Twist or Stick: CHI&Partners' Sarah Golding on believing in yourself and the creative idea
The Drum and Twist Recruitment catch up with CHI&Partners CEO Sarah Golding, who admits she “got lucky” landing her first job in advertising. Here she talks about having confidence, believing in your dreams, and the quality of talent currently coming through the industry.
A lot of hard work, energy and enthusiasm got Sarah Golding to the position she’s in today – that of chief executive of CHI&Partners, presiding over what she describes as the “heartbeat” of micro-network The&Partnership.
But when it came to that initial step into the industry, as with many, it came down to a piece of good luck. Golding was a Cambridge language graduate and had originally wanted to work in media, but after an unenjoyable stint at BBC Manchester she went back to the drawing board.
Like many who have carved a career out of advertising, she was driven by a desire to do something creative – though exactly what, she wasn’t sure. Returning to the careers office, an advisor told her “well, there’s a box down there marked ‘Advertising’.”
“I asked ‘What do you do there?’ and she responded ‘No idea’.” Difficult to imagine in today’s job market, but she applied to just one agency – Lowe Howard-Spink, whose work she loved after watching the reels – and got lucky after the head of graduate recruitment, a football fan, noticed that she supported Blackburn Rovers and invited her for an interview.
“It is a lot of hard work, but you need a little bit of luck along the way,” she says about getting a place on the agency’s graduate scheme.
During her time at Lowe, Golding worked with many “fantastic people” including Frank Lowe himself, and Charles Inge – the ‘I’ in CHI. When Inge left to set up CHI&Partners with Johnny Hornby and Simon Clemmow, he discussed Golding with the pair, which led to Hornby pursuing her joining the new agency.
“Persistent isn’t the word to describe Johnny,” she laughs, explaining that he called her “virtually every day” for six months to persuade her to leave Lowe and come on board. Eventually she “waved a white flag” and joined as new business director in 2001.
Shortly after, she and Neil Goodlad (who joined the agency the same time and is now chief strategy officer) were promoted to joint managing directors. In the first six months they pitched for new business together and brought in clients that are with the company to this day, and who trust the agency as “brand guardians” – something she’s clearly very proud of.
Explaining how the industry has changed since she started in it, Golding explains that clients now want more for less. “Clients have become more demanding; they want you to be more multi-disciplined than you were before,” she says.
Innovative creativity is now a must-have for all companies, she continues – whether they’re “a storage space company, they’re selling a tub of butter, or they’re British Gas”. In today’s market, “everyone wants something fresh, innovative and effective”.
The biggest – and most demanding – creative brief she’s worked on was the launch of the Sun on Sunday to replace the News of the World, which she describes as a “life-changing five days” involving presenting directly to Rupert Murdoch.
Her dream client, meanwhile, would be British Airways: “I think every ad man of my generation would say the same thing. It’s just an iconic brand, it’s an airline, it’s super sexy, it’s big, it’s got its problems. I’d love to get my hands on that.”
She’s pragmatic about the journey she’s come on, and when asked to discuss the challenges she’s faced as a woman in the industry, she’s emphatic that these have not been specific to her gender, but instead have been challenges faced by everyone in the industry, which is an incredibly competitive place.
“You’ve really got to put in the long hours and the hard yards, and you’ve really got to maintain your interest and enthusiasm for the industry and the creative work,” she says. “You have to continue to believe that a big creative idea can make a difference.”
One of the most inspirational people she’s worked with is her mentor, chief executive of EasyJet Carolyn McCall – although they haven’t worked together directly (“not yet, although it’s not over yet, is it?”) On becoming chief executive, Golding says she went to McCall for advice, and “in true Carolyn style” she reminded her of the “most obvious things” she should have done and hadn’t yet.
“You often land the big job without really having the experience; you’re learning on the job. So having that counsel is fantastic,” she says. She wants anyone joining CHI today to inject energy and new skills into the agency, and is obviously passionate about making sure people coming into the business will complement and work well alongside its existing “stars”. But she also wants to be challenged by new starts.
“You want to create really great chemistry in the teams, so I want people to bring new skills and experiences. But I also want people that make me feel a bit scared.
“If was a grad today on CHI’s grad scheme, I wouldn’t get through,” she smiles. “The people on the scheme are amazing. They’ve got such confidence, really broad backgrounds, and they’re super articulate.”
If she could wave a magic wand over the industry, she’d give it the gift of confidence.
“I would want to remind the industry that the creative ideas we produce really do make a difference – to consumers, to brands, to businesses, and even society at large.”
She’d extend this piece of advice to people coming into the industry from the first time, with a quote from an unusual source – Peter Pan by JM Barrie.
“‘The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease forever to be able to do it’. I think that’s brilliant. You should always go for it and believe in your dreams.” She jokes that if she could, she would like to tattoo this on her daughter – “that might be a bit cruel, so maybe I’ll just spray paint it on her bedroom wall”.
It’s clear that for Golding, this combination of confidence in the creative idea and in herself has paid off.
This feature was first published in The Drum's 26 November issue.
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