Born Ugly is a brand transformation consultancy and a creative partnership. They are a team of strategists, creatives and change activists on a mission to create work that improves the experiences and lives of everyone who feel its impact. They’re powered by truly open minds and different perspectives, who are execution agnostic.
To discover more, we spoke to Born Ugly CEO, Sarah Dear.
How was your company born and where are you based?
Born Ugly as a brand was born in 2020 - one of the ugliest of years, so a fitting time! We were formerly the founding studio and global HQ of the Elmwood Group and demerged as a stand-alone independent with a new brand, a new vision and over 40 years of international expertise behind us. Our studio is in the centre of Leeds (on the water!). Our team are in Leeds as well as all over the UK, and our clients are all around the globe.
What was the biggest challenge to the growth of your company?
I would say the biggest challenge, and at the same time the biggest opportunity, was the need to reposition and rebrand our business while working remotely during Covid – not an easy task and an amazing achievement by the whole team.
Rebranding proved to be a double-edged sword. It gave us the opportunity to reinvent the business, but when you have a clean slate and a new name, nobody knows who you are!
Which was the first huge success that you can remember?
Probably the first huge success we had as Born Ugly was winning the opportunity to work with a pioneering cell health brand from New Zealand, MitoQ. Together we have been on a transformation journey, taking the brand out of the commoditised supplements category and creating a new category of cell health.
People are becoming more aware that they need to look after their foundational health at a cellular level. It’s been an amazing journey for both parties, with extremely positive outcomes for us and them.
What’s the biggest opportunity for you and your company in the next year?
To consolidate our journey from brand design consultancy to becoming agents of change. We help businesses imagine a brighter future and seize the opportunities that are presented to them in an ever- changing world. Change can sometimes be viewed as scary, but change that makes your business more successful is beautiful.
How does your team remain inspired and motivated?
One of the fundamental things we wanted to do when we set up Born Ugly was to make sure that everyone could share in the value that we are creating. Once you have been with the business for a year, you can become a shareholder, which means we all have a vested interest in doing the best and the most impactful work for our clients.
We have a vibrant studio where there is always lots of exciting stuff going on, thanks to our amazing Studio and Events Manager. We also make sure the team has lots of opportunities to be inspired, whether that’s taking a day to go somewhere and be inspired; getting artists, experts and companies in to come and share their experience; or getting together for ‘Outside In’, where we pick a topic, get outside inspiration and think about what these insights could mean for the future and for our clients.
How has COVID-19 affected your company?
Like most companies we now have a hybrid working pattern, where we work in the studio together some days and other days remotely from home. We use technology more to help us work creatively together no matter where we are, like using Miro digital whiteboards for creative thinking.
We also completed our training to become a business that uses AGILE tools and processes during Covid. The result is that we are more effective, we collaborate better internally and with our clients, and we create better more meaningful work in an enjoyable way.
Which agencies do you gain inspiration from? Do you have any heroes in the industry?
I get the most inspiration from start-ups who are trying to do something different to challenge the status quo, and who are using creative thinking to solve challenges.
As for heroes, that’s so hard. I’ve worked with so many amazing people over the last 30 years and with some truly inspirational clients too, I will undoubtedly have learned brilliant stuff from them all. But I have four key pieces of advice that were given to me and that have really stuck with me.
The first two are from Jonathan Sands – still a shareholder in Born Ugly and my mentor for many decades – who told me that as agencies the only thing we have to sell is our integrity. We must always give our best advice and never just take a brief and do it if isn’t the right thing for the client’s business.
He also said that we only ever grow when we are doing things that make us feel uncomfortable, so to make sure to push yourself out of your comfort zone on a regular basis. I certainly took that advice!
The late Glenn Tutssel taught me to have confidence in the quality of an idea. If you have one great idea that you know is ‘the one’, just go with that and work really hard to make it brilliant.
And a whole host of outstanding women across industries taught me that it was okay to do things in your own female way and that you don’t have to act like a man to be a success in this world.
Fortunately, the world has changed a lot since I started my career but nevertheless it’s important to be your authentic self and not someone else. I think that’s harder these days.
What is one tip that you would give to other agencies looking to grow?
Be really clear on what distinct value you bring to your clients and be brave in the types of people you bring into your team - more diversity means better creativity.
How do you go about finding new clients/business? (Pitching, work with retainers, etc.)
Most new clients come through existing relationships and recommendations. Our Born Ugly brand also attracts a lot of interest from businesses outside our network because it’s so unique.
What’s your one big hope for the future of the industry?
My one big hope is that we will stop de-valuing what the creative industry has to offer by giving it away for free in pitches. This isn’t good for creative businesses as it makes no commercial sense, and of course it isn’t the best thing for clients.
It becomes a meaningless beauty parade, created by businesses working in a vacuum rather than working collaboratively with clients to solve real business challenges and making meaningful change.
Do you have any websites, books or resources that you would recommend?
No, I’m afraid I’m not a good reader of business books, although I have probably bought most of them! (For what it’s worth, I’m much more of a fiction reader and would recommend The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruis Zafon.)
I would recommend that people get out there, experience the real world as much as possible and observe what people are doing and saying.