Helen is the Marketing Manager for Distinction – a digital agency based in Nottingham. In this blog, Helen talks through a day in her life, her job and the best advice she ever received.
Marketing is a huge function – branding, business development, networking and events, content creation such as imagery, video and copywriting, social media, traditional advertising, PR, paid and unpaid media, internal comms and culture, website design, development and maintenance, SEO, campaign management, email and direct mail, graphic design, animation, promotional items… the list goes on – it’s a big beast!
I’ve just started a new role – back agency-side but leading on the agency’s marketing rather than our clients’ – so a typical day for me right now is a combination of discovery and information gathering as I’m a detail person that wants to know everything about everything now! I have a big learning curve too as the agency specialises in digital transformation, a new sector for me. The role will cover the whole marketing function from brand strategy and positioning to online and offline marketing across all channels and I’ll be delivering most of it myself to start with.
In a nutshell, my role is to help the agency win clients through a combination of brand awareness and client acquisition strategies.
Even though I did a media & communications degree I didn’t start my career in marketing until after my second child was born in 2012. Like a lot of students I needed a job – any job – and fell into financial services as I happened to be really good at admin and customer-facing roles. I remained with an independent wealth management company for 12 years where I worked my way up from Administrator to Head of Marketing & Communications. In 2013, I led the company’s rebrand project and it was like a light bulb went off. I have a real love of words, people and brand – I love telling and hearing stories, how people seek connections and how good brands cause an emotional response in the consumer which breeds loyalty. And that’s why I knew I needed to pursue a career in marketing.
‘I love telling and hearing stories, how people seek connections and how good brands cause an emotional response in the consumer which breeds loyalty. And that’s why I knew I needed to pursue a career in marketing.’
After graduating in 1997 and up until 2015, I worked mainly in the financial services sector. Since then, I’ve had four different roles before settling where I am now. From freelancing to a temporary contract as an Account Manager agency side to working for a public sector procurement company as marketing lead for their in-house architectural practice, to being headhunted on LinkedIn for a wealth management company, which was my role before this one.
My biggest career challenge was being made redundant from the company I’d spent 12 years with, it was a hard knock. I’d been with them almost from the very beginning and knew it inside out, loved what it stood for and the relationships we had with our clients, and the team had a strong bond. I’m still good friends with some of them now.
With the support of colleagues, friends and family and sheer grit and determination, I overcame the setbacks that came my way. I was so emotionally invested in the company and was instrumental in its success that it felt like a death, I certainly went through some of the stages of grief. But I turned the hurt and anger into something positive by freelancing as a marketing consultant to wealth management businesses and then the networking and connections I’d built client-side came to fruition when a creative agency asked me if I’d be interested in a temporary contract as an Account Manager.
In its most basic function, marketing is selling and I couldn’t sell anything that I didn’t feel passionate about, it would feel disingenuous – I need to believe in the company I work for and have shared values/ethics to do my best work. It’s not just about what the company does for its clients though, it’s the internal culture and the people too. The old adage of your people are your brand is so true. So, in my new role, I feel very excited about the brand positioning for the agency – really nailing the ‘why’ we work here and the ‘why’ our clients choose to work with us – before creating the brand strategy and delivering the marketing plan to attract new clients and keep our existing ones. Basically it’s my job to help grow the agency in line with its business objectives.
When I think about what gives me the drive and determination to succeed I think that it is quite simply, my children. As a single parent with sole financial responsibility for my them, I don’t have any other choice but to provide both financially and pastorally, as well as be a role model to them and instil in them the work ethic that my parents instilled in me. I’m lucky enough to come from stoic Scottish stock with a healthy dose of resilience so when lemons have been thrown at me, I can make a lot of lemonade! It’s not always that easy though and I couldn’t do it without the strong support network of friends and family I have around me.
The best thing about being a female in my role is the empathy I have and the holistic way of seeing the bigger picture. Throughout my career, people have always confided in me and I’ve built deep relationships based on trust and mutual appreciation over the years. I’ve got a strong network of creative partners and some of those, as well as ex-colleagues, have gone on to become good friends of mine. Being female usually means you’re motivated by the meaning of your work and the relationships you have in the workplace rather than purely financial gain.
Where do I start when it comes to gender challenges within my career?! It won’t come as any surprise that I’ve experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. This is the first time I’ve acknowledged it anywhere other than in conversations with female colleagues.
I think my biggest achievement is as basic as to keep on keeping on. I can’t think of one biggest achievement per se as there have been so many ups and downs along the journey! So where I am today both professionally and personally, is a big enough achievement right now.
