Girl Guides: ex UK government social media chief Tiffany St James on digital transformation
14 years as digital consultant to No. 10 and an unrelenting desire to not be outdone in digitally focused dinner conversations has propelled strategist and entrepreneur Tiffany St James to the top of her game. As part of The Drum’s ongoing Girl Guides series championing female role models, she talks to Jessica Davies about her new agency, her role as digital transformation consultant to the Abu Dhabi government, why we are facing a 10-year digital skills crisis, and the power of the ‘network effect’.
“Do it until you’re told not to”. That’s the secret – and personal motto – of former longstanding digital consultant to the UK government and its first ever social media chief Tiffany St James.
As she talks through her career experiences, which include working alongside inventor of the world wide web Sir Tim Berners-Lee, it becomes apparent why this has proved such an effective life ethos – because the common theme for any entity in the midst of digital transformation is that there are no existing models, and no rules.
“I apply it to everything,” she says, joking: “I suppose it’s my way of getting out of asking for permission.”
After 14 years as digital consultant to the government, during which time she held titles including head of communications, government digital policy, and head of public participation (social media), she was among those to help steer No. 10 through the establishment of its open data strategy.
“Every project I’ve ever worked on there has never been a rule book, and I’m proud of that. I worked in UK government from no email to open data – and there was no rule book then, likewise when I became director of coms for Direct Gov. We launched data.gov.uk in eight weeks and I was given Sir Tim Berners-Lee and the head of UK Artificial Intelligence Sir Nigel Shadbolt as part of my project team.
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“Also, when we started the public participation there was no other government using social media in any other country in the world. So I’ve seen global, mass implementation of digital in corporate environments, which I can now apply back to clients – many of whom are likely only seeing their first corporate digital transformations,” she adds.
Yet a critical part of her development came from recognising the importance of “looking outside the walls of Whitehall” for inspiration and expertise, according to St James. As a result she began to attend dinners held by digital entrepreneurs, an environment in which she found herself initially out of her depth.
“For the first time I felt outclassed at dinner in terms of the table conversation because I didn’t have anything to contribute. And I didn’t like that, so I did something about it, and made sure I understood what was going on in digital circles that weren’t necessarily pertinent to the job I was doing but were important in the digital environment,” she says.
Now St James has launched a new agency called Transmute, along with business partner and fellow digital strategist Charlie Southwell, and counts Google, Channel 4, SAB Miller, TalkTalk and now the Abu Dhabi Government among her client roster. The latter will see her deliver a keynote speech and series of workshops with its government communicators and press office, along with social media implementation.
“Every project I’ve ever worked on there has never been a rule book, and I’m proud of that.”
Yet her career hasn’t been without its challenges – the biggest of which came when the current coalition government took power and stripped back on digital consultancy budgets and she effectively lost her entire client base in one blow.
“It cut back entirely, and quite rightly, since they were focusing on the biggest public sector cuts since the second world war. But I had only been a consultant to them so essentially lost my entire client base very quickly – with two weeks’ notice. From a standing start, I had to evolve a new client base from scratch immediately. But within three months my clients were the Guardian, Channel 4 and Microsoft, and I never looked back.”
A major reason why St James was able to turn her luck around so quickly was thanks to her history of building a large network of contacts and peers with whom she would share knowledge and ideas.
“Everything I do centres around ‘paying it forward’. I have got many of my clients and non-clients opportunities to speak and build their profiles and help them. I would send them things that weren’t just about me and my brand, but were of benefit to their job. If you’re helpful to people and genuinely interested in them then you have a really powerful network effect, and if you’re good at what you do they will recommend you too. That would be my advice for anyone in the digital sector for those who can’t get in front of CMOs – it’s connecting them with people. So be kind, and pay it forward.”
The whole ambition and rationale of her new business Transmute is to help Britain become a “better digital powerhouse”, according to St James.
A large part of this will centre on helping businesses focus on evolving their HR and recruitment methods to ensure they are bringing in the right talent necessary to remain competitive. Although coding is now being brought into the school curriculum, previously the only digital marketing skills were taught in certain universities, not always by active practitioners – meaning by the time people graduated their skills were often out of date, according to St James.
“We have a 10-year skills gap, because if you look at generation Y, the gen Z and C coming up underneath are groups of individuals. 16 year-olds today have been brought up in a recession, and while social networking was highly sophisticated. They understand intrinsically how to collaborate, redesign things – how to get their views heard on social media.
“When they come to be our leaders there will be transformation change across every single part of business – head policy, government services, and all businesses, because they will come into a work structure and say ‘we’re not doing it like this’. But until those people become more prominent in shaping business we have a 10-year period where we need to look at what we need in this economy and in business to make it work. There will be dramatic transformational change and there is a huge opportunity to help businesses get ready for that right now,” she adds.
This feature was first published in The Drum's 17 September issue.