Tell me a little bit about yourself.
I sort of grew up surrounded by marketing. My father is in sales and marketing and many of my childhood memories involve visiting him when he was at trade shows, or seeing him producing brochures, tenders and pitches. After graduation (in marketing, of course) I spent a couple of years working in startups (the early days of online communities and elearning) but craved some job security – as well as the chance to learn on the job. Eventually I got my first job as a junior business development executive in a big law firm… and I haven’t looked back since, specialising in legal marketing (and more recently working for further and higher education) ever since.
Tell me about your agency.
I set Elephant Creative up almost ten years ago, when I was made redundant from a senior marketing role at a law firm. The recession was just biting and, as usual, the marketing team was the first to go. I made a few calls and quickly realised that, with all the senior marketing people being made redundant, someone had to carry on the work… and that meant a potential boom in outsourced marketing. Since then we’ve grown into a rather unique organisation because we’re not only virtual but structured like a barristers’ chambers – with a central admin function but an entirely subcontracted group of associates. Over the years we’ve grown into one of the leading teams servicing both the professional services and education sectors.
What do you think the are most important issues for developing your company culture?
The first is to address the virtual and flexible nature of the team. Our clients get real value from our ability to build teams to suit their needs at any given time. But the flip side is that I have to make sure we always know where to find the best people for a wide range of jobs – from social media through to public sector tenders, strategic review, telesales, creative design, web development and copywriting… to name a few things. The most important issue I have is making everyone feel like a team, irrespective of seniority, location and area of work.
We use a range of cloud-based tools to help this (TeamworkPM for practice management, Xero for finance, Hootsuite for social media, Evernote for notes and minutes, Google Drive for file storage and Slack for communications, Odro for video conferencing etc) but we’ve learnt that these are no substitute for getting together as well. Once a month we have a co-working day in a café local to many of us, and twice a year we have Elephant Day, to give everyone a chance to share ideas and take time for some training, as well.
Finally, as part of our B Corp certification, we’ve also spent a lot of time reviewing our policies, procedures and protocols. We’ve set out exactly what sort of working world we want to promote, what we promise and what we expect in return.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a women in business?
The imposter syndrome. It’s been written about a great deal and there is a tendency to view it as the latest psychological fad… but I think it’s real… certainly for me. I’ve spent a lot of my time, through my career, losing sleep over what people think of me and the areas I think I’m failing or about to be caught out. I think, in today’s workplace, women in business are often their own worst enemies. Most of the challenges I’ve faced have been of my own making and, whilst time has been a big help, it’s taken just as much work to convince me it’s ok to be proud of being good at what I do, as it has been to build the actual business.
The Wow Company’s recent survey of 471 agency owners across the UK has the figures as Female 27% – Male 73%. Can you share your thoughts on this?
I think a lot of that comes down to my previous answer. Women often feel they have to be brilliant at everything and fear stops us from giving stuff a go. I don’t think men feel that to the same extent. Many are prepared to try things out much sooner than we do. Years ago I (briefly) coached rowing at a very exclusive girls school in Oxford. I very quickly returned to coaching men’s rowing at the University because I couldn’t bear how the girls needed to know “why” every time I gave them an instruction. The men were usually prepared to just give it a go and only ask questions afterwards, if it didn’t work. Whilst asking questions is important I think sometimes women need to be a little braver.
Do you have a mentor, or are you a member of an agency owner community?
I’ve had a range of mentors over the years but I’m not someone that fits into structured groups well. Ironically, for a marketing person, I’m quite shy and find those sorts of things intimidating. One-to-one mentoring has been invaluable, though. Both in the early days of setting up and more recently when what I really need is a quarterly kick in the pants to follow through on the ideas I have.
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 happy with what I have… but that doesn’t mean I am not open to new ideas. Sometimes, particularly, when I’m having a rough time or things in other areas of my life feel like they’re taking over, getting a different perspective can be vital.
I think there are different phases of what you need from mentoring, as you go through business life. At the start it’s about learning what you don’t know. Then you know what you don’t know but not how to tackle it. Now I’ve been doing it for a few years I quite often know what needs to be done but mentoring serves to give me space to explore that in more detail, as well as reignite my excitement, rather than being bogged down in client work.
What other female founders inspire you?
To be honest, I’m not someone that necessarily views gender as a reason to restrict my inspirations. I regularly read about both men and women, often those just starting out, that inspire me because they’re taking a new approach to something and have a way of doing things that resonates. My reading list is huge and I’ve always got articles and books on the go by people that inspire me – often from the non-business world. At the moment I’m very inspired by the many organisations working in the B corp world. The thought that we might be able to change the world whilst also growing the business community is the ultimate inspiration, I think.
What do you think makes a great agency?
Great clients! It’s easy to say great people but if they aren’t motivated and inspired by great client projects then you won’t keep them for long.
What would be your one piece of advice to future female leaders?
My mother would be surprised to hear this but I often hear her voice in my head when I’m tackling a tricky business challenge. She always used to remind me that “nobody is losing as much sleep over this as you are”… and she was right. My advice to future female leaders would be the same. Give it a go and trust your instincts. Along the way you’ll make some massive mistakes and you’ll make some wonderful successes… but nobody is worrying about any of this as much as you are… so just get on with it!