My mum bought me a bracelet before a big interview which had ‘She believed she could. So she did’ inscribed on it. And it’s true. The last three years have seen a lot of change for me professionally and personally and I’ve found that when I’ve been really tested I’ve not just come through the other side, I’ve succeeded as well. So the biggest lesson is to have faith in yourself, you can do it. Side note – the bracelet’s lucky charm worked twice!
Where do I start when it comes to gender challenges within my career?! It won’t come as any surprise that I’ve experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. This is the first time I’ve acknowledged it anywhere other than in conversations with female colleagues. At last, it’s being addressed across all sectors and industries but I’ve still witnessed some shocking behaviour as recently as two years ago. There’s still some way to go before it’s completely eradicated.
I came back to work part-time after my first child only to be chastised for leaving dead on 5 pm to pick him up from nursery on time, and being referred to as ‘you part-timers’ in a derogatory sense. Thankfully the working world is waking up to this and I’m an advocate of flexible working for all.
My favourite things to do are to read, listen to podcasts, go to gigs and watch films whenever I can. I have a huge travel bucket list but that’ll probably have to wait till the children have grown up! I also love to spend time with family and friends – I’m lucky enough to have a huge support network around me. People that feed my soul and those I describe as mutual cheerleaders.
My mantra in life is Don’t be a dick! Seriously, always try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and remember that they have their own story, good and bad. We all have off days and sometimes it’s not that easy to leave it behind as you come into work of a morning. When things don’t go the way you plan, and despite being an atheist, I think the words of the Serenity prayer perfectly capture how you should try and approach a difficult situation that’s happening to you.
My top three tips for people starting out in their careers would be:
Your opinions and ideas count – don’t be afraid to speak up.
Make sure you achieve something each day, even if it’s something mundane like clearing out your inbox.
Don’t be afraid of failure or making mistakes – it happens to everyone and it’s how you deal with and learn from them that makes you grow and develop both professionally and personally.
Rather than a specific piece of advice, there’s a tool I’ve used and still live by called Strengthsfinder by Gallup. It’s an online assessment that identifies your top five strengths which explains why you work and act the way you do. There are two standout benefits to this, not only does it give you insight into why it is you work a certain way but, as a manager, it also allows you to help lead your team by understanding which strengths work best together. Ultimately, we shouldn’t try and improve our weaknesses but instead, focus on our strengths. If you’re in a position that feeds your strengths then not only are you happy and satisfied but your employer gets the best out of you too. It’s a win-win situation.
Someone who I have a tonne of respect and admiration for is an ex-colleague who built her own business after being let go from the same company I was. I’ve watched her have the courage of her convictions and she’s gone from strength to strength, it’s incredibly motivating to see. She had a vision of doing things differently and she did and is. I’m very proud of her.
My key motivation is not getting stuck – to keep moving forward, learning new things, stepping outside my comfort zone. There is so much to experience in this world! You need something to get you out of bed in the morning besides the obvious, being my children and cats!
There are traditionally male-dominated industries such as construction and financial services where they are trying to attract more women via various marketing campaigns and training initiatives. But the sad fact is there are far fewer women at the top than there should be. Businesses need to address flexible working for all and, if they can get involved, help move cheaper, more accessible wraparound childcare up the government’s agenda. All this would do so much to allow women (and men!) to work around their family commitments and businesses would reap the benefits from a balanced and happy workforce.
Try to ignore that little devil on your shoulder called Imposter Syndrome. You ARE good enough. Build trust with internal and external stakeholders and colleagues by always doing what you say you will and communicating openly and honestly with them. Find a mentor/cheerleader for support along the way. They don’t have to be female, some of my strongest advocates have been, and still are, men.
You don’t need to be ‘like a man’ and display stereotypically bullish behaviour to get ahead. You don’t need to steamroll over people. Men tend to be driven by the financial return of working. Women, on the other hand, are motivated by factors such as meaning, purpose and connections with co-workers. They want to integrate work into their life in a balanced, holistic way. Leadership teams work best when there is a balance of genders to complement each other.
Never start a sentence with ‘Sorry’. As an eternal people-pleaser, I’m always saying sorry… “Sorry, can I just say…”, “Sorry, this email’s late…” Almost like I’m excusing my very existence. It’s taken a very conscious and considerable amount of effort on my part to try and remove that word from my vocabulary. Unless a real apology is in order, obviously!
Looking back, I would tell my 16-year-old self ‘You don’t have to be perfect and all things to all people. And maybe take your A-Levels a little more seriously plus get some proper careers advice!’ I have always loved writing and I didn’t realise that copywriting was an actual career during my studies, that I could actually get paid to write! I’m fortunate to have an element of copywriting in my last few roles though, so it’s all good.