When Emma Wilson was in her early twenties she co-founded a new advertising agency, Harvest Digital. Setting up any new business is fraught with challenges, yet under Emma’s leadership Harvest has not only survived, but flourished as one of London’s outstanding new media agencies.
It’s an exceptional achievement for someone so young – one earned through hard work, dedication, and steely determination.
“I’ve had to think and act quite differently to how I might naturally want to,” says Emma, describing her reputation as a straight-talking, no-nonsense manager. “It’s not always easy, but in order to achieve the things I’ve wanted to achieve, I’ve had to sometimes be quite hard.”
How much does that “work version” of Emma differ from the “real” Emma, I ask?
“They’re getting closer together as time goes by. I think I’m mellowing, definitely. Starting out as a 23 year old, it was impossible to know what I know now – about how to best get what I want, how to work from a position of strength. The media exposes a certain view of how to run businesses, and how to lead, and I’ve not always got the balance of carrot and stick right.
“What’s interesting is the differing attitudes to that kind of behaviour. If a man behaves that way then he might be called assertive, ambitious, or strong-minded. A woman behaves the same way and is called a ballbreaker or a bitch.”
It’s understandable that a young woman starting out in digital would have felt the need to push especially hard to be taken seriously. In the decade that’s passed since then Emma and Harvest Digital have achieved a lot together. That process of achievement has changed Emma’s character.
“I’m definitely much more confident now than I’ve ever been before. Part of that is down to what we’ve achieved, definitely, but it’s also due to the guidance that I’ve received from the people around me.”
Harvest Digital in many ways typifies the evolution of the digital agency model. Starting out as an email marketing specialist, its model soon expanded to take on projects in media planning and performance marketing. The agency can now claim “full-service” status, working on design & build projects and social media too.
In Emma’s mind, it’s been a logical progression which has ultimately benefited the agency as well as its clients.
“The disconnect between creative disciplines and performance marketing has always failed to make much sense to me. Creative decisions affect performance and ROI as much as anything else – the two are intrinsically linked.
“Coming from a performance background, we live and die by the sword of ROI. Maintaining a creative offering doesn’t do anything to dilute that. If anything, it’s helped us to maintain better control of our output – we know what creatives will work for particular tactical objectives and ensure the best chance of success.”
When we touch on the subject of the increasing noise around the digital media technology space, Emma is typically robust: “I think, to be honest, there is a lot of hot air,” she says.
“An awful lot of people are claiming to have paradigm-shifting technologies, the ability to deliver intricate and sophisticated targeting. The reality is that an awful lot of companies in the space are using the same technology as each other – and it’s what’s been around for years.”
Likewise, on the challenges of retaining talent: “It can be frustrating – we invest a huge amount of time and energy into developing staff, and constantly have to deal with the challenge of losing them to larger organisations. Mike [Teasdale, co-founder of Harvest] tells me that’s a huge compliment that our staff are so well thought-of in the industry. Frankly, that doesn’t help me.”
And when we discuss again the issues of gender politics in the digital space she is especially direct.
“Obviously I want women to do well and to succeed, but I’m not some Germaine Greer-esque thinker about it. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not about businessmen and businesswomen, it’s about business people. Women need to succeed in the commercial, corporate world.”
What does that entail? For Emma, it’s been about the aforementioned attitude shift – recognising that, rightly or wrongly, for now at least, she’s operating in a world dominated by male decision makers, and adjusting the way she thinks and acts to ensure she’s taken seriously and can succeed.
None of this is to say that Emma is satisfied with the status quo; whether she’s talking about digital advertising, gender issues or anything else in between, it’s clear that Emma is adaptable and encouraging of change. Her pragmatism is the surest way to make that change happen – hence her attitude to gender.
“When women can demonstrate their abilities to succeed at the highest possible level, that’s a good thing. What it means, though, is that they have to break into that space in the first place.”
It’s that hunger to demonstrate her ability – to overachieve and consistently succeed – that keeps Emma motivated. A healthy and well respected digital agency like Harvest has attracted the attentions of plenty of prospective buyers over the years. Emma’s not tempted to sell out any time soon, though.
“I’ve worked so hard to get here and there’s still lots more to do. I’m not the kind of person who just wants to jack it in and go and sit on a beach somewhere – I like being busy, meeting new people, and getting involved.”
Having benefitted from some great mentoring, Emma now passes it on herself through her involvement in a handful of new ventures: she sits on the boards of Brainient, an interactive video technology; Payumi, a social payment platform; and Conviviality, a “social at home” entertainment company.
“It’s really affirming to realise that you’re able to pass on useful information to other businesses. I really enjoy getting involved in new ventures and helping out, and of course it presents great opportunities for me to learn as well.”