‘The more I lead, the less I talk’: Oliver’s Sharon Whale on influence and power

By Sam Anderson | Editor, The Drum Network

OLIVER

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Business Leadership article

July 7, 2022 | 5 min read

Sharon Whale is deputy chief executive officer at agency Oliver, where she has responsibility for the UK, Latin America, Asia and global operations. We sat down with her to talk about her career trajectory from direct marketing to agency in-housing, her experience with leadership coaching, and using agencies’ platforms for positive change.

Targeting, optimization, segmentation and measurement are all now part of every marketing operation’s toolkit. But they were not created by the performance marketing revolution. Back at the tail end of the 1980s, when Oliver’s Sharon Whale was starting out, they were already very much part of the marketing world, albeit a side of it that was cornered off as creative’s “poor relation”: direct marketing.

It’s in direct marketing that Whale made her start – first as a student and then with Ogilvy’s then-direct marketing arm, Ogilvy Mather Direct. It’s also the side of the industry on which she stayed until joining Oliver six years ago, for the likes of then-direct marketing powerhouse Proximity.

Her direct marketing background, with its focus on efficiencies and optimization, was good training for making the jump to Oliver, she says. “Oliver was always about ‘better, faster, cheaper,’ or ‘better, faster, more cost effective,’ depending on how brave you’re feeling about the word cheaper.”

Agency folk aren’t always keen on the word “cheap,” but Whale and Oliver alike love it, despite a reputation built around delivering bespoke (and, presumably, not always inexpensive) agencies for their clients. “Cheap,” Whale says, means “better work, more on-brand, right first time, less fuss, less hassle, much more efficient, much more effective, closer to the client, closer to the data, closer to the customer. Better and faster. But by dint of that also a lot less wastage, a lot less duplication.”

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Performance, performance, performance

Performance, then, has been a theme in Whale’s career; she says that her first leadership “epiphany” was realizing that “building a high-performance team is more important than being the sole high performer.”

For agencies, she says, this means “driving a huge amount of confidence and pride and ability into my team and having them 100% focused on client outcomes, not agency outcomes.”

“It’s possible that I swung too far sometimes,” she goes on. “I was seen as slightly too far on the side of the client, which I always found slightly odd, because we existed to do brilliant work and drive brilliant results for our clients – which in turn would drive brilliant results for us as a business.”

“For a long time I stayed away from the senior leadership team because I didn’t feel like I could 100% serve the company if I was 100% serving my client ... I thought it was a business reality that they’re not always aligned.”

From this perspective Oliver, an organization focused almost entirely on client integration and happiness, on “true partnership and collaboration,” seems like a natural home.

Mastering behavior change

Whale is happy to talk about one tool she has used in her development as a leader – coaching – even as she acknowledges that the group she benefited from most has sometimes been accused of cult-like practices. She only visited once, for an immersive long weekend, but the impact it had was profound.

“It was about being open to your impact on others, and open to receiving feedback and open to changing your behavior,” she says. “It was a kind of revelation to me that I could own behavior change myself and generate change in the teams and people around me.”

Whale to this day consults a coach (but not from that organization) – useful in managing tricky periods like her first year at Oliver, which was “horrifically hard.”

“When I took the job, there were about 250 people. By the time I joined, Simon [Martin, Oliver’s chief exec and founder] had bought two or three companies and there were about 500 people running around. I hadn’t run one company, let alone three. It felt like a big leap. I didn’t have all the tools I needed in my locker; I hadn’t had the experience before to say, ‘oh, I know what to do here.’

“It was full of really amazing, entrepreneurial people going, ‘let’s build something we’ve never built before, and let’s build a new one of those, and let’s do one of these, and we should hire all these people.’ It was incredible energy, but really hard to navigate, really hard to corral without destroying people’s brilliant entrepreneurial spirit.”

Two ears, one mouth

Thankfully, Whale’s “stubborn, competitive streak” pulled her through; as did her coach, helping her to overcome imposter syndrome in those early days.

Finding her place as a leader, she says, has meant learning to “listen more than you talk, which is the opposite to what you do on the way up, when you’re always trying to solve a problem, have the answer, persuade someone to buy the work ... but the more I lead, the less I talk.”

The challenge now, she says, is to figure out “how do we create a better and fairer society with the power we have? How do we use our power and influence to change what we advertise and how we advertise it? How do we help our clients drive a more sustainable future? What we’re really good at is behavior change, so how do we drive the right behaviors and change the right behavior?”

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