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Interview your hero - Part 2: TBWA’s outgoing CEO Sara Tate on how to be a ‘change maker’

Tate cites three key factors behind her success...She is honest that these lessons were learned via some real challenges

We all have heroes, but it is rare that they change our lives tangibly and inspire us to take a different course. In marketing they can be our colleagues or clients, but a speaker at an event can have a transformative effect on a career.

That was the case for Allie Lawson, head of brand and marcomms at O2 and a member of the Marketing Innovation Lab (MIL) community, who got the chance to interview her marketing superhero – Sara Tate, currently chief executive of TBWA London – in the second episode of The Drum and The Trade Desk’s video series.

Following an introduction from Andrea Frankl Sanz, PR and communications manager at The Trade Desk, Lawson explained how she was inspired by Tate after hearing her speak at an industry event about how to juggle career success with the demands of family life.

Watch this second episode of the ‘Interview your hero’ three-part series with Sara Tate in full here.

It’s not a new topic, but Tate’s philosophy was different. Uncomfortable with the existing maternity policies when she joined TBWA as mother of a two-year-old and one-year-old, and finding that the lack of enhanced maternity cover for new employees restricted her ability to hire good people, she simply changed the policy. It was just one manifestation of her belief that in order to be a “change maker”, you have to “do the work yourself”.

The conversation begins with Tate’s tale of the series of events that led to her introducing enhanced maternity leave for all staff, not just those who had been there two years. “So you could come and you could have a baby the next day, and still get your enhanced package. It's not a silver bullet,” says Tate. “There are many reasons which make it challenging for parents of young children to advance. But that was one thing we did at that moment in time”.

Lawson expanded the conversation to include those “struggling right now” post-pandemic, especially when contemplating a return to work after months at home with young children. Tate’s response is succinct: it’s about “fluidity”. Citing her own difficulties in making her preferred four days a week work, she says it is vital to “swallow your pride” and accept when things are not working out as planned - but, do so “in constant conversation” with your employer.

Overcoming the hurdles to success

Tate cites three key factors behind her success: not caring too much about what others thought of her career decisions; treating others as she would like to be treated; and asking for and taking help when it was offered. She is honest that these lessons were learned via some real challenges.

Tate says her switch from strategy towards new business was the first career change that raised eyebrows. She knew she was unhappy in strategy and energized by new business, insisting she would not have become a CEO without that switch. She then took on the CEO role with two young children - a second eyebrow-raising moment. People around her asked “are you sure”? The third was more recent: Tate is leaving her role as CEO to launch her own coaching company [more later on that]. She says although it is a “terrifying” move, “you know yourself best”.

Tate admits to having been on the receiving end of poor treatment at work and regrets not having stood up for herself more. “I hope that, with what we've been through in the past few years with things like “me too”, people feel more able to say, I don't feel this is appropriate behavior, whether it's bullying or sexual harassment. I just didn't feel confident enough then, but I wish I had (said) I don't feel okay with that and tried to escalate it a bit more.”

“We've all worked for people who treat other people poorly,” she continues, insisting it is always about them. “You just suck it up and it's hard to look yourself in the eye. I hope that people are increasingly working in inclusive environments where they feel safe to raise their hand,” she says, cautioning that the industry has only “scratched the tip of the iceberg” in addressing such behaviors.

Tate is vehemently opposed to the vogue-ish notion of ‘imposter syndrome’, believing it has become just another stick with which people beat themselves. She acknowledges our “inner critic” can inhibit our career paths: “I wish I'd been able to realize that it's normal to feel like you don't know what you're doing. It's been slightly weaponized now, as if somehow it’s an ailment that you have to cure.”

A time for change

She refers to a couple of beliefs she uses as advice. The first is to not sit around waiting for the perfect job and being overly obsessed with career trajectory: “just take the job and see where it leads”. The second is coaching. She credits her personal coach Tanya with helping her find the solutions to her own questions, by focusing her on the problem in hand, “not the corporate reorganization that took place in 2012”.

“You think, oh, it is expensive, but I used to get my nails done twice a month. My coach is probably less than that.” Tate is such a fan that at the peak of her career she is launching her own coaching business. “It goes on my list of career madcap choices,” she says, arguing that post-pandemic: “If you're going to make a change, now's the time to do it. I have become drawn to an area which is really not just running a business but supporting people within a business. In any kind of people-driven business, the one area getting squeezed and squeezed is the people part of it.”

Tate concludes: “I also just feel like protecting, nurturing and helping the human, the talent base part of businesses.” As concerns grow about the mental health of so many employees as we return to “normal”, it is a profound statement to which it is difficult to disagree.

You can access the full series of 'Meet your marketing hero' here.

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