Sarah Freeman’s career hasn’t exactly been straight forward. Sarah has travelled the world in a relentless pursuit of her career goals, all the while not giving in to any setbacks that occurred along the way. Her career is a result of hard work and dedication and so this week we’re proud to feature Sarah Freeman’s story.
Can you tell us a bit about you and your career:
My career has definitely not taken a traditional path. I wanted to go to art school after 6th form college but while I loved being creative I couldn’t see that paying the mortgage, so I read Geography at Lancaster University instead. After graduating, I struggled to get my first break and ended up working as an Account Executive in a printing company, then got the opportunity to apply for an Advertising Executive position in a full-service ad agency. The interview was pretty intimidating, as the whole agency interviewed you in one room, but I’d volunteered to go first and thankfully got the job – demonstrating the reward of standing up first.
After a year with a promotion under my belt, I felt it time to move to a larger agency. This was a crucial move for me, I spent the next 14 years with PDP/Momentum managing hotel accounts and then picking up the Nestlé business. My break came when my team was tasked in creating a youth promotion for Nescafé and led to my overseeing a sponsorship with Ministry of Sound and travelling the world managing dance events for my client. Coming back to settle in Manchester after being in Rio one week and Ibiza the next was never going to happen so I looked for my next move (and this need for something more out of life also led to my getting divorced). By this point, the agency had been acquired by a US company and I focused my sights on moving to New York as this was the pinnacle of the world for experiential marketing.
Despite 4 promotions in the UK, multiple conversations internally and the fact I was managing the largest project the UK had, I kept being told I was too junior for them to sponsor a move to the US for me. Not one to take no for an answer, I started to cold call our competition in the US and said I was coming to New York on business and would they be interested in talking to me (at that time promotional agency executives with global experience was uncommon). I managed to get 4 interviews set up and booked my self funded trip. Once in NYC, I managed to secure another 4 interviews and at the end of the week had two agencies interested in sponsoring my H1B visa.
“Not one to take no for an answer, I started to cold call our competition in the US and said I was coming to New York”
On my last day in NYC our European Director then happened to call me and asked if I could assist with a client issue, he asked where I was and what I was doing there – believing I had nothing to lose, I told him. He told me to wait there and he’d call me back. Next minute the Global CEO’s exec assistant called me and asked me to head down to our Soho Office to meet the CEO. A great conversation ensued whereby 1 hour later I walked out of his corner office with a job offer and promotion to VP. 6 weeks later, my flat in the UK was on the market and I arrived in New York. I was only planning on being there for a couple of years and had looked at it as an extended business trip. 12 years later I finally returned to the UK.
“A great conversation ensued whereby 1 hour later I walked out of his corner office with a job offer and promotion to VP. 6 weeks later”
My first role in the US was looking after promotions and marketing for various Fortune 100 brands – think Nike, American Express and finally Verizon. I worked on the Verizon business for 4 years and despite having amazing client relationships, leading the overall team of 18 direct reports and overseeing $30MM in billings the MD kept bringing in new SVP’s above me. Finally fed up of being overlooked and undervalued and with my greencard now in hand I started looking for my next move – and one of my fellow agency partners offered me an SVP role with the remit to head up their Special Events, Tour & PR Divisions and open up their New York Office.
“I worked on the Verizon business for 4 years and despite having amazing client relationships, leading the overall team of 18 direct reports and overseeing $30MM in billings the MD kept bringing in new SVP’s above me.”
I stayed with Tribal Brands for just a year wherein that time my team oversaw integrated music partnerships with artists such as Green Day, Taylor Swift, Keith Urban etc.I loved the projects I was part of but became frustrated with the internal politics and workings of the agency and as luck would have it, one of my old business contacts was setting up his own agency and asked me to basically replicate what I’d just done for my previous agency. Too good an opportunity to pass up, it allowed me to get in from the ground up and help shape and develop a new boutique marketing agency.
I stayed with Culture Shop for over 4 years but unfortunately, we were a victim of our own success and Ryan Seacrest (from American Idol fame) decided to buy us out and amalgamate us with another larger agency. I went in all positive to the new set up but quickly realised I didn’t want to be part of the new and vastly different culture. We agreed to part ways and I decided to take a couple of months out before I focused on my next career move to visit my family back in the UK.
While back, it became apparent how ill my stepdad was and how my mum was struggling to cope. I realised I needed to move back to the UK at least for an extended period of time. Wondering how the heck I’d find a role that would interest me, I was lucky to immediately land a position at Kellogg’s overseeing the Marketing Activation Team for the UK & Ireland – it hit a few keys area for me, Kellogg’s was an American company and by this time I was a US Citizen so it gave me access back to the US and it was role client-side – so it would help round out my business acumen.
I spent 2 years at Kellogg’s leading a team of 15 with overall responsibility for Partnerships, Social Media & Digital, Shopper Marketing, POS, Promotions & Experiential. Given a strategic change and new MD, after 2 years my team was disbanded and the junior members amalgamated within the brand team. I immediately started to look for my next move and as luck would have it Adidas had been searching for 9 months for someone to head up the Own Retail Marketing Activation team for Northern Europe and my skill set was a perfect match.
I spent the next 12 months, overseeing marketing, product and store launches with global sports talent for over 60 retail stores across 8 countries while also managing the related KPI’s. Having worked in the agency environment in NYC for 7 years I was used to a fast pace environment and loved working on a pan European basis, however after 12 months in the business it was apparent the red tape and political nuances were impacting my team’s ability to drive change, get things done and deliver to my quality thresholds. Knowing that banging my head against the wall wasn’t going to help either side I decided it was time to move on.
It was the scariest and the best thing I did. I left without a job to go to but wanted to take some time to reassess my career and really drill down to understand the fundamentals of what drove me, what was I passionate about and what did I want to do next. Did I want to go back to the US, did I want to stay client-side, did I want to go back to agency life – in the end none of those options were getting me excited and I realised the happiest moments of my career were where I was in control, I was the one driving things, I had the chance to be entrepreneurial – so this led to my looking at setting up my own business.
Knowing I wanted this to be my last career move, I had to create a business working on something I was passionate about – it was a no brainer, travel had to be the focus. Having worked, lived or visited nearly 80 countries and having created and booked all my own complicated holiday itineraries for over 20 years, combined with my business acumen, client relationship skills, live events, project and financial management – I thought this would be a winning combination. Knowing I needed to go the franchise route in order to ensure I could secure the correct licensing, training and technology support, I interviewed the top travel franchises in the UK and Travel Counsellors easily came out on top. I went live with my business on July 20 2018, so I’ve recently celebrated my 1 year anniversary. In that time I’m pleased to say I was the 2nd quickest new franchisee to graduate in history, this usually this takes 18-24 months but I managed this in just over 5 months and my business has been continuing to grow exponentially ever since. In year one my sales are nearly 3 x the average first-year business owner.
What is an important initiative that you feel passionate about in your role?
Accessible travel – my nephew is wheelchair-bound and my brother has always struggled trying to find and arrange holidays suitable for all the family. The world is such an amazing place and there are so many fascinating things to see and experience, I’d like to be able to help anyone live their travel dreams no matter what accessible needs they may have – whether that’s physical, visual, mental etc while at the same time not feel stigmatised by having to go to a specialist company that highlights that they have different needs – but realise that they can work with a travel company that just sees the client as any client and focuses on what type of holiday and what destination they want to go to as the priority and the extra needs come at the bottom of the list, as the consumer experience is what drives the conversation, not if someone is visually impaired etc.
What do you think gave you the drive and determination to succeed?
I lost my father to cancer when I was 11 years old after a 7 year illness – I saw my mum work two jobs to keep the family home and ensure my brother and I had as happy a childhood as possible. As soon as I could get a part-time job while still at school I did, as I just knew I didn’t want to struggle like my mum had and as I grew older and appreciated how hard it had been for her being a single parent, I wanted to be able to be financially independent while also being able to take care of her.
Do you have a mantra you live your life by?
To thine own self be true – my aunt wrote this in my yearbook when I left junior school – you can kid whoever you want, but in your heart, you need to know you’re doing the right thing and are who you are.
What three tips would you give to young females starting their careers?
Never take no for an answer or be too scared to speak up
Find a mentor – someone who believes in you and soak up all their advice
Go outside your comfort zone, if someone offers you the chance to lead a project or a promotion but you question whether you’re ready still say yes! They have obviously seen something in you, you won’t know everything but you can learn quickly and people will be there to support you
Do you think enough is being done by businesses to address gender imbalance?
No, I still think a lot of companies are paying lip service, for example, making sure they have one female executive on the board as a tick box exercise – it’s better than it was 20 years ago, but the imbalance of pay is still highly prevalent as are the preconceptions that if a woman shows emotion she’s weak etc.
What advice do you have for women aiming for leadership positions?
The same as for men but add 10%, work hard, get to know your industry and role inside and out, always be the first one to put your hand up to ask to work on a new project and proactively take on extra responsibilities. Find a mentor, ask questions, walk the corridors and get to know as many people in your organisation as possible, prove yourself in your role and don’t be shy of letting people know about your successes. Mentor more junior members of staff, take advantage of any training or development opportunities, be nice to your team and colleagues, keep out of politics and gossiping, act professional at all times but let your personality shine through – you’re not a robot, companies don’t want 10 of the same. Stand up for what you believe in, be okay with not agreeing in a meeting but make sure you give considered points in your counter argument, know when to listen, own up to mistakes as soon as you’re aware of them but always have a solution to offer (people will respect you for this), and don’t throw people under the bus, support your team in front of others (then deal with the issue behind closed doors if needed), be approachable to your team and maintain an open door policy.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Employ the strongest people possible – never be afraid of recruiting or bringing onto your team someone who may be more skilled than you are in a particular area – you’ll learn from them, it will make your business objectives easier to achieve and help you to make your next career move as you have an inbuilt successor.
What would you say to your 16-year-old self?
Try and enjoy the ride a little more, don’t put so much pressure on yourself, make sure to have some downtime, you don’t need to be the first one in the office and the last one to leave, work hard, learn as much as you can, take opportunities and risks and most importantly believe in yourself – you will be successful in whatever guise that takes.