Tell us a bit about your role! Is there a “typical” day?
I became CEO last week, so you are probably best asking me again in a few months. I plan to spend most of my time truly understanding the needs of marketers at entrepreneurial brands, staying on top of how best we can serve those needs, and giving our people what they need to do their best work.
What was the biggest challenge in getting to your current position?
The world is moving at a rapid pace, and our industry is even faster. Business is fun, scary, rewarding, painful, challenging, and full of joy. The biggest challenge for any leader is to be consistent in all this change.
In my 17 years at The Specialist Works, I never saw becoming CEO as the goal. But rather, I focused on doing what I could to make our people, our clients, and this business successful. Bringing out the best possible version of myself consistently, in spite of everything life has thrown my way, is and always will be the big challenge.
What is your personal background and what role did it play in your career?
My parents instilled a can-do attitude, work ethic, and people-first mentality in me from an early age. A homeless officer and welder by trade, they also set up a variety of different businesses, including a clothing brand, a market stall, a tanning shop, a property business and a fish and chip shop. From childhood, I got to learn a lot about business and hard work through osmosis.
Then I had my three kids. Parenthood focused my mind on what is and isn’t important, particularly having a son who has a range of physical, intellectual, and visual disabilities. It’s been fucking hard, but ten times more rewarding. Parents who go through what we have, develop a strength, determination, and grit that’s hard to match.
My background makes me see success through multiple lenses. Financial success is important, but I must be proud of how I impact the people around me.
What is your biggest career-related win? What is your biggest loss?
In 2018, a group of us got to buy the business that I love in a management buy-out. Jim, the founder, is someone who I’ve learned so much from and who I have huge respect for. I’d worked for him for many years. For him to trust us with his baby was a huge deal, and taking co-ownership of this business is something I am immensely proud of.
The biggest loss is harder to pinpoint. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve made my fair share of profit-losing decisions over the years, and there are a couple of clients who we no longer work with who I’d love to win back one day. But my biggest regrets all relate to times I’ve followed advice rather than my own beliefs. Advice is great, but it’s a guide, not a rulebook.
Which individuals and/or agencies do you gain inspiration from? Do you have any heroes in the industry?
There are too many to mention by name. In fact, I try to take inspiration from everyone I interact with. Fortunately for me, I spend my time with entrepreneurial marketers, passionate specialists, and start-up founders.
I don’t really do heroes, but if I had to choose one person, I’d go for Mark Ritson. He knows his shit (and isn’t afraid to say ‘shit’ a lot!), he shares his knowledge in a refreshingly accessible way, and, while he takes his work seriously, is very happy to have a laugh at his own expense.
The indie sector in the UK is thriving. I have massive respect for all the indie founders who have chosen to go it alone, deliver something different to clients, and make a positive impact on people in this industry. We compete with each other, but we also have each other’s backs.
If you could go back to your teenage years, would you have done things differently? Do you have any regrets?
The mistakes I made as a teenager are what made me who I am today. So, while I’d do tonnes of things differently now, I don’t spend my time on regrets. And luckily for me, the mistakes I made pre-dated camera phones and social media.
If you weren’t in your current industry, what would you be doing?
I’ve always loved business and entrepreneurship. If I weren’t in marketing services, I hope I’d be on the other side of the fence… growing a B2C business from the inside.
What’s your one big dream for the future of the industry?
One day we will win the marketing effectiveness battle. CMOs will be the stars of the boardroom. CFOs and CEOs will have absolute clarity on the positive impact marketing is having on their business performance.
To get here, our industry must celebrate effectiveness over ego. True creativity must be impactful, solve problems, and drive business results.
What are your top tips for aspiring creative professionals?
Understand what works, why it works, and obsess about what you can do to make it work harder.
Don’t take criticism from someone you wouldn’t take advice from. Unfortunately, everyone will have an opinion on your work, and if you’re not careful, these opinions can crush your creativity. Your north star should be to create work that you are proud of.
And learn how to sell your ideas. If your work needs approval (spoiler, it always does), learn how to give your work the best chance of being approved.
What are your top tips for other creative leaders?
Learn to give good feedback. Good creatives pour their hearts and souls into what they do. They care about the work. They’ve spent hours creating something they’re proud to show you.
Poor feedback kills creativity. This doesn’t mean you can’t critique work. But you must ask yourself, why don’t I like it? What am I missing? How can I build on this? How do I motivate the creative to raise the bar even higher?
When you think about your team, what is the thing that matters to you the most?
I want them to be proud of the work they do and the business they work for.
Do you have any websites, books or resources you would recommend?
I am obsessed with business and inspirational podcasts: ‘Let’s Do The Right Thing’, ‘Secret Leaders’, ‘Uncensored CMO’, ‘Brand Growth Heroes’, ‘Beautiful Misfits’, ‘Diary of a CEO’, ‘How I Built This’. I could go on and on. The Doc Rivers episode of The Playbook on Netflix is great too. And then just follow Mark Ritson on LinkedIn and read all his stuff.