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Lessons from a first year as a new MD

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Polly Atherton has been MD of Stir PR for just over a year, the first time she has led a PR agency in the UK. Here she describes the lessons she has learned since joining the 15-strong Shoreditch-based team, which has its heritage in food and drink.

After over 15 years working in the industry including more than a decade at Frank (with four years as MD of Frank Australia), Polly tells The Drum why it is important not to tear the place apart on day one, how being small can be a strength, why doing your own PR has never been more important and she explains how leading a creative team in Oz differs from here.

Don't rush in like a fool and smash up the place

My new team are incredibly hungry, ambitious and smart. I’d have been an idiot to mess with that. I realised I had to understand our talent for it to thrive, driving a natural evolution. Nothing was broken; it was important I ensured people understood why I was here. That was to take Stir onwards and boost our creativity, not rip it up and rebuild it in my own image.

You can't make people like you straight away

Taking over at an established agency is tough when you know nobody. I had to pace out any changes to create the culture I hoped for. I wanted the team to like me but they had to get to know me and I had to earn their trust. So I accepted my position as the newbie. Thankfully we've had no resignations and staff surveys show great levels of happiness.

The starting point must be listening and learning

I don’t know it all so I left every preconception at the front door on day one. You have to live and breathe an agency environment to understand it properly. In Oz it took me a good few months to get into the swing of things. I met everyone individually straight away and talked about their story, what made them tick and what would make them feel proud to work here. This vital insight fuelled my strategy.

Build on what you are best at in the short-term

Stir punches above its weight in food and drink for its size with clients such as Nestle and Heineken. My ideal was to shake off the perception that this was the only sector we could work in. But this requires patience as we harnessed all the good work and successful creative campaigns we’d delivered in the F&D space and showcased how the strategic thinking that went into their creation was sector agnostic.

Never forget being a smaller agency has its clear advantages

There are many competing small agencies around but there’s no point letting this frighten you or to imagine those who are bigger must be better. We are in a group with many complementary skills to tap into so we can be nimble and fast. Crucially it gives us external experience to mine and the skills to build larger campaigns with influencers and experiential.

Don't be afraid to accept there will be holes

You always have to learn and develop so I looked for knowledge gaps we had and got external trainers in to plug those. Boosting the confidence of the team in this way allowed us to think smarter. I also hired the talent we lacked. I am a big fan of collaborative working so I encouraged people to pull together knowing their success is the agency’s success.

Learn how to be a good boss from previous bosses

It is crucial to offer people the opportunity to step up. That’s how I grew. Not in a sink or swim sense but you can have someone's back and give them a chance to rise to a challenge that you know will increase their own belief in the skills and talents they possess. This extends to spotting who is in the wrong place and giving them scope to do what they're best at or love.

Put your own work ethic, experience and spin on things

Creativity has always been very important to me. I recognised quickly there was a chance to ramp this up and combine Stir’s excellence in account management with killer creative. I am proud of the creativity we showed at Frank and my experience in Oz, with a smaller media pool, taught me how to land sophisticated campaigns with a central, legitimate call to action.

Remember it is important to open new doors

I want our work to speak for itself with potential clients but you have to be proactive. You must get out and knock on doors and know you will add value to new clients you approach, even if you’ve no clear creds in that area. Good ideas always shine through. I aim to be proactive, even with industries we are relatively unknown in. Great creativity grabs attention.

So that's it. 12 months on and I’ve not cracked it totally just yet but I wouldn't have expected to. One thing I know to be true is that to succeed leading a new team you must be totally confident and clear in your vision. You have to believe in the strategy you are creating to gain a consensus among your senior management team and for that to filter down through the agency, your people and your clients.

My priority was to be recognised for creativity that stirs emotions. We have focused on that and already designed meatier campaigns with killer insights to build on our existing portfolio of work.

It’s still a work-in-progress and I will continue to refine our proposition, learning as we go.

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