about EMI options as a much safer way of sharing the success with my employees and I won’t be taking on any directors or shareholders in the near future.

What is the best investment you’ve ever made, either financial or time?

With our first offices based in Manchester, our new flagship London studios were a massive investment of time and money and we then employed our amazing Head of Audio, Joe Lewis, to run them. This was a role we’d never had before and the transformation has been incredible and beyond my expectations as well as allowing us to work with an even wider client and talent base across the whole of the UK.

Which podcast or book would you recommend others to read and why?

Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway. My mother bought it for me when I was really struggling with whether to go ahead with building the agency or doing something else entirely. Just the fact someone had written a book with that name made me realise that what I was feeling wasn’t unique and it’s the reason that I bit the bullet and started the company.

What one piece of advice would you give your 21-year-old self?

Early on I was told ‘always employ people who are better than you at doing the job you’ve hired them for.’ Annoyingly I haven’t always followed that advice, but when I have its been transformational. If I could do it all again, I would certainly follow that principle not matter what the cost because it always, always pays off. We have a great team now and everyone is better than me at everything … although I’m still always right!!

Who or what has had the single biggest influence on your working life?

Having my children right in the middle of the business journey. The business allowed me to take maternity leave and has consequently allowed me to work around the children. I can’t deny that it is a constant compromise on both sides; The Voiceover Gallery could always benefit from having more of my time and focus but I don’t want to be on my death bed thinking ‘where are my kids?’ because I didn’t give them what they needed.

Not to mention that when casting an autistic child to voice one of the engines on Thomas & Friends, I realised my son was also autistic. These two things are starting to have a huge impact on how I run the business to be more accessible to neurodivergent talent, and ensure the team has the best knowledge and practices for working with the spectrum of wonderful people that exist in the world – both clients and voices!

Tell us something about you that would surprise people.

I absolutely hate networking. People have the impression that I’m good at it and that I enjoy it but it literally brings me out in hives. When I first started the company, I didn’t consider it as networking because I was just telling people about a great new service that I’d started and it felt like I was spreading good news. I was young, ambitious and enthusiastic and I passionately believed in my concept and luckily I seemed to be able to pick people up and take them on my journey very easily. But it goes to show that in an industry seemingly powered by networking, you don’t have to love it to succeed.

If there was one thing you could change about your career, what would it be and why?

When you start a business, you do it because you love doing the job. For me it was casting, directing and producing things – the creative process. However, as you grow a business you get further and further away from doing the thing you love and you get bogged down with VAT returns, HR issues, Statutory accounts and other business related activities that you never trained for. It’s all an important part of the business which I am proud of, but I’d love to revisit the more creative side at some point.

What does success look like to you?

There is a famous saying ‘Love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life’. The voiceover industry is a wonderful place to work with such a varied patchwork of projects and genres. When you get into work you have no idea what the day is going to bring, and it keeps all of us on our toes and excited for the days to come.

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