People Business Insights

Our series of short, insightful interviews with successful business leaders

Sonia Watson OBE

Holly Maguire

CEO – Superunion

Superunion is a global brand agency who work with consumer and corporate clients. They are experts in brand strategy, identity, communications, brand engagement, reputation and brand management.

What ongoing business challenge is occupying your thoughts this month?

Sometimes I forget which month it is! We have certainly weathered some storms this past year, so as the storm clouds pass we continue to think about how we can help existing and new clients charter new waters and new territories. We’re extremely proud of our low client attrition and are continuing to see new clients coming to us with opportunities and challenges – the majority of whom have been personally recommended to us by clients we already work with.

With our current clients we are increasingly finding ourselves stepping up to take on more diverse responsibilities since we are a partner they trust and the pitch invitations are increasingly diverse too. However, starting relationships remotely has been a very odd experience, ultimately people buy people and our only interactions have been through our screens. We’ve done well pitching during lockdown and we are really proud of our partnerships but we’re desperate to meet these clients in person!

From a people perspective, we are a very tight crew and this year has brought us even closer together. After such a prolonged period of intense work I’m mindful of how we continue to support and sustain our people, how we give them work that inspires them and ensure they continue to learn and grow. This difficult lock-down period will pass but we’ll continue to move into other periods of intensity as the world faces into the financial and psychological fall-out of the pandemic. Achieving the right work-life balance will be critical – so our people can recharge and invest time in themselves both professionally & personally.

When you think about the way your organisation has pivoted since the pandemic – what are you most proud of / pleased about? How has this set you up for future success?

Firstly, it’s been about the adaptability and resilience that we have shown. We faced into it, head-on – it was forced upon us and we faced it together with the adrenaline of survival coursing through us all! I am proud of our ability to sustain the highest standards of creativity through adoption of new collaborative technologies. We have also tried to replicate the manner in which we communicate with each other in real life and protect the things that fuel our culture.

Friday evening virtual drinks and company updates at our weekly ‘Superglue’ strengthened bonds and kept us together. We also had the ‘BADFA Awards’ this Christmas – with everyone in the business randomly teamed up to pastiche iconic Christmas films, with the films created and the awards ceremony hosted through Microsoft Teams.

In fact the use of our technology platforms has created a sense of equality and inclusion in some respects – everyone is seen and heard equally on projects and clients can be brought right into the process. The thing I am most proud of however is the personal dedication from our people, particularly when they’ve had such difficult personal circumstances. Our people have really shown they can be empowered to take responsibility wherever they are. That is something we’ll be taking further as we embrace more flexible ways of working in the future.

As you look forward to this year and years ahead where we will be living and operating with COVID, what are you focussing on to build a more resilient organisation?

First of all, we are heavily investing in our Learning & Development with a commitment to supporting Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and encouraging personal growth. I strongly believe that the only way we will grow our business is through growing our people and that truly original ideas come through diverse teams.

We are also creating a more coaching led dynamic with our people rather than the traditional model of ‘performance reviews’. We want people to be coached so that they take on personal responsibility for their own development. In terms of our collective mindset – we recognise that the rate of change will continue to accelerate and be part of our reality. We have a culture that thrives on change but the ‘changing’ bit always feels uncomfortable. So it’s about actively embracing and normalising change. A critical part of our talent and retention strategy is building the characteristics and behaviours that enable us to thrive in a changing environment and be the creators of change for our clients.

What / who inspires you?

The people at Superunion really inspire me. The talent and attitude of our people has inspired me every day – in fact, the phrase I’ve heard most often during lockdown (both to our clients and to each other) is ‘How can I help?’ It’s part of the joy of my job and it gives me a real sense of purpose when I see the dedication and commitment of everyone around me. We’re part of WPP Brand Consulting and our WPP UK country leader, Karen Blackett (OBE) inspires me greatly. She is so authentic and genuine and is supremely clear in articulating her motives and her intent with everything she does. She creates strong followship as a result and leads with both humanity and integrity.

There has been a huge amount of societal / community / family changes since last year – what one thing for you is most positive?

In many ways, Covid has been a leveller. No-one was impervious to it and the fact that everyone was affected meant that it created an incredible sense of community, we were all in the same storm. However, the unfortunate truth is some of us were in very different boats and Covid has pushed some people further under the waterline, it has exposed social injustice and societal and cultural issues so acutely we now have a responsibility as businesses to pay attention. I’m thoughtful about the role that brands have to address those injustices, and the opportunities that exist for us to make positive and enduring change for our clients and the communities they serve.

What new habits have you introduced to look after your (and family’s) mental health / general wellbeing?

I moved to Hertfordshire (where I grew up) when I had my daughter three years ago and just being around nature has been really calming; hearing bird song, seeing the changing of the seasons. When the world was put on hold, feeling nature continue to thrive and grow was incredibly reassuring.

I did get a pet cat which now feels part of the family and I really appreciate my home a lot more, it feels more like my sanctuary. I’ve found that my house feels more of a home whereas pre-Covid I often only ate there at weekends and left and returned in darkness!

I do miss the dedicated thinking and reading time of the commute and I miss the energy and people of London – I’m a big observer of life and the ideas that it sparks, I’ve missed that random stimulation! My work and home life have merged more closely so I’m now trying to build more ‘focus time’ into my diary, I also don’t benefit from being in amongst my team every day and visiting clients regularly so have built in more structured check-ins – protecting time in the diary which is dedicated to proper conversations. I also have valuable time every week talking to my Global CEO, Jim Prior.

What 2 or 3 things would you tell your 16 year-old self now?

First is don’t see your kindness as weakness; it gives me strength as a leader.

Secondly, don’t worry about what others think all the time (people think about you far less than you think); do what’s right for you, stick to it and those that feel the same will stick by you come what may. Don’t worry about doing things for acceptance, be true to yourself and those that share your values will be the relationships that endure – both personally and professionally.

With thanks to Holly.

Holly was Interviewed by Chrissie Saunders, Senior L&D Consultant at People Business.