Leaders

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Emma Sexton on running your business in COVID times

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Who would have thought, one year ago, that success in 2020 would be measured by the capacity to survive a pandemic?

We know Emma Sexton as the CEO and founder of creative agency MYWW, founder of the Inside Out Awards, creative expert in residence at King's College and overall a strong, ambitious and entrepreneurial woman. And yet, even she couldn't be one-hundred percent sure of how future-proof her entirely remote business was – until a global pandemic proved her right.

Emma and her business are still going strong during the coronavirus outbreak and they do not plan to stop or slow down. An energy Emma was able to transmit to her team, by caring deeply for the each employee's mental health – including her own.

In the interview below we are Getting to Know one of the top innovators in the industry, influential enough to be shortlisted four times as Creativepool's Creative Industry Influencer of the Year.

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Tell us about your current role!

I am the CEO and founder of the creative agency MYWW™, the founder of the Inside Out Awards™, UK's only awards for in-House Creative Teams, and Creative Expert In Residence at the award winning King's College Entrepreneurial Institute where I advise their start-ups on how to leverage design and branding for business success.

How did you get to your current position? What was the biggest challenge?

One of the brilliant advantages of starting your own business is that you don't have to wait for someone else to promote you! You sit immediately at the top of an organisation, which sounds like fun but comes with a whole set of challenges!

My biggest challenge in the past couple of years has been developing my business acumen. I am a visual designer by trade, so running businesses has been like learning a whole new career again. I have had to accept that, just like my design career where I was a junior designer, then mid-weight etc, I am on the same track with my business acumen. Definitely feeling more like a Senior Entrepreneur now though!

If you weren’t in your current industry, what would you be doing?

Seeking investment to build the world's biggest and best roller skating rink within a giant warehouse in London, somewhere. That isn't even a joke. I have potential co-founder for this too, so watch this space!

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What’s your secret to keeping the team inspired and motivated?

This is an interesting question. As someone who, in the past, has created many different ventures/ideas, I know myself so well now that I have to be really clear on where my activities are leading me. Without a clear ambition that makes me feel challenged and excited about, it is impossible for me to maintain the commitment.

I have had my agency and awards for almost 8 years now and I am very clear on what I am building. But also, I have created a working world which I love and do not want to end, so that is pretty motivating in itself.

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How has COVID-19 affected you as a leader?

It has been exceptionally hard to navigate this year and get a business through this. But this year has been transformational for me in many positive ways.

My agency model was built on the 'hub and spoke' model and from day one we have been entirely remote, as I have a strong belief that work should be a place where people can thrive with flexible working. For that to happen we had to be able to operate with our team working from anywhere, accessing talent across the globe.

Both of these decisions have been our life-saver this year. We had minimal disruption to our ways of working, so I focused all my efforts in making sure my team was OK. This was authentic leadership dialled up to the max and I put people first. I was 100% honest and transparent with the team on the state of the business, how much runway we had, what my plans were. I put their mental health as a priority ensuring that they took as much down time as possible during July and August. And I looked after myself. A business can be rebuilt, but it is nothing without its people.

Before COVID-19 people were measuring your agency's success on how big your office was and where it was based - now they are measuring it on whether you can survive a pandemic, so all of these elements have really worked in our favour this year. It has taught me that my tenacity to make an agency work in this way was totally worth it! 

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What is your one advice to aspiring creatives looking to be successful?

I am particularly interested in female creatives who want to set up their own agencies, as there are not enough of those. My one piece of advice for them would be: if I can do it, you definitely can.

How do you recharge away from the office?

Having experienced a bad case of burn out a couple of years ago, I take recharging very seriously. One of the things I didn't ever value or prioritise was doing nothing - having that total brain rest. It used to be very hard for me to do nothing - I would get restless as there are always so many things to do when you are running an agency. But now I reframe this down time as essential work to ensure I can keep up the pace. To recharge I like wasting time and doing whatever I am in the mood for

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What’s your one big dream for the future of the industry?

My current industry fantasy is that we lose the big egos, we become more collaborative and women are thriving - even when they have had children. I know TOO MANY stories of brilliant talented women who lose their jobs when returning from pregnancy.

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