“Everything can become very transactional when we are just relying on technology alone”

Sara Tate, Chief Executive of TBWA\London on why building back better requires experimentation, an open mind, empathy and getting comfortable with the uncomfortable.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director Creativebrief


“I’ve been amazed, but not surprised by the agency, our clients and our continued resilience. You remember how wonderful people can be when the rubber hits the road.” Sara Tate is sharing the ways in which clients and teams have built closer relationships during the coronavirus crisis. Meeting each other where they are, confined to their homes in the midst of a global pandemic, while physically disconnected has brought the teams closer together.

Yet this is not to say that Tate has not recognised the impact of the pandemic on every aspect of people’s lives. “This is not to say that it isn’t taking its toll on people. It becomes tiring over time and we all need to be focused on refilling our cups right now,” she says.

This moment to recharge also brings with it a moment to reflect, hold onto and celebrate the wins. Tate, who picked up the award for Best Leader in Marketing (Agency) at the Women in Marketing Awards, had no idea she was entered into the awards until she found out she had won. For it was TBWA\London’s Chief Strategy Chief Anna Vogt who had taken the time to enter and share how Tate’s empathetic leadership style had come into its own in the midst of the crisis.

Our personal lives and work lives blended together, and you can’t just walk the floors anymore, so you need to make sure you are listening.

Sara Tate

Leadership in a crisis

Just how vital empathetic leadership is in the current climate isn’t an empty statement. Research from the Harvard Business Review showed that 85% of employees say their well-being has declined during the past year. While 62% are struggling to meet their workload and to balance work with other responsibilities. Post pandemic burnout is real.

“We’ve needed to do really big things, but also lots of little things,” says Tate, explaining her approach to the unprecedented demands of the pandemic. Alongside Katie Jackson, Managing Director at TBWA\London, Tate recognised that with so much change and data in the market, over communication was key. Just as vital was ensuring that communication was a two-way process and to this end the agency uses Pulse, a weekly feedback app which allows employees to feedback on whether their week was good or bad.

“Our personal lives and work lives blended together, and you can’t just walk the floors anymore, so you need to make sure you are listening,” she adds. This was particularly vital for team members who were on furlough. “A lot of it was down to making sure we pick up the phone, because everything can become very transactional when we are just relying on technology alone,” Tate explains.

It’s an approach that has kept the agency heartbeat steady and strong in a challenging environment. This is reflected in the sheer amount of work the agency has got out of the door which in itself is a feat worth celebrating. From campaigns for Tommee Tippee, Facebook Portal, McVities, Mini Cheddars and Ovarian Cancer Action to wine brand HUN, the agency has adapted quickly to getting work to market in the midst of significant production pressures.

Recent work for Jaffa Cakes has also bought with it some much needed light relief. “People have talked a lot about the return to entertainment and that was certainly the case with Jaffa Cakes. There is a time to be sensitive to things, but advertising also has a responsibility to lift,” Tate says. She points to Chief Creative Officer Andy Jex’s skill at comedy sharing that the team thought carefully about how and when they could bring that light relief back into the work. 

Boundaries to build back better

Tate is talking amidst the final hurdles of home-schooling, while also running an advertising agency. It’s a job description which is perhaps so vast that had you read it prior to the pandemic you might assume the person putting it together lived in another universe, one where time is not a finite research. So, in the midst of these rubber-sided days and at a time when the future of work is at the very top of the business agenda, what has she learned?

“I’ve had to have more boundaries that I have ever had before, particularly with home-schooling,” she explains honestly. It's a process which means she has had to be very clear with what she has to give. “I like being involved in everything so that has been really hard. We’ve had to trust each other, and I have had to say when I have had to step back from things,” she adds. 

Flexibility in a framework

One year into the biggest revolution in working practices in our lifetime it's easy to forget that it wasn’t that long ago that working a four-day week as a Chief Executive in adland was something of a revolutionary act. Tate, who has been open about her decision to work part time believes the pandemic has paved the way for greater flexibility across the industry, but the four-day week isn’t always the solution.

“For a long-time in my career I thought I would always want to work a four-day week, but what I have realised is there really is no fixed solution. While I’ve been home-schooling I have been working a half day on a Friday and I think it's really important to give yourself permission to not be set in stone about how you work,” she explains.

The key is having an open dialogue and enabling employees to have a conversation about how they want to work and see how it goes. “It has to work on both sides. We want to do a brilliant job and that involves some give and take,” she adds.

We are going to have to try different things because if 2020 has taught us anything it's that we don’t have all the answers.

Sara Tate

Building back better

The uncomfortable truth is that prior to the pandemic, the industry at large is perhaps guilty of a lack of creativity when it comes to where, when and how much its employees work. So, has the pandemic finally let the genie of presenteeism out of the bottle?  “I think we are going to see a lot more experimentation,” explains Tate “We are going to have to try different things because if 2020 has taught us anything it's that we don’t have all the answers.”

It’s tempting to rush to an answer in the midst of so many unknowns but, explains Tate, “it’s about looking at what certainty you can provide.” She goes on to add: “My commitment is to be honest, to listen and to create a diverse workplace. That promise can remain fixed even if we need to adapt quickly.”

She points to the Black Lives Matter movement as a key focus for the industry in the drive to build back better. She explains: “The spotlight on the lack of racial diversity and social mobility in our industry is right. We’ve had a lot more conversations about who is behind the camera and who is in front. It’s also about the crew and we are supporting directors from more diverse backgrounds.”

Highlighting the work the agency has been doing internally with Creative Equals, she adds: “We are still working on how we put diversity and inclusion at the very heart of creative development.” 

Good to great

“One of the things I really hope we can embrace from this year is the learnings that we have had from discomfort,” explains Tate. It’s this discomfort and the open-minded approach that comes with it which she believes is key to success.

When it comes to the future of the industry, she notes that she is “tired” of the narrative that networks are dead because it is too binary. Yet should the industry beware the ‘toxic positivity’ in the drive to build back better without addressing fundamental issues? Tate points to the ‘Stockdale Paradox’ a term coined by Jim Collins is his book Good to Great, which in essence underlines the need to maintain faith that you will prevail in the end, but at the same time have the discipline to acknowledge the brutal facts of your current realities.

For many across the industry, 2020 wasn’t short of brutal realities but also the hope that comes with a global reset moment unlike any other. As Tate explains: “There can be a tendency to want to shy away from the painful lessons, but I would love for us to see that the key to rebuilding is addressing that pain and failure, because there is something to learn from it.”

There is also much to learn from Tate. While there may remain many unknowns in the months ahead, the consistency of her empathetic leadership is assured. A stake in the ground for a progressive agency, which deserves to be celebrated. 

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