Interviews

Sarah Ellis, Strategic Client Director, Gravity Road & Co-Founder, Amazing If

Having written the rulebook for the Squiggly Career, Sarah Ellis is at the forefront of the fundamental shift in working practices across the creative industries.

Nicola Kemp

Managing Editor, BITE

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‘Making work better for everyone’; as workplace challenges go, they don’t get much bigger, or more fundamental to the future of work, than this. Yet this is the mantra upon which Sarah Ellis Co-Founded the career development business Amazing If, alongside Helen Tupper, the former Commercial Marketing Director of Microsoft.

A fundamental shift is afoot in the future of work and Amazing If has been at the forefront of this nascent workplace revolution. For while we all know that the linear career path is long past its sell by date, what will replace it, and how we will find the tools and skills to thrive within it, remains a work in progress.

The ‘Squiggly Career’ provides an alternative roadmap for success which empowers people to ditch the confines of the traditional career ladder and the pressure to conform to someone else’s view of what success looks like. As Tupper and Ellis’ book The Squiggly Career Guide hits the shelves this month, Ellis believes that building resilience and investing in your own career has never been more important. “The old-world command and control hierarchy of work is no longer working for anyone,” she explains. A shift which is igniting new approaches to work within the creative industries.

The old-world command and control hierarchy of work is no longer working for anyone.

Sarah Ellis

The Third-Way

While ‘side-hustle’ is now part of the everyday vocabulary of the creative industries, many companies are still struggling to adapt to an era in which freelancing has become a ‘Plan A’ for top talent. When linear career paths are being shunned in search of greater autonomy and flexibility, new challenges arise for both individuals and corporations. At the same time, companies face the challenge of five generations working side-by side; each with different economic and social expectations of the workplace.

What guaranteed success in the past, will no longer guarantee success in the future, particularly when it comes to attracting and retaining the best talent. Ellis believes this change is driving a fundamental shift in marketing, and new approaches are coming to the fore. A ‘third way’ to grow a business is gradually emerging. “Commercial success shouldn’t have to come at the expense of everything else. When you look at brands such as Pukka Teas and Ben & Jerry’s, they are growing in a way that is sustainable and purposeful,” she explains.

Lessons from a scale-up start-up

This ‘Third Way’ has also provided some of the core values on which Amazing If is built. In the midst of a hyper-masculine rhetoric of start-up culture where often founders are scathing about the corporate world they left behind, both Ellis and Tupper are unique in that they have resolutely not lost their admiration or respect for their corporate roots. “We are accidental entrepreneurs; we actually loved the corporate world. We were doing it because of the idea for the business, not because of the idea of being an entrepreneur,” Ellis explains.

Amazing If has embraced what Ellis terms a ‘scale up’ culture; describing their growth as “slow and steady”. “There are so many assumptions around start-up culture. We have always been profitable; since the first day of launching our business, we paid ourselves,” Ellis says.

“We own our business equally and we are committed to growing it sustainably, as opposed to taking investment to grow. Integrity is what makes us distinctive and if we grew too quickly, we would dilute our proposition. We invested our own money,” she adds.

Having started as a passion project six years ago, the company has grown organically. While Tupper work for Amazing If full-time, Ellis combines her time with her role as Strategic Client Director of Gravity Road, making her a one-woman embodiment of the creative possibilities afforded by the Squiggly Career.

Commercial success shouldn’t have to come at the expense of everything else.

Sarah Ellis

A culture of curiosity

For a people-focused business such as the creative industries, creating a culture in which organisations and individuals can thrive is top of the agenda. In the ‘post-disruption’ area, in which companies are increasingly recognising that change is about far more than just technology, Ellis believes that “curiosity” will be one of the most important leadership skills of the future.

However, she warns that leaders must beware of believing that culture of curiosity will just happen. “You have to actively cultivate it,” she explains, adding, “Support side projects and creative endeavours. As leaders and organisations, you have to foster continual feedback and personal development”.

Curiosity can also build stronger partnerships between brands and agencies by driving flexible thinking and new approaches to problem solving. Ellis explains, “It can be difficult to bypass the system if you have a new idea.” She believes that agencies can help marketers not only to step up and solve a problem, but better navigate the structures and organisational complexities that will need to be overcome to bring that idea to life.

Bridging the client and agency cultural divide

In the midst of an industry narrative that all too often treats brands and agencies as if they were different species, Ellis is clear on the need for greater collaboration and cross-pollination. Both when it comes to building strong partnerships and successful marketing careers.

“If you want to become the best marketer you can possibly be then spending time in an agency will inevitably make you better,” Ellis says. Having worked at Sainsburys where she held roles including Head of Marketing Strategy and Head of Corporate Responsibility before joining Gravity Road, she believes too much is made of the difference between brands and agencies.

Ellis is an advocate of brands and agencies spending time together: “There are so many specialists within agencies, whereas on the brand side there is often more generalised skillsets.” By spending more time together Ellis believes agencies can do better at realising their collective value to a clients’ business. “The key is getting a broader perspective from agency partners. When I was at Sainsburys I would have bled orange. You become so absorbed in your own brand,” she adds.

Yet while agencies can provide variety, they also face their own challenges. As Ellis explains, “Agencies are very service led and they put their clients first, which is great, but that is sometimes to the detriment of togetherness. This makes it more important to spend more time together as agencies.” Being reactive must also not come at the expense of a team’s sanity; as Ellis notes, “You have to be more mindful of how you manage last minute requests on your staff; yes they may need to work late but there is no reason why they can’t get home first.”

What if we started with the belief that change would work; how different would your short-list look if you advertised every Executive Creative Director role as flexible?

Sarah Ellis

The power of feedback

Feedback and connection are top of the list when it comes to building both careers and companies. “What brilliant clients are great at is saying this is what I love,” explains Ellis. She believes that on the whole, clients are better at giving feedback both to staff and to the companies they work with, than agencies are.

Ellis believes that this day to day feedback is crucial to improving the work and is equally vital when it comes to career development. However, she warns, “I don’t see people prioritising that individual feedback which not only drives the creative output but the careers and cultures of the companies and individuals making it.”

It is a business shift which means that individuals and organisations need to become more comfortable with a culture of continual feedback. She adds, “For every five pieces of positive feedback you give, you can have one piece of more challenging feedback.”

Changing the ratio

Of course, feedback only works if as individuals we are open minded to change, and it is notable that Ellis is passionate about the importance of setting our individual assumptions aside in order to thrive. Pointing to the fact that just 13% of creative directors are women, she urges people to challenge their own assumptions. “What if we started with the belief that change would work; how different would your short-list look if you advertised every Executive Creative Director role as flexible?” she asks.

Ellis’ own career trajectory is evidence in itself of the power and potential of flexible talent. Yet it is to her credit that she urges readers not to focus on the “shiny outcome” of a book deal with Penguin. She explains, “Four years ago we had a conversation with an agent that didn’t go anywhere. We self-published our first book on confidence. Behind that shiny outcome there is a lot of hard work; you experience higher highs and lower lows when you are a small business.”

In a marketing ecosystem in which the majority of columnists, commentators and published authors are male, Ellis and Tupper mark a welcome change in the ratio. Despite it being 2020, women growing their careers in the creative industries still risk feeling alienated by a business press that can all too often feel rigidly masculine.

It’s an ecosystem in which the practicality and honesty of Ellis’ own career journey is so refreshing.  “We are ambitious, we ae driven and we both work full-time, but we want to be there for nursery pick-ups. We know we need time for other things,” Ellis explains. The duo therefore holds each other to account when it comes to holidays and switching off. “Part of our operating system is the need to recover,” she explains.

As the conversation on the need for a new operating system for marketing continues apace, leaders must be mindful of missing the biggest lever of change of all; people.

Sarah Ellis, and Squiggly Careers, are hosting an event in partnership with Creativebrief on Wednesday 15th January 2020. Ellis will deliver an interactive workshop on how to discover your personal strengths while a panel discussion will delve into what strength looks like across the working landscape in 2020. Final few tickets are available here