How to scale a content marketing agency with Social Chain's Managing Director, Katy Leeson
19th February 2021
On Thursday February 18th, ContentCal was joined by Social Chain's Managing Director, Katy Leeson for an exclusive webinar with our CEO, Alex Packham.
In the session they discussed creativity and collaboration in agency settings, as well as workplace culture when we're all connected remotely. Katy also expanded upon her experience as a woman shaping the industry, and dealing with common problems such as burnout and imposter syndrome, in what was an incredible chat.
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This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Alex: I’m so excited to be speaking to you about Social Chain and your journey with the business...you’ve had an amazing few years there and the company is really going from strength to strength. Katy, give us a little overview of your career at Social Chain so far.
Katy: Of course! My name is Katy Leeson and I’m the Managing Director at Social Chain UK. For those who don’t know who Social Chain are, we are a social media marketing agency, and we’ve been going for six years now. I’ve been there for 4 years, and we now have 130 people in the UK...when I started there were 30. We’ve also got a New York office now as well as a Berlin office.
A: You guys have had an amazing growth story. I’ve been following it since Steve and Dom got started because ContentCal was founded at a similar time and it’s been brilliant to watch. From a team culture perspective, what’s made Social Chain so successful? What’s made it stand out?
K: I think there’s been an obsession about culture from the outset, and the importance of putting people first - creating an environment people want to work in. I think we’ve been super selective in the people we’ve hired. We’ve hired on culture a lot of the time and it’s all about your attitude and drive - which is a lot of the reason I think Social Chain has grown at the rate it has, because we’ve got some brilliant minds that love working together.
A: You said that it had been there from the start, but as the company gets bigger, how do you scale that level of culture throughout the business? Is it process-driven? Or is it still through amazing energy?
K: I do think it’s partly been down to the hires, because we’ve hired people that we knew would fit with the culture. One of our main values is that “we give a sh*t always”, and that has to come through with everyone that works with us. It’s not been easy to keep culture at the heart of everything, but it’s had to be an absolute obsession all the way through.
A: I love that value! Values are so critical to have, it’s like a center pin that everyone can go back to...especially when you get to the stage where you have hundreds of people and no one knows everyone anymore, and a great challenge. I guess that leads into the next question - what would you say are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as the agency has grown?
K: It has been difficult at times trying to find the right people to fit in with that culture. It means you’ve got to be picky, and that puts the teams under pressure while you find the right person. I was trying to find a Creative Director and it took me 2 years, but when you do find the right person, you move leaps and bounds.
Another challenge is keeping consistency with culture. I like to be involved in people’s lives and one thing we lost a little bit of as we’ve grown (and our staff’s ages have grown), is really understanding what they want out of the culture. We got to a place where we were doing what we thought was right, and we didn’t evolve the benefits of working with us, as the team grew. We’ve spent a lot of time in the last year listening to people, doing surveys, understanding what they want, creating an internal culture committee that gets feedback from everybody, because it’s not down to me alone to create a culture.
Winning work can also be a challenge...it’s about finding the right clients that fit with your energy and making sure you can do great work for them. We pitched for a lot last year, and pitching over Zoom isn’t easy. We didn’t win as many as we’d like, but we did get a few really special ones towards the end of the year.
A: How did you find reviewing the process of how you approached culture? Were there any key moments where you realized “we’ve got to make some changes”?
K: We’ve always been amazing at helping people with their mental health, and making sure they’re supported, and offered mental health therapy to everybody. But, where we lacked was growth from within the company. So, the middle of last year we hired a business coach, because everyone knew where they wanted to get to [in their careers], but didn’t know how to get there. The feedback from that has been incredible. People have said their confidence has grown, they’re understanding where they want to get to in their careers - it’s just been so good to see.
It’s also worth talking about the pandemic because we’ve seen people’s relationship with the company change, which gave us a real kick up the bum to do a little bit more listening, rather than dictating on how things should be.
A: That makes a lot of sense. The pandemic’s been a challenge in so many ways, because everyone’s living their own experience of this and it’s given everyone a chance to look at themselves internally and evaluate their relationships with everything in their lives - so hats off to you for acknowledging that. I love the business coach idea...I’m stealing that one.
You’ve touched a lot on culture already, and I’ve been in agencies and run agencies previously, and I know culture is such a critical part of the business...it is the business in many ways. How have you thought about team motivation and structure within the company as the team has grown over the years?
K: We’ve always had a really ambitious team. The amazing thing I always find with the team at Social Chain is how willing they are to adapt to change. Our success started at the grassroots of social. We had some amazing social talent of young people who had created these huge pages from their bedrooms and were then hired by Social Chain. The real growth has been when we’ve made hires alongside that with people who have the experience.
When I joined I came with knowledge from my background, but I was taught so much by the people who know social media better than I ever could. Linking those two things together has been a real driver in what we do. That’s one of the things I’d love to keep trying, and that’s where you see people grow the most.
A: I think you’ve articulated a moment in time for the industry - coupling people who have built these pages with millions of followers with people who know business processes - I think you guys capture that so well. I’ve been blown away by the success of it and the fact you’re now continually challenging it, which now stems into my next question... Agencies are obviously brought in to deliver campaigns, but you also need to have your finger on the pulse with the ever-changing social landscape - something clients want to stay on top of but can’t do themselves. How do you approach innovation?
K: The reason Social Chain exists is to keep brands at the forefront of what’s possible. We live that through the work we do, and on our internal webpage we have a page called “ever-changing landscape” where the team can add things they see when it happens. We’ve also created a subscription-based model where we can replicate that for our clients, which is in BETA testing at the moment but we will be rolling it out alongside our marketing efforts.
For me, that’s great, because social changes every minute of the day...just before this call we were talking about how Facebook had pulled so many news pages down today of people they consider to be news outlets. You couldn’t have predicted that last night when you went to bed. Our social media management team are just constantly on it...they were one of the first groups I saw to use Clubhouse for their team meetings. They’re just always testing things and seeing what they could do with new formats.
I think probably our main USP is that we have all of our publishing pages, because we’re creating content for our audiences day-in-day-out, and we know what audiences are looking to see and we know when an algorithm changes and we love that. It means we can take advantage of those changes, by testing them on our own audiences first, and then taking them to our clients, giving them new opportunities. Being able to be agile alongside having that innovation is the key to the success of Social Chain.
A: How do you facilitate that? Because I have to say having worked with agencies and with clients, agility is of course key. The deadlines are always tight so you have to figure out the quickest way to get things done, and there’s no time to celebrate when you get a new client because you’re jumping on the new work straight away! How have you kept on top of those challenges?
K: I think the agility has probably slowed down at times, and getting things done might sometimes take a bit longer than it did back at the beginning. But, now we’ve got the necessary processes (not too many because that can slow us down further), meaning we can be as agile as possible and clients really appreciate that.
We also do a lot of planning. Like ContentCal, you use that to plan for things you know are coming up, and that gives you time to then be reactive to things as they happen as well.
A: Having that split is really critical, and as you say, having the right processes without overdoing it is key. But I do think that reactive content from brands is quite rare these days. The other day we had Weetabix and Heinz Beans, which was great...but how do you think about things like that?
K: I think they’re beautiful when they happen because we get so much enjoyment out of them! The difference is realizing what we consider to be amazing as marketers, and whether consumers get that same enjoyment, which when they do is just incredible. Social’s got a real place to play in that sort of humor, and who doesn’t need that right now? Where it doesn’t work as well is when brands try and jump on a movement that they’ve not thought through properly. For example with Black Lives Matter, some brands just really didn’t consider what they were putting out and why, and it didn’t fit with their values. It’s really just about doing it right, but only if it fits with your brand.
A: There’s some stuff you see occasionally where you think “What has this company even tried to do here?” and it’s unfortunate. I also think that pushes the industry on, because it creates a conversation about what we do, and social has its unique spot in the marketing mix. It’s the only channel where you can really do that type of activity. Do you ever get challenged about the effectiveness of social vs other channels? Does that conversation still come up from clients?
K: It does. We still also have clients that set an expectation that they want to achieve X amount of followers, and we have to challenge why that is. And what’s changed over the last couple of years is that we’re now having conversations higher up in businesses rather than having that sit with the social team. We’re having wider conversations about marketing and how it can change their business, rather than just being social-specific...which is a big change, and really exciting for us. Clients now are becoming a little bit more savvy and the pandemic has been key to that because so many more people have been on social and seen the power of it. Even people that weren’t on social as much before are watching live streams or scrolling, which has sparked a lot more interest client-side.
A: Last year was horrendous for so many reasons but for non-believers of social there’s almost been 10 years worth of change in 1 year. Do you feel like you’ve seen that play out as well?
K: It’s definitely sped up that knowledge gap because we’ve just been able to move up that food chain when it comes to decision makers and real business challenges. Social is wonderful in so many ways for getting people to engage with a brand and fall in love with a brand - and the last 12 months has really shown the power of that social-side when we really needed it. It was our own way of connecting for a long time, so I’m glad brands are seeing the benefit of it.
A: Absolutely! Going back to teams...building a diverse leadership team is critical to success, and that’s something that's backed up by a lot of data points. Most people completely understand that but you do have some who don’t for whatever reason. How have you gone about that at Social Chain? Is it something that’s actively discussed? We think about it all the time at ContentCal and how we can create a leadership team that can work well together to combine goals. How do you feel about it?
K: We try our very best to find different routes for recruitment so we can get that diversity of thought. It’s so important that you’ve got a diverse group of opinions because people who all have similar qualities can’t be making decisions across a number of brