What’s your background/career path?
I’ve always wanted to do something in communications, but growing up pre-internet, the job I’m doing now didn’t even exist when I was at school! After doing a degree in Communications Studies with Spanish, I got a job as a PA with an independent radio production company in Cambridge and Manchester who specialised in music programming for the BBC.
I was with them for seven years, moving on to run the BBC Country website – writing reviews, features, covering events in Nashville, hosting the messageboard, learning on the job about what makes great web content. It was all going great! I loved it! Then the BBC went off the idea of focusing so much on country music and the site was shrunk significantly, and I was made redundant.
So I moved to ITV.com – bit of a change having been working with the BBC for so long – and became Project Manager of their website. That was all going brilliantly too, until Granada and Carlton merged, and I was made redundant again for the second time in 18 months.
The first time it happened, it was a real blow. I felt part of the family, and of course it’s something the partners didn’t do lightly, but it was a real shock to the system. The second time, I was furious. Oh, and as I discovered a few days later – pregnant. So that was an interesting situation!
I picked up freelance work with Yahoo!, supporting the in-house team by managing the homepage content out of hours – getting up early to write witty headlines about the cricket or Big Brother, staying up late to cover escalating news stories, being on call to cover the 7/7 bombings when the team was sent home. Again, this was all about creating content and developing a keen editorial eye, and I loved it. I could also work from home around the baby, which worked for me and also for them, because they knew I was reliable.
When this contract came to an end I did a similar role with AOL, became editor at Magic FM, and gradually began to pick up more and more freelance work. People would ask me to write their website copy, or see that I was active on Twitter and ask me to manage their social media feeds.
After some time I needed to get a portfolio together, and registered the sookio.com domain name so I had somewhere to place everything. Big companies like Yahoo! wanted contractors to bill by an umbrella company and it was a getting quite expensive now that I was working for so many people, so I registered Sookio as a limited company and billed through that instead.
And lo, Sookio was born!
Tell me about your agency.
So we’re based in central Cambridge and specialise in content – copywriting, social media, design and video, and the training and strategy that goes with it.
It was a deliberate decision a couple of years ago to expand by broadening our scope around content itself, rather than trying to become a full-service agency offering development, SEO and PR. Content is what I love, it’s where our strengths are, and we’d rather partner up with other specialists than pretend we want to get knee-deep in code when we don’t! In fact a lot of our work comes from other agencies who have won the contract to build a website but now need the content to go on it.
There are around 10 of us – a core team of four full-timers, with solid relationships with a video team, designers and an extra strategist who works on bigger projects like social media monitoring for big corporates. We work with people like GOV.UK, the University of Cambridge, Toshiba, Jones Lang LaSalle and Drinkaware, along with a host of health, tech and science companies in the Cambridge cluster.
What is it you do and what prompted you to start up your own?
It’s one of these situations that developed over time, rather than me getting up one morning and deciding to run an agency. I was getting more and more work as a freelancer, and came to realise that my time was divided into three; getting the work, doing the work, and the admin around the work. Which meant there was a limit on what I could achieve on my own.
I was also doing it around two small children, but this gradually got better, as one went to school and the other was at nursery three days a week, then started school. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed the feeling of sitting at my desk at 9am on a Monday morning! From this, I started to look for office space and tentatively began to take people on to help with the workload.
It was slow growth rather than a VC-backed, 0-60mph in three seconds kind of affair…but what this means is that we have very solid foundations, trusted relationships that we’ve built up over years.
My role now as Director is to generate new business and to oversee the content that we produce, acting as an account manager across every project. I don’t generate much content myself, but I do run almost all the training workshops in topics like social media and writing for the web.
What do you think are the most important issues for developing your company culture?
I’ve taken a lot from the different companies I’ve worked at, and know what I like and don’t like. I think it’s important to communicate with the team and make them feel part of decisions that we make as a business. I like being able to praise people for good work that they’ve done – on our social media feeds too, if applicable – and explain why it was such a good piece of work, rather than simply saying well done.
I do reviews every three months so there’s a chance to talk through how people are getting on, which helps avoid problems building up. I also encourage everyone to go to events and conferences where they can build relationships and keep up with industry trends, which I think develops an environment where we’re all learning and sharing new ideas.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a women in business?
Well, the redundancy-pregnancy thing was an interesting time. Do you tell potential employers your situation or not? After some time it became obvious but by that point I’d got the Yahoo! work.
I did, however, massively overcompensate for the fact that I was working from home with small children. I was terrified, if I’m honest, of giving out the perception that I was ‘just a Mum at home’, doing a bit of work on the side and not really bothered or committed. So I took on way too many contracts, worked ‘til midnight way too often and never mentioned the kids as a reason I couldn’t make a meeting.
I don’t particularly regret all this, because this set me up to be successful later and has given me a reputation for being someone who is passionate and dedicated to what I do. But it wasn’t until much later that I felt comfortable mentioning children in business conversations. It’s all about how you define yourself.
In many ways, being a woman has worked to my advantage. I’ve been in situations where everyone else in the room is a bit of an alpha male, acting all Billy Big Bollocks. That’s not my style at all, and because I’m different and not a threat, we can work more collaboratively.
I don’t feel that being a woman has held me back particularly. I have to watch myself to make sure I’m not too ‘nice’; there are times I think I should be more bullish, more pushy – but then I think that’s just not the way I am. It’s about finding your own way of doing things, regardless of whether you’re male or female. I sometimes avoid women-only networking events for this reason, that they can reinforce the idea that the odds are stacked against us; I’d rather look out and think it’s ours for the taking, let’s roll up our sleeves and get on with it. And give a hand up to others while we’re at it.
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?
That doesn’t surprise me unfortunately. Even if an agency does have senior level women in the team, it doesn’t take much digging to see that they’re in marketing rather than C-suite.
Why this is, is difficult to tell. I don’t want to blame the baby factor – I think this is a bit of a lazy argument. To give you a parallel example, I did some work with Toshiba where we ran a competition for film students to make a viral video and it struck me that not one of the directors were women. Even at the age of 19, 20, when babies probably weren’t something they were thinking about, these young women weren’t in these creative leadership positions.
So I think it starts a lot younger. We have to create an environment where women are supported, and encouraged to take different routes. There is evidence to show that women get shouted down in meetings much more – it’s up to managers to encourage their voices to be heard.
There is so much talk about the startup community and why female founders should get more funding, and lots about career development in large corporations…but very little about growing an agency and the sort of models you can work to. In fact for me, it was a long time before I even started calling Sookio an agency. Am I the director, the founder, CEO? None of this is ever explained, there’s no rule book!
A lot of agencies focus on web development, and with developers more likely to be male, there’s a natural progression there. It would be interesting to see if the agencies run by women are more commonly PR agencies. In the ad world though, I see no reason for there to be so few women.
Do you have a mentor, or are you a member of an agency owner community?
I had an excellent mentor, a chap from Lloyds called Paul Shadbolt, who I connected with via a local business group. I don’t see him so often now, but he’s great at doing that thing where he asks a question and lets me think things through rather than telling me what to do.
I’ve also been on a few growth accelerator schemes, which have been fairly helpful. We’re listed on the RAR but I don’t really do anything with Drum. Whenever I’m at networking events and conferences though I always try to talk to other agency owners and find out how they’ve grown. It’s important to always be learning. I don’t mind if this learning comes from men or women – there’s always something relevant I can apply to my own experience.
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 don’t feel I get any support as a female agency founder to be honest…but am not sure if there’s much out there for agency owners at all, male or female.
There are things that I find hard, like getting the pricing right, and knowing how to offer the things that people actually want. It would be great to have more support in things like HR and business planning too. If I was at this level and working for someone else, there would probably be management training and other forms of professional development, but for me I’ve learned on the job!
What other female founders inspire you?
Cindy Gallop. (Twitter bio: I like to blow shit up. I am the Michael Bay of business.) I like people who innovate, who create, who just bloody get on with it rather than sitting round writing thought leadership pieces all day long.
What do you think makes a great agency?
I think you need to have some sort of spark, a love for what you do. I can’t stand the sort of environment where people are always putting down the clients or sneering at customers. You do see that a lot in the freelance and agency world unfortunately…but the ones who do best are those who have respect for the people they work with and a desire to create great work.
You have to keep moving too. Working in digital means that the landscape is always changing, so you have to learn fast and be nimble so you can offer the right services and be confident in the advice you’re giving a client. Sitting there with your arms folded and saying how it must work because this is how we did it five years ago just isn’t going to cut it!
What would be your one piece of advice to future female leaders?
Don’t spend too much time reading articles which reinforce negative feelings about yourself – like how women undervalue themselves or never speak up in the workplace. Think about what you can be, rather than what you aren’t. Get out there and start doing good work. Then shout about the work. Then encourage people to come with you. Then keep going…