Sarah Baumann joined VaynerMedia as managing director of the London office in 2019. In this role, she oversees client relations and business operations for the agency, working alongside the heads of strategy, creative and media. Reports directly to Gary Vaynerchuk, chairman of VaynerX and CEO of VaynerMedia (and, of course, one the business world's biggest influencers).
Before this role she was the deputy CEO of Leo Burnett London, where she spent 16 years of her career. During this time, Sarah held a number of roles, including managing director of Atelier, their luxury and lifestyle boutique division; group talent strategy director, leading talent development, recruitment and cultural priority; and head of account management. She was also the co-founder of VivaWomen, Publicis Groupe’s women’s network.
Sarah was also the director of marketing at the People's Vote Campaign, fighting for a referendum on Brexit, where she set up and led the in-house marketing and social media team, helping to mobilise millions of people in the biggest political movement in decades.
LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?
Sarah> My mum. A very strong woman, and a teacher. The kind of teacher who never had to shout because everyone was slightly in awe and fear of her. But obviously incredibly kind and empathetic too.
LBB> How did you figure out what kind of leader you wanted to be – or what kind of leader you didn’t want to be?
Sarah> I knew this very early on, and it was less about leadership, more about how I wanted to show up at work. I knew I needed to work in an industry and culture where people could be themselves - not put on suits every day and hide all the fun, creative, true parts of their personalities and their lives. I also figured out early on that I hated leaders who ruled through fear and creating insecurity (yes, I had a couple in my first three years of work).
LBB> What experience or moment gave you your biggest lesson in leadership?
Sarah> It’s hard to choose, but a couple of moments stand out. As an account manager, I realised that some of my peers were very good at ‘charming’ (sucking up) to the department head and it paid off in terms of their pay reviews and promotions. I resolved then if I ever got to be in a position of advancing people’s careers, that I would do it based on merit, and always look out for the people who weren’t banging on your metaphorical door telling you how brilliant they are, because those people probably needed your attention even more. Integrity and empathy in leadership matter immensely to me.
The second is around adversity and the need to rally people’s spirits. Everyone in this industry has had some very tough moments when accounts are up for review, or everyone’s worried about job cuts or people have lost their jobs. I’ve worked with some brilliant leaders both in advertising and my brief stint in politics who have known how to strike the right balance of humanity and empathy but also to inject ambition and vision into these situations to make everyone value each other and what we’re all working towards. The most seemingly desperate situations breed great ideas, teamwork and the camaraderie that takes you to the top.
LBB> 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?
Sarah> No, I was never aiming for it or dreaming of that. I’d always been taught to work hard, achieve, do your best and then that the rewards would follow. I was living in the moment but I guess that worked. Promotions were exciting and I came to realise that change - being part of it, figuring out how to make it good and learning, doing new things - was very important to me. But the “extra-curricular” opportunities probably cemented it. Returning from my first mat leave, I was asked if I wanted to set up the London chapter of a new women’s network across all our agencies at the Publicis Groupe. It was the last thing I probably should have done with a new MD role and a nine-month old baby but I really felt I needed to take it on for myself and for my new baby daughter. It was so different, and drove home leadership through influence and collaboration because there was no reporting structure or requirement for anyone to do the slightest thing that I said.
LBB> 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?
Sarah> I think most of it is a natural part of personality but for the vast majority of leaders, it can be greatly enhanced, focused and made more effective through coaching and learning. We should also recognise that over the course of 10, 20, 30, 40 years we change as people and as leaders; the environments we work in change dramatically and leaders need new skills. That’s also why change and variety is important - we learn so much more from being with different people in different businesses with different cultures.
LBB> What are the aspects of leadership that you find most personally challenging? And how do you work through them?
Sarah> Telling people what to do! I always like to ask but sometimes directness is more helpful.
LBB> Have you ever felt like you've failed whilst in charge? How did you address the issue and what did you learn from it?
Sarah> Of course. A million times - every time a brilliant person moves on, or you lose a pitch, or a piece of business. One very pivotal moment for me was when I got promoted to head of account management and got a series of coaching by my agency. My coach asked in the first session about ‘how often I made mistakes’. My jaw dropped as I realised it was not only completely natural and human to make a mistake but that even better, admitting you did, and learning how to respond and what to take from it can make you a more thoughtful and effective leader.
I would always rather work in an environment and try and create an environment where we can try to do amazing and exciting things, with a risk of failure, than be safe, predictable and likely very mediocre. Gary Vaynerchuk is amazing at VaynerMedia at creating that environment for us all. Removing fear and repercussions of failure is incredibly liberating for ambition and performance.
LBB> 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?
Sarah> Haha. Yes, have you met me? I hate hierarchy and the whole ‘senior people thing’ so I have always sought to be approachable, honest and human and throw the ‘management fear’ out the window. Transparency is critical to build trust. But careful and considered is also a thing too. Too much complete candour can be a bad thing. So there is a filter about what, how and when you do things. That’s also a very big part of leadership - to understand what and when your team needs to hear things. To think of others, not just your own agenda and what you need to communicate.
LBB> 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?
Sarah> I was very lucky with my old CEO during my formative years, and a handful of brilliant women a few years ahead of me. They were (and are) my sounding board, my coaches and my guides. I learned from their style of thinking, communication and care for others. Most importantly it showed me that caring for people and creating a culture where people could thrive and be happy was far more likely to achieve commercial success than blame, threat and recrimination.
I have mentored people over the years and have loved it. I tend to find now informal mentoring relationships with people who do or did work with me are the way it happens. I also love speed mentoring (though that’s possibly because I met my husband very young and never got to go speed-dating).
LBB> 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?
Sarah> You’ll have to ask me on the other side! It’s been the same as normal but on steroids; trusting instincts, listening, knowing there are hard decisions, communicating openly, ensuring my team feel they have a say and are working with me to lead the agency. It’s been more important than ever to recognise how exhausting and stressful working from home and the pandemic has been for everyone. So I’ve tried to find ways to be empathetic to that - we introduced Winter Wednesdays where no meetings or work starts until 10.30 to give people an extra hour of daylight/ sleep/ exercise/ downtime. And having a light at the end of the tunnel. We have amazing new offices we will be returning to soon, so reminding everyone that this will end, and there is something to look forward to.
LBB> 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?
Sarah> One of the things that has prevented progress is the lack of direct discussion about DE&I and skirting round the areas where organisations and individuals fall short. Having always been involved and vocal about gender equality, I’ve never shied away from those conversations, but I’d never genuinely had regular, open, direct conversations about the bias and discrimination our people had experienced in terms of ethnicity or disability or LGBTQ+. Last summer, we held a very open ‘all hands’ agency meeting where we talked about racism, acknowledged what we didn’t know, and made very open our intent to make VaynerMedia a place where everyone feels they belong and they can thrive. To do that, we need to talk about it, call out and deal with bias and microaggressions and use all the privilege we have through our work and daily lives to help drive cultural change. We have weekly meetings with the team leading our DE&I initiatives, have a plan of action that is being rolled out and have accelerated our focus and rigour around greater representation in hiring.
LBB> 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?
Sarah> It’s everything. VaynerMedia has a very unique culture. We have a larger than life founder and we have a strong vision to bring a different marketing model to our clients and to prove that we can build brands and deliver business results. Working remotely has made it tough, for sure, but the energy and care that everyone has had both for each other and for the 60+ new joiners we’ve had in the last year have kept the culture and spirit alive. Our Friday afternoon all-hands meetings have translated really well from IRL to hangout. And it’s made us all communicate more. Our MarketingForTheNow series has been a really great way to keep people connected and inspired and we recently launched VOICES137pm which is a daily 15-minute show just for VaynerX people across the globe featuring a mix of amazing celebs, influencers and Vayner talent.
LBB> What are the most useful resources you’ve found to help you along your leadership journey?
Sarah> People and their experience and advice are always number 1 here but I’m a bit of a sucker for Harvard Business Review (it originally made me feel like I was a “leader” but now it’s just really useful and interesting). I think LinkedIn has grown into an amazingly inspirational platform and gives you access to people you wouldn’t normally have. Recently, VaynerMedia has rolled out coaching with an amazing US company called InnerU which (as you’d expect from us) is to coaching what Vayner is to advertising, and a lot of fun to do. But to be honest, as the last year has shown us, getting out and helping our local communities is the next best thing.