Aimee is managing director at The Liberty Guild. The Liberty Guild is an invitation-only curated association of the finest communication practitioners in the world.
Aimee> Presuming being a Sixer at Brownies doesn’t count, my first experience of leadership was in 2013 when I was promoted to managing director at BMB. Shortly after my promotion, Andrew McGuinness (founder and CEO) left, and so I had to grow into the role pretty swiftly. Fortunately, I had a brilliant relationship with Trevor Beattie, David Bain and Bil Bungay, and so together we managed the transition into the new era of BMB pretty smoothly.
Aimee> There were two seminal moments that distilled the type of leader I wanted to be. The first harps back to the same time I was dressed head to toe in brown and yellow as a Brownie. But from my stepfather Geoff, not Brown Owl. He used to be director of studies at Ashridge Management College. And one evening, in a bid to bring up balanced, fair, morally centred children, he sat us down to watch a film he used on his courses called Behaviour Begets Behaviour. It made a real impact on my brother and I, making the point (in flares and kipper ties) that by showing positivity, kindness and loyalty you will reap what you sow.
The second came from a well-known female leadership cohort, some twenty years ago (understanding it may have changed since then . . .). Where the gathered women were told how we could make our mark in the boardroom by ensuring our highlights were regularly maintained and we embraced a three-inch heel. Never have I felt such moral distance between myself and another woman. This was the very style of leadership of too much hairspray and confidence that I despised. So, I used it as a point to rally against and to make sure I never, ever became that person.
And remember, you can have it all. You can love going to work, be uplifted by those you work with, laugh on a daily basis, achieve big goals, constantly learn, have a family and earn well. You just need to find the right place for you to flourish.
Aimee> I had the awful task of making several people redundant, after the agency lost two big pieces of business. Having worked at BMB since it was six months old, I’d hired, partied, attended their weddings and been Father Christmas to their kids. Now I was going to have to have a horrid conversation with them. I couldn’t help but think about the phone call they were going to have to make with their partner or parents. And it was led by circumstance and not of their doing.
Juliet Haygarth, CEO at the time, was clear that we should continue to be ourselves. It was OK to shed a tear, to hold their hand and to be on their side. Just because we were having to put a halt on their time at the agency, didn’t mean we needed to adopt the role of cold businessman (or woman). Emotion, empathy and doing everything we could to get these people into a new role from within our wider networks was the best thing we could do. And we did. Each had another job within weeks of leaving and I’m still in contact with them all.
Aimee> I think I saw from wonderful personal experience that brilliant leaders bring out the best in their people. Ogilvy stalwarts at the time Paul Jackson and David Muir did just that. They could see that by genuinely caring for their people and seeing their potential they’d fire on all cylinders and in turn pay back to the P&L.
I still have a handwritten note from David Muir that he popped into my graduate day book, recognising I was having a tough time after my Dad’s passing. It was the kindest, honest, and heart-warming note – and, 22 years later, it still sits on my desk, acting as a reminder of how thoughtful leadership can be incredibly powerful.
Aimee> Not all people at the top of their tree/organogram/business are leaders. They have the big title, the salary and their mitts on the business levers but not the trust and respect of the people they command.
There has to be a certain amount of pied piper in any leader; you need to bring people with you. And to do this they need to want to follow you. They need to trust you, and believe you can make a difference to the agency, and ultimately to them.
Sure, you can go on a leadership course – ask stepdad Geoff about these(!) – to hone and polish your approach or to open up new avenues and hone your skills to be more efficient. But if deep down you’re missing the leadership chip, you’ll never succeed on top.
Aimee> I’m hypersensitive, so I feel how people might be feeling about a situation out of my control. And I find it very difficult not being able to make it alright all of the time.
But another super useful lesson I learnt along the way, was to always think ahead; how do you want someone to feel after a meeting? You might be delivering a tough appraisal or having a difficult conversation with a client. By thinking how you want that person to feel in an hour's time when they walk out of the room, allows you to think about the manner in which you approach the chat. You can leave them feeling valued, uplifted, excited about the change ahead.
Aimee> There was one instance where I questioned the agency's moral compass. Some behaviours I fundamentally disagreed with were happening that I couldn’t affect, so I left. Head held high and full of brilliant memories.
Aimee> I am a firm believer in transparency. It engenders trust – the key to keeping your pied pipers ways a’piping. However, sensitive (commercial and personal) information needs to be handled carefully – and where necessary confidentially. So, the art lies in painting an accurate picture, and layering experience to decode this information in a way that brings people with you – rosy or not.
Aimee> I’ve never had an official mentor. But lots of people I observe from the side-lines and look to learn from.
I’m very proud to mentor an incredible woman called Linn. We worked together in our junior days and have stayed in touch. She’s worked agency and client side – most recently at Virgin – and is now back in the bosom of adland. It works because we’re aware of how we’ve both got to where we are. With kindness, hard work and a smile on our faces. And we continue to learn from each other. I’ve always said to grads that the only difference between them and I is experience. And I hope that one day, they’ll be my boss.
Aimee> Leading a team through dark times is the biggest test of a leader. You can cower, run away, or even hide; or you can stand firm. Be the first one in the office and the last one to leave each day. Lead by example. Roll your sleeves up and get your hands dirty. Work harder than you ever have – nothing is beneath you. Lead pitches in the day and put the bins out in the evening. Understand people’s lives outside of work and the battles they face.
“If you have to eat sh*t, don’t nibble”. There are always the tasks and meetings that we dread doing. So take it on, swallow it whole, with no fuss and move on. Painless and efficient. And then you can get on with something far less smelly.
Aimee> I’ve been extremely fortunate never to have felt inferior due to my sex. Don’t get me wrong – I constantly lack confidence and have raging imposter syndrome – but never due to my lack of a penis.
But I’m lucky, I know.
At The Liberty Guild we are constantly keeping tabs on DE&I splits. Simply being colour blind isn’t enough – so we actively scour the world for the greatest creative thinkers to join the Guild and in doing so strive to have a balance of people representing the populous and not ad land.
Aimee> Culture at The Liberty Guild is the cornerstone of our success. When Covid hit, we switched instantly from an office to an always-on Zoom – aka the Window on the Guild. We all head there at 9.30, shoot the breeze, pick each other’s brain and comment of Jeremys’ surprisingly trendy attire. And if we need time in a dark place – we switch our camera off and work alone. It’s proven to be worth its virtual weight in gold. Culture tends to happen in the cracks of the day, unintentionally, yet is imperative to a stable, kind and successful business.
But we need to work at it. More so than if we were together in the flesh. A good example is the loss of osmotic learning. IRL would see people overhear, learn unintentionally and soak up life experiences from the more weathered colleagues around them. But WFH pretty much put a stop to that. So we all make an extra effort to stop, look and listen, and to explain our thoughts, our experience and why we’ve chosen one direction over another.
I’ve talked about it a lot, but kindness is the key tenet of The Liberty Guild. From Bcorp to Carbon Neutral to AdGreen, Great Place to Work and Oystercatchers Small Agency Culture of the Year – we are always striving to ensure and evidence kindness across the Guild. To each other, those around us and our planet – and it has paid back a hundred times over.
Aimee> Honestly? I’m rubbish at accessing formal resources. Instead, I tend to make mental notes of people I admire and want to emulate. They tend to leaders who bring out the best in people around them by truly caring, having humility and leading through influence.
Another tactic is to be brilliantly prepared. Read up, prepare, reflect – enter any conversation or meeting in a position of knowledge.
Lead somewhere that fits your values and beliefs. You’ll lose much needed energy if you are constantly battling internal politicking.