Creative Lives — Dragon Rouge’s head of voice, Bee Pahnke on why you should read everything
There’s not much that Bee Pahnke can’t do – particularly with a pen in hand. After studying creative writing at the University of Greenwich, Bee quickly bagged herself a junior writer role at writing agency The Writer. But before that, she was already trying her hand at scriptwriting and co-creating for Eastenders’ E20, a mini-spin off of the BBC soap opera and in 2019, she was named one of The Drum’s 50 under 30 Outstanding Women in Creative and Digital. As head of voice at award-winning global creative agency, Dragon Rouge, her work can range from helping brands like Coca-Cola and Save The Children figure out what style of writing best fits their personality, to learning the consumer habits of Gen Z, or studying the nuances of audio-tech. Here, we get to know the talented wordsmith’s journey into writing and why reading in-between the lines is crucial to what she does.
Head of Voice, Dragon Rouge (2019–present)
Coca-Cola, Arthur Cox, Save the Children, BBC, Reckitt-Benckiser
Copy Lead, Rufus Leonard (2016–2018)
Freelance Senior Writer, (2015–2016)
Writer, The Writer (2012–2015)
BA Creative Writing, University of Greenwich (2011)
How would you describe what you do?
I work in a creative agency, Dragon Rouge, alongside strategists, designers, researchers and account managers. I help brands figure out what style of writing best brings their personality to life. Sometimes I’m working with a consumer drinks brand, like Coca-Cola. Other times I’m working with a charity organisation like Save The Children.
What are the least and most enjoyable aspects of your job?
The most enjoyable – the people. I’m constantly surrounded by creative, smart and imaginative people. It’s wonderful to walk into a space like this every day. It means I’m constantly learning, there’s always something new to discover or figure out. That comes from our clients, too. I’ll go from understanding the consumer habits of Gen Zs one day to understanding the nuances of the audio-tech world the next. It’s hard to get bored, that’s for sure. The least enjoyable – sometimes your job doubles up as a mind reader. You need to learn how to read between the lines [of] what your clients are saying, to figure out exactly what it is they’re looking for. And that’s not always easy, you won’t always get it right. But you’ll certainly get better.
Bee’s work-from-home workspace
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
There have been some real corkers, but I’d say the work I’ve done with Dirac – an audio tech brand. The client was especially ambitious, which always makes for an exciting project. Finding ways to bring audio to life through words was a really meaty challenge. And as a project, I got to touch every part of the rebrand, even influencing the sonic sting [musical sequence].
What skills and tools would you say are essential to your job?
I’m a pretty analogue kind of writer. Notebooks and the perfect pens. One of the most important tools for a good writer is the ability to listen. You’ll find the audience or client has everything you need to do a cracking job, if you just listen to them.
“One of the most important tools for a good writer is the ability to listen.”
Client work for Arthur Fox on dragonrouge.com
Is there a resource that has particularly helped you?
The resources that have helped me the best have been people. I still turn to old colleagues today when I’m tackling something tricky. I know one of the best editors in the business, and she’ll always be my go-to for grammar questions. Other than that, I read everything. From the backs of packaging to cookies policies. From strategy decks to novels. From non-fiction and essays to tube ads. Read everything. That’s how you become a better writer.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
For a good long while, I wanted to be a vet. Then an actor. But I’ve always been a bookworm. I didn’t know that my current role even existed, but once I found it, I knew there was no other career for me.
How do you think your upbringing influenced your choice of career?
Honestly, I have no idea. My mum is a teacher, my dad is an electrician, neither of my older brothers went to university, and everyone else in my extended family does very practical jobs – plumbers, mechanics and so on. So really, who knows.
Dragon Rouge’s website
Did you study at degree level and if so, do you feel you need a formal education for what you do?
I studied for a BA in creative writing, which has definitely helped hone my writing skills – but most importantly, it helped me understand how to take feedback, and how to give constructive criticism to other writers.
After graduating, what were your initial steps?
I pestered my way into my first job as a junior writer at The Writer – I’d been accepted for a two-day course called Word Experience while I was in my third year of university, and I fell in love with the world of brand language. I emailed the writer who ran the course every few weeks after that, to keep my name in her mind. And eventually, they offered me an interview. I started a couple of months after finishing university.
Would you say you ever experienced a lucky break?
I believe you make your own luck. Being open to opportunities, open to new people, open to feedback and working really bloody hard can get you a long way. Working in the brand guardianship team at O2 taught me a lot about different parts of a brand and gave me a real appreciation for the importance of Intellectual Property. It also gave me my first real understanding of design strategy. I still use the lessons I learned in that team today – more than four years on.
Do you have any advice on making money as a freelance creative?
Be fastidious about keeping track of your invoices. Make a spreadsheet – I know, I know, we writers tend to lean into Microsoft Word, but get friendly with Excel. The truth is, most clients – whether they’re agencies or brands – are bad at paying their invoices. Don’t be afraid to chase. Channel a little Rihanna…
“Be fastidious about keeping track of your invoices. Make a spreadsheet”
Client work for Spinnup on dragonrouge.com
How important have you found social media and self-promotion in your work?
While I do have clients that follow me on Instagram, I don’t tend to see it as an avenue for my work. For me, it’s more personal. LinkedIn however has been huge – I was headhunted through LinkedIn for my role at Rufus Leonard, by a brilliant woman who went on to be one of the best managers I’ve ever had. After she left, she put me forward for this role at Dragon Rouge. If I hadn’t kept my LinkedIn updated and received so many recommendations, who knows what I’d be doing now?
What would you like to do next?
Writing a book is definitely on the list. I’m just not sure when I’ll get to it. In the meantime, growing this department at Dragon Rouge and converting more clients to the power of voice keeps me plenty busy.
Coca-Cola client work on dragonrouge.com
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Be persistent. If there’s an agency or brand you want to work with, get in touch and keep your name at the front of their mind. Be open to feedback. Writing is a process, and none of us nail it first time. Stay curious. Feed your mind with all sorts of things, because inspiration comes in all shapes and forms. And of course, read everything.
Do you have any thoughts to share for other creatives that might be feeling panicked at this time?
We’re all in this together. I know the road ahead seems uncertain and unnerving. But we’re all finding our way through our new reality together. Take solace in the knowledge that we’re all experiencing this together. Protect your mental health, and if you need help, reach out.