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The Social Element: the all-female leadership team disrupting social media marketing

The Social Element won Leadership Team of the Year at The Drum Awards for Agency Business.

The Social Element won ’Leadership Team of the Year’ at The Drum Awards for Agency Business in 2021. In this case study, get a deeper understanding of what makes this agency special and successful, starting with the people at the top.

The Social Element was having its best year yet in 2019-20. Its all-female leadership team had curated a mutually supportive and caring culture that valued new ideas, ways of thinking and - most of all - its people. Embarking on a journey to help clients connect the dots between data, their social channels and the humans at the other end, the agency’s direction was resonating with clients.

When the world changed, so did the leadership team. It sprang into action and, already a remote company, could focus on how they needed to adapt to the situation.

The team took a three-pronged approach that addressed how the agency needed to change to work for: employees, clients and clients’ customers. The leadership team each took a personal and pivotal role in ensuring that each of these areas was covered while managing costs and losses to keep everyone in a job. While taking a personal interest in offering employees support, the team between them found the time to see to the urgent needs of the clients too.

By pivoting to a focus on how to support clients with new resources - without additional cost - and helping them to support their customers through a trying time, The Social Element retained and won new business at an unprecedented rate.

Overall, the year became one of The Social Element’s most profitable in its history, all while keeping a motivated, engaged and caring workforce as happy as possible.

Team Structure

The Social Element is woman-owned and women-led. All five of The Social Element’s executive positions are filled by well-connected, inspiring women across London, Valencia, Aberdeen and North Carolina. The team nominated for this award consists of:

  • Tamara Littleton, chief executive officer. Tamara founded the company in 2002 and will soon have spent 20 years at the helm of the agency.

  • Ashley Cooksley, managing director. Ashley has been with the business for almost 13 years, and has run the North American side of the business since 2019.

  • Emma Harris, chief creative officer. Emma has been on the board for nearly three years, turning The Social Element into a creative force to be reckoned with.

  • Treena Hales, chief operating officer, Valencia. Treena has been with the company for 13 years and is the central cog within the TSE leadership team.

  • Wendy Christie, chief people officer. After 13 years of service and dedication to making The Social Element a great place to work, Wendy faced arguably her biggest challenge yet with the pandemic - and rose to it magnificently.

Achievements over the past year

In February of 2020, The Social Element’s leadership team was poised to embark on a spectacular year of growth, heading an agency that represented the very best of the industry. With an incredible cohort of staff, we knew our flexible and remote working model was giving us an advantage in terms of employee diversity. Clients were responding to our nuanced, data-driven and human-first approach to social media and so were their customers.

When the pandemic began, though, everything needed changing. Our executive team took a three pronged approach and focused on: The Social Element team, the clients and the brand client’s consumers. Whilst many companies were urgently focusing on moving to remote working, The Social Element had an advantage having been set up as a remote first company from day one, 19 years ago. Therefore, we were able to focus more on our clients and team’s emotional needs.

Refocusing our energy, we rewrote our entire strategy within three weeks. We invested time and resources into our clients, including new services that met their emerging needs (crisis monitoring, social listening and sentiment analysis of their consumers). We also led free webinars to help them adapt to remote working themselves as a value-add as we had built up years of experience in this area.

Tamara took part in over 20 webinars and podcasts on remote working, maintaining culture and useful hacks for working at home as a way of giving back to the industry.

And it paid off. In the past year, the company has retained nearly all of its clients despite significant budget cuts across the industry, hired new people, and his above-target profitability. Some existing clients doubled their spend, while new clients include Visa, Olafur Eliasson, Parkinson’s UK and Peloton. The Social Element has been featured in the Sunday Times and the won three global industry awards.

Evidence of Inspirational leadership

Ensuring wellness of our staff

Our first priority was our staff’s mental health. To ensure we had a direct line into the leadership team, Wendy and Tamara offered daily 1:1 Zoom calls to all staff - no mean feat for an agency with 255 people. They also offered personal support for people impacted by external circumstances - the pandemic, homeschooling, protests and more.

We held regular webinars to provide updates, transparency, direction and celebrate great work - bringing our community together. Wendy’s passion for people meant that the business finished the year in profit and growth with a happy, engaged workforce.

Support over sales

Tamara swiftly led the Exec team through a process to create a new vision and roadmap for the agency, focusing on supporting clients over sales, such as through additional insight reports to guide their strategy.

She was supported in this effort by Ashley, who led the North America team to win some impressive new clients such as Peloton. Ashley also grew existing client relationships, such as Keurig Dr Pepper, by developing a process for offering proactive advice on pivoting in response to the constant shifts in consumer behaviour and attitudes.

New creative launch

Migrating from CMO to CCO, Emma broadened her remit by launching our new creative team after years of building our thought leadership and agency reputation. The creative offering is uniquely social-first and community-led; focusing on developing insight-based agile content that connects with the emotional needs of our big brand clients. Emma is passionate about the art of social specific creative and encourages brands to avoid cut down versions of their ATL campaigns to make social content.

Diversity and Inclusion work

Diversity is baked into our ethos, but we wanted to formalise the importance of diversity and inclusion to us. Wendy spearheaded education around and options for displaying gender pronouns across internal and external systems. Wendy also worked on creating gender-neutral job advertisements and freelancer contracts.

Tamara led the charge to partner with Creative Equals. The Social Element achieved bronze level accreditation. Ali Hanan (she/her), CEO of Creative Equals, commented: “The founder is an LGBTQ woman and we've surveyed their company to find they're one of the most diverse companies we've ever worked with”.

Adapting at scale

Treena oversaw the migration of the London office to fully remote working and ensured that the transition was smooth and secure whilst renegotiating contracts with our property and technical suppliers to keep control of costs. Treena helped deliver the ambitious cost-saving plan to ensure that incredibly, despite the challenges in the market, this has been the most profitable year in our history.

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