“5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” With Sam Fenton-Elstone
Sam Fenton-Elstone is a partner and CEO of media agency Anything is Possible. A former winner of Mediaweek’s Rising star award, Sam has held board roles at VCCP Media and iCrossing.
1. Can you tell us about your journey to becoming CEO?
I’ve worked for media agencies for 11 years, starting out as an account executive, working my way to board-level roles at iCrossing, and later, VCCP Media. I’ve seen a lot: I’ve worked for small companies, through to international heavyweights, I’ve worked with clients of all different shapes and sizes, and I’ve been part of several leadership teams, all with very different approaches. I carry with me experiences from my first day as an account executive right through to the last half an hour which help me to continually improve as a CEO.
2. What is your definition of success?
The dictionary defines success as “the accomplishment of an aim or purpose” but to me, because the aim and purpose of what we do is not finite, success is making progress towards our goals and purpose. Progress is a rewarding and satisfying state to be in. If you maintain a state of progress you’re constantly moving forward and increasing the levels of satisfaction every day.
For anyone working in an organization with more than one person, you have to consider how you’re progressing as individuals and as an organization. The hard part is getting the pace of progress right for both the organization and individual team members. It’s crucial that everyone is happy with the pace of the progress being made, so sometimes, to be successful across an entire organization, you have to progress at different rates internally, which is in itself a success.
3. Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
The first time I answered the inbound telephone line was a bit strange — as I said: “Good afternoon, anything is possible, how may I help you”? I suddenly had a thought — what if the person on the other end had dialed incorrectly? What were they going to ask me for?
As it happens, the person calling ended up being one of our first clients, they had called because they were on the hunt for a new media agency.
4. What failures have you had along the way? How have they led you to success?
Early in my early career, I learned some harsh, but valuable, lessons about managing clients’ expectations.
The first was to admit failure. A lack of experience and plenty of youthful exuberance meant that I sometimes over promised and, unfortunately, under delivered. Taking responsibility for failure is horrible because you’ve let your clients and your team down and it impacts your self-confidence.
The second lesson was to ask for help. The next time I had to tell a client what we would deliver or when I consulted the team and took time to understand everyone’s contribution to the project and their workload and we agreed on the deliverables and timeline as a team.
The whole process made me feel more confident because I was working better with my team and my clients and I was now able to help them, rather than telling them what to do or what they wanted to hear.
More recently, the most valuable lessons I’ve learned are about how I can affect change and empower others to do the same. The foundation for successful change is great relationships, built on awareness and alignment. Without this, however hard you try, getting momentum behind a project is hard and the final outcome will suffer.
5. What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The agency world has short-changed both its clients and its employees and we are here to change that. The digital media landscape has evolved extremely rapidly over the last decade and media agencies have struggled to keep up with the pace of change and now find themselves in a position where they are unable to service clients in the most effective way. Furthermore, they are unable to break free of the restrictions imposed by hierarchical structures; legacy commercial agreements and out-of-date media planning.
Our mission is to create better brand and consumer connections so advertising is more enjoyable, engaging and effective. We want to eliminate intrusive, irrelevant advertising from the ecosystem and rebuild consumers’ trust and enjoyment of brand communications.
Finally, we’re helping start-up companies by offering revenue share-based fees rather than charging a percentage of media cost. This enables small companies to embrace marketing without financial risk.
6. Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
For me, Anything is Possible itself is an exciting project! We are only 10 months old and we’re turning the agency industry upside down. Every day is different and a thrill.
One area that we’re focussing on a lot at the moment is how we can use technology to improve our own business and our clients’. We are using new artificial intelligence (AI) and natural language processing technology to build user interfaces for our clients where they can interact via voice search and chatbot functionality.
This delivers value for our clients because they can access data anytime, anywhere, without needing any specialist skills. Furthermore, because our time is not taken up with these low-value tasks, we spend more time on strategic, or creative tasks which deliver true value.
Blockchain is another really interesting area for our industry because there are huge issues with trust and transparency. Recent audits have unfortunately exposed many examples of agencies marking up costs, not declaring rebates and high levels of ad fraud. We are working on implementing blockchain-based technology which will be available to all our clients so they can see when and how we buy media for them and the cost.
7. Can you tell us about the initiatives that your company is doing to become more sustainable? Can you give an example for each?
For us, sustainability is the ability to maintain change in a balanced fashion, where our resources, investments, technological development, and business changes are in harmony and enhance both current and future potential to meet our goals.
We encourage our employees to take advantage of remote and flexible working options. This has helped us to tap into a talent base from around the world that would not be possible if we’d adopted a traditional office-based approach. When it comes to training and development, we focus on skills that are not only job-specific but skills make our people more rounded and able to cope with changing environments, e.g. foreign languages and computer coding. We want to develop a strong alumni network and plan to make a number of our benefits available to people who leave us because we believe this will benefit the industry as a whole.
The ability to react to, and thrive through a period of change is crucial to sustainability. Technology helps people to embrace change by automating tasks which gives people more time to strategically work through changes.
8. What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
No matter what your company does, your people are your number one asset and you need to invest in making their time enjoyable, productive and rewarding. In order to do this you need to invest financially in training and development; you need to dedicate your time to employees; and you need to create a culture that allows individuals to thrive no matter what their job role is, no matter what their background is, and regardless of their level of seniority within the business.
Culturally, we create an environment where people are challenged, but not afraid to fail, and where they have the autonomy to perform in their job role — and transform our business.
9. None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are two people who I am eternally grateful to have had the good fortune to meet and work with. One was a client, Simon Thompson, who was GM of the Apple Store EMEA. At the time Apple was a huge client win for our agency, and I was involved from the pitch stage, through to leading the account at a relatively young age. Simon put a lot of trust in me but challenged me constantly throughout the time I worked with him. This combination made me work much more efficiently and strategically.
My former boss, Tom Jones, then Chief Client Officer at iCrossing, had a huge influence on my career, and especially my approach to management. He taught me many of the principles I still adhere to today, such as giving your time to your team, embracing automation, and not being afraid to fail.
10. How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Work is such a big part of our lives there is no excuse for it not to be something we all enjoy. I believe that by joining Anything is Possible I am helping to create better employment opportunities for talented people who are fettered in their current roles and by the dictated ‘norms’ of professional working.
We genuinely want to give people who work at Anything is Possible a life-changing opportunity through things like totally flexible working — not just the odd day here and there working from home — and lifetime training and development. We’re enabling people to work in the modern world where it’s no longer necessary to work 9 to 5 at a desk in an office, but so many do and their quality of life suffers.
11. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why?
You still need up-to-date skills
Many people fall into a trap of thinking that as you rise up the ranks of an organization your role moves away from doing and becomes more about listening and thinking. While to some extent that is true, unless you have one finger on the pulse of the industry you work in you will fail as you will distance yourself from your employees. No matter how much time you spend with people, if you don’t know what they do, you can’t empathize with them and you won’t fully understand their contribution to the company.
Don’t try to be someone you’re not
Many people go through a rapid transformation when they become a CEO and change their personality to conform to what they think a CEO is. The problem with this is that they are not adapting to the environment around them and they lose their authenticity. This is a huge turn off for employees and they start to see the CEO as a distant figurehead rather than a leader.
Having too many direct reports can be problematic
I’ve seen CEOs who have 50+ people reporting directly to them. This is extremely detrimental to their ability to lead the organization because they don’t have enough time to nurture and understand their staff, nor do they have enough time to lead the business. Often, in this situation, you will find the CEO in endless meetings with far too many people in them to be productive.
Effective delegation and well architected organizational structure result in each manager — including the CEO — having between 5 and 7 direct reports. Each direct report and manager can then communicate often and effectively and critical business issues are escalated and resolved quickly.
Your ideas are not always the best ideas
CEOs spend a lot of time thinking about the business, often outside working hours, and many ideas are born during this time. The problem is that these ideas are the product of one brain. Rather than presenting your idea to others within the organisation, try asking the question you think your idea solves and see how they tackle the problem.
Being a CEO is extremely rewarding, but many feel taxed and stressed. If you find yourself in this situation, take a step back and write down all the things you enjoy about your job and all the things you don’t enjoy. Then work on changing your approach to the things you don’t enjoy, don’t just think you have to put up with it because you’re a CEO.
12. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I’m saddened by current popular support for isolationist policies — those that focus on one minority group at a time — both within companies and in general society. These policies result in negative discrimination. We need to create a world where we embrace multiple differences of thought, culture, and perspective — without this no business or society can say they are inclusive. Difference stimulates debate and opens minds which leads to increased creativity, engagement, and passion.
13. Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.”
John Maynard Keynes
People have great ideas all the time, the problem is so many never make it past being ideas. It can be hard to make a change, to do something new, or different. However, letting go of old ideas and behaviors helps people to move forward.