Tell me a little bit about yourself. What’s your background/career path?
I originally trained as a Modern Languages teacher. It wasn’t until I did my teacher training that I realized it wasn’t the career for me. I didn’t really have any alternate career paths planned out, so I just went out temping to try different things and find out what I wanted to do. I ended up working in the Marketing department of an airline, where, by a stroke of luck, I had the opportunity to learn how to update the airline website. That was around the time of the dot com boom, so quite an exciting time. In short, I got into the industry just by being in the right place at the right time. After a few years developing and maintaining websites in different companies I realized that I was more interested in making websites successful than in building them – hence digital marketing.
Tell me about your agency. What is it you do and what prompted you to start up your own?
Ascendancy Internet Marketing is a Shropshire based digital marketing agency of 12. As well as offering a broad range of digital marketing services, with search at the core, we also develop websites and provide graphic design services. The design and development grew out of the digital marketing services, as we learned that to really get results for a client, it helps to have more influence over the whole website.
I started my own agency in 2004. At the time, we were moving to Shropshire with a new baby, to be closer to my family. There weren’t really any digital marketing jobs to speak of in the local area at the time, that would enable me to use all my skills, earn a decent living and work flexibly around my son – so I made my own job. Necessity wasn’t the only reason, though – I’d thought for years that I wanted to run my own business, to give me more control over my future – this just seemed to be the right time to do it.
What do you think the are most important issues for developing your company culture?
I’ve tried to build a culture where we are open with each other as a team, admitting when things haven’t quite gone to plan and working together to fix them. I want my team to feel that it’s OK to make mistakes as long as we learn from them and find ways of stopping the same thing from happening again.
I also want it to be a business where people aren’t afraid to try new things – where they have some scope for creativity and where they can try out new ways of doing things.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a women in business?
I think that most of the challenges I’ve experienced are not women-only challenges – they’re the same challenges faced by everyone who runs a business. I don’t particularly regard myself as a woman in business, just as a person in business.
I do think, though, that people sometimes make assumptions about you based on your gender. Often when I introduce myself at a networking meeting, people will say “Oh, is it just you? Do you work from home?”, or when they come to my office they will express surprise at the size of the team. I can understand why that might be their first thought – when I meet women at networking meetings, probably more than half of them do work from home by themselves. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, and it’s how I started. It’s the jumping to conclusions that irks me.
Obviously, I have had childcare challenges along the way – until recently I’ve felt that I was never able to throw 100% of myself into growing the business, because I have rarely been able to work completely full time. Why am I the one who’s had to work around the childrens’ schedules rather than my husband? Not because I’m a woman, but because my husband is a teacher, so there’s no way he can just skip off early to fetch children, or take an hour off mid-morning to go to a sports day. On the flip side, I do have wall-to-wall childcare in school holidays!
The Wow Company’s recent survey of 471 agency owners across the UK has the figures as Female 27% – Male 73%. Can you share you thoughts on this?
I am not sure whether this is a reflection of fewer agency employees being women – in which case there’s an issue with women not entering the industry in the first place – or that a smaller proportion of women than men in the industry are choosing to go on to start their own agency.
I do think that more should be done to encourage women to enter the digital marketing / web industry as a whole. When I’ve spoken to schools and Universities in the past about recruiting new graduates or school leavers, I do think there’s a perception among young people (and those advising them) that it’s an industry for super-geeks – and there aren’t as many young women who identify themselves as super-geeks as there are young men. Actually, I think that the roles we offer to entry level candidates typically require a balanced mix of left and right brain skills – I’m as interested in candidates’ ability to communicate well as I am in technical skills. I have offered on numerous occasions to speak to kids in local schools and colleges about careers in the industry but have rarely been taken up on the offer.
Having re-visited my own secondary school recently (a girls’ grammar school), the Head proudly told us about all the great jobs the girls go on to work in – they go on to be lawyers, doctors, teachers and other professions, apparently. No mention at all of entrepreneurship or any options that might not be seen as ‘safe’!
Do you have a mentor, or are you a member of an agency owner community?
I’m a member of a Digital Agency forum run by Robert Craven of the Director’s Centre – the agencies that are members of the forum met as part of a Google business development programme a couple of years back, and we have continued meeting and sharing best practice ever since. This forum has been invaluable to me in developing the business.
Do you feel as a female agency founder, they offer the level of support you need? Do you need additional support that isn’t currently available?
I’m generally quite anti anything that specifically treats women as a different group of business people. I think that by giving women different or special treatment in some way, you’re giving off the wrong messages and suggesting there are problems that don’t really exist. Women aren’t that different to men and I don’t believe they need to be treated differently. In fact, I usually tend to avoid events that are specifically targeted at women.
What other female founders inspire you?
I don’t particularly look to other people for inspiration, so I’m afraid I can’t think of any, either male or female!
What do you think makes a great agency?
Great results for clients, a happy and productive team, and a healthy balance sheet!
What would be your one piece of advice to future female leaders?
Just get on with it!