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Bossing It: Lessons in Creative Leadership with Sarah Jones


The Brooklyn Brothers MD on being challenged, the loneliness of leadership and taking the role at the start of a global pandemic

Bossing It: Lessons in Creative Leadership with Sarah Jones

Sarah is passionate about the power of creativity in transforming and growing brands. With over 15 years experience across a truly integrated mix, she has worked with some of the UK's best creative talent at Grey, Fallon, McCann and Momentum. Sarah is a long standing member of New Zealand Business Women's Association and a mentor for the Bloom network.

What was your first experience of leadership?

In my early twenties I was sent on a five day simulated pitch workshop with a bunch of my global peers across the agency network I worked for at the time. A group of people who have never met before were thrown together to attack a pitch brief and present back on the Friday to the client and agency leadership team. Think The Apprentice meets Mad Men (minus the cameras and martinis). My natural inclination was to step forward and get the group sorted in order for us to win. It was the context of doing it with strangers that allowed me to see it for myself.  

How did you figure out what kind of leader you wanted to be – or what kind of leader you didn’t want to be?

I’ve been incredibly lucky to have a collection of wonderful female bosses over the years. All of them have inspired me in different ways at points in my career. I’ve taken a little bit from each of them for my own leadership style – confidence, resilience, empathy, fight. Equally - listening to the next generation about what’s important to them has inspired me to push the boundaries. I don’t want to be a leader that never shows vulnerability or can’t admit to getting it wrong. Being fallible and transparent shows people that they can relate to you, as well as look up to you. 

What experience or moment gave you your biggest lesson in leadership?

Taking on the role of Managing Director at The Brooklyn Brothers at the very start of the pandemic was huge. Whilst I knew the agency, the clients and the people well having worked there for three years prior, the intensity of the situation was unexpected. What I learnt was that as a leader in the time of hardship and panic, it’s vital to stay confident, calm and consistent. A huge learning curve of a year. 

Did you know you always wanted to take on a leadership role? If so, how did you work towards it and if not, when did you start realising that you had it in you?

I’ve always lived with an undeniable sense of wanting to progress. I thrive on being challenged. Whatever rung I’m on, I’m always pushing to be on the next one. I think the idea of leadership was a secondary motivation to me. Rather, I wanted to be the best creative business leader I could be.  Which naturally takes you to places of running a team, running a department and eventually running an agency. 

When it comes to 'leadership' as a skill, how much do you think is a natural part of personality, how much can be taught and learned?

Leaders are people who have vision and can rally people and motivate them to move towards that vision. You can absolutely coach someone to explain their vision, to understand how to motivate people around them. But there’s a magic in why people will be influenced by some people that I don’t necessarily think is taught. Whether it’s because they relate to the person, or they are in awe of their intellect or the way they think. Or they are a brilliant orator. You can know all the theory of being a leader, but there is absolutely a huge role that personality plays in determining the likelihood people will listen and follow that person.  

What are the aspects of leadership that you find most personally challenging? And how do you work through them?

Leadership can be lonely. Knowing all the aspects of the issue and distilling the most motivating facts to share with the day-to-day team can leave you shouldering stress and anxiety about the future realities. For me, it’s about a brilliant leadership team around me to help make those decisions. And then, one or two individuals that you can lean on for emotional support as well. 

Have you ever felt like you've failed whilst in charge? How did you address the issue and what did you learn from it?

Definitely! Failure is a vital part of the creative process in an agency like ours. I am passionate about constructing an environment in which everyone feels able to fail without fear. Ensuring your team feel supported to take risks means you have to be prepared for failure. There are definitely some things I would do differently based on my experience, but I only know that thanks to failing in the first place.

In terms of leadership and openness, what’s your approach there? Do you think it’s important to be transparent as possible in the service of being authentic? Or is there a value in being careful and considered?

Someone once told me, “leadership is like ice cream – there’s many different flavours”. I think that’s true. Everyone has their own style. For me, yes, I definitely subscribe to a sense of openness and transparency. But that doesn’t mean that the next leader who is not those things isn’t equally brilliant and motivating for their team. For me, it’s just about bringing your authentic self to life in the way you lead. If that’s careful and considered – why not?

As you developed your leadership skills did you have a mentor, if so who were/are they and what have you learned? And on the flip side, do you mentor any aspiring leaders and how do you approach that relationship?

I’ve always worked with and been a mentor. Not specifically for leadership, just other men and women working in the creative advertising business. It’s hugely important to get advice from others who sit outside of the organisation you work for – people who aren’t your bosses with their own agenda in mind. Finding your networks early in your career really help to open those doors.  For me, it was Bloom and the New Zealand Business Women’s network.  

It’s been a really challenging year – and that’s an understatement. How do you cope with the responsibility of leading a team through such difficult waters?

It’s been such a tough year, but we are thankful that our approach to marketing has been more in demand than ever. We believe earned-first advertising grows brands by ensuring that they rise above the noise and earn a place in culture. The strength and clarity of our offering has ensured the whole agency feel galvanised towards a north star, which has been vital during such choppy waters.

For me personally, the support from my family and my partner was vital. Calling for a chat or a zoom wine to unload with a friend or my dad to talk about the stresses of the week was really cathartic when I needed it. Having brilliant partners on the management team to feel supported, both personally and professionally was amazing. Keeping up regular exercise for my mental health kept me sane in the most busy and stressful of weeks. 


This year has seen the industry confronted with its lack of action/progress on diversity and inclusion. As a leader how have you dealt with this?

For us at The Brooklyn Brothers, we refused to let this year’s challenges stop our own commitment to D&I. We ran the second year of Night School, virtually – a 7-week creative course offered to 17 young BAME people looking for a practical stepping stone in the creative advertising world. In addition to the course, we have continued to support the students by partnering them with industry mentors whilst they develop personal manifesto projects which will culminate in a virtual graduation this summer. In addition to this programme, we also launched the industry’s first social inclusion programme in partnership with the Financial Times, called News School. The two-week programme educated 28 young people about the business side of news media, with a series of interactive sessions led by experts from the FT, Guardian, Economist, Wall Street Journal, Spotify, Amazon, The Brooklyn Brothers and YouTube.  

How important is your company culture to the success of your business? And how have you managed to keep it alive with staff working remotely in 2020?

Culture is everything in creative agencies. I was fascinated about how the new starters - who had joined during virtual working - felt about our culture versus those that were used to our physical space being part of our culture. Amazingly, there is no difference in their read of what makes up the agency values versus those that were in the agency for years prior to working from home during COVID (apart from the distant lack of pub time together of course). Sharing information little and often with the whole agency has been vital in our regular Brooklyn Briefings. As has celebrating the wins by sending champagne to everyone’s house when we were shortlisted in Campaign’s Creative Agency of the year. And we liberated everyone in the agency to ‘do you’ which gave talent the support and flexibility to work in a way that worked for them and supported their individual situation and needs during these very tough times. 

What are the most useful resources you’ve found to help you along your leadership journey?

Hearing other people’s stories in business and creative industries is what inspires me. Creativity Inc, is definitely a favourite of mine – the story of Pixar and how it organised a commercial business around a truly creative product and business. Attending WACL talks and hearing women like Dame Stephanie Shirley tell her story of pioneering the progression of women in the IT World. Listening to Julia Guilard’s A podcast of one’s own where she interviews inspiring women about their view on the world, gives me great perspective on leadership from many different walks of life.   

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The Brooklyn Brothers, Wed, 24 Mar 2021 09:55:01 GMT