Interviews

‘If it doesn’t exist create your own’

Tamara Littleton, CEO and Founder of The Social Element on inclusive leadership, the power of networks and the importance of self-belief

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director

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‘You are on mute’. Those four words, which punctuated the wholesale shift to remote work necessitated by the pandemic and the panic that accompanied them are almost universal. Yet the panic experienced in some agencies was worlds apart from the experience of Tamara Littleton. As CEO and Founder of global social media agency, The Social Element, Littleton has built her business on productivity and passion rather than presenteeism. 

Her experience of running a remote-first business not only meant The Social Element was fit to flourish in challenging circumstances, but Littleton herself was in high demand as a spokesperson and podcaster as business at large struggled to adapt to the tectonic shift afoot in working practices.

Littleton, who is speaking as part of Creativebrief's Women in Marketing interview series, was awarded the Best Leader in Marketing, Agency at the Women in Marketing Awards last year. Despite this accolade, she is refreshingly honest about not always feeling comfortable with the spotlight. 

Breaking through this discomfort has been an important part of her journey as a leader and she is eloquent and honest in explaining why profile is a vital leadership tool. “You have to get comfortable with the concept of personal branding,” she explains. It is a concept that she believes means leaders need to be clear on what they are comfortable talking about. Even if such expertise might not sit at the heart of their day job, if the subject is at the heart of who they are as a person then it’s an important part of their story. A story which deserves to be told. 

Rather than viewing the idea of a ‘personal brand’ as building an overtly corporate persona removed from the flesh and bones of who you are, Littleton instead views it as a tool to be absolutely comfortable with expressing what you really care about. “If people can just get comfortable that we all have a personal brand, which is just the essence of you and what you want to talk about that can only be a good thing,” she adds,

Now is the time for vulnerable leaders, empathetic leaders and it is a great time. It's a great time for people to get into marketing and make a difference

Tamara Littleton, CEO and Founder of The Social Element

The inclusive leadership imperative 

It is a shift which is particularly vital for women in the tech space to embrace. For while it may well be National Inclusion Week this week the lived experience of women in technology remains painfully different from the rhetoric. From WhatsApp groups buzzing with warnings about women’s drinks being spiked at industry events, to the UK’s highest profile technology journalists not batting an eyelid when the UK tech awards revealed an all-male shortlist for tech journalist of the year true inclusion is far from a reality. In this ecosystem Littleton’s leadership is uniquely powerful; by in showing up as who she is, she in turn makes space for others to do the same. 

As Littleton explains: “It is not a big secret that I am a queer leader in this space. I talk about remote working and pushing things forward in terms of diversity and inclusion.” Let’s be clear with Littleton it is not just talk, this is not a ‘thought-leadership strategy’ designed to boost her profile and profit line, this is a leader who truly embodies the power of ‘bringing your whole self to work’. 

You have to get comfortable with the concept of personal branding

Tamara Littleton, CEO and Founder of The Social Element

The power of introverted leaders

Yet like any woman with an ounce of profile in any public space before her, Littleton has experienced pushback. She is eloquent in explaining the personal impact of ‘tall poppy syndrome’ on those on the front line of social media. Sharing that early on in her career she faced up to ‘vicious’ feedback.

Hand in hand with paying this feedback penalty,  Littleton also struggled with the internal narrative that she was not putting herself forward enough. “I had a concern that I am not like Gary Vee and therefore I am failing,” she says honestly.

Yet that tendency to compare and despair with Gary Vaynerchuck, the never-knowingly under-PR’d chairman of VaynerX, underestimates the beauty that comes with running your own race as a creative leader.  As Littleton explains: “Social media means having a voice, but it doesn’t mean it needs to be a safe voice or the same as other people.”

The evolution of leadership

Littleton is clear-sighted that she is ‘not perhaps what people expect’ of a CEO, a reminder, perhaps of our propensity and a society to look for leadership in all the wrong places. Or at the very least in one white, male-dominated dimension. 

Yet, as the Women in Marketing Awards underline so clearly, Littleton’s leadership model is future fit and one that is recognised by the industry. As Littleton explains: “Now is the time for vulnerable leaders, empathetic leaders and it is a great time. It’s a great time for people to get into marketing and make a difference.”

Sharing that her favourite activity is ‘talking about leadership over coffee’ Littleton retains the energy and enthusiasm which propelled her company forward, with an enviable roster of clients from Diageo, PlayStation and Visa.

Her commitment to both her company and continual learning is active and she shares that she spends up to three hours a day on social media reading and staying up to date on the industry. Insights and warmth that she shares on her own podcast. 

Look to your networks start building them up and giving back and if it doesn't exist create your own

Tamara Littleton, CEO and Founder of The Social Element

The evolution of creative leadership

Littleton is passionate about the power of social media and she shares her belief that brands have placed a higher status on social media because it truly delivers that ever-elusive one to one communication with consumers. Notably, what she is excited most about right now is hiring people. She explains: “We look for people with empathy and good communication skills and passion for what we do.” 

It is this passion and humanity which has been the red thread through her own career, and as it continues to evolve, she cites self-belief as key to her journey. As a self-confessed ‘endlessly curious’ tech expert her experience of running the online web team at the BBC in the late nineties forged her grounding as a leader. A grounding which gave her the confidence to request voluntary redundancy from Chello to begin the leadership journey which has continued to flourish at The Social Element.

A timely reminder that brilliant beginnings start with difficult decisions. Decisions which in turn can create the space to not just evolve your own career but contribute to the broader evolution of what it really means to be a leader. As Littleton shows so clearly it’s a journey which begins with the simple yet nonetheless radical act of being yourself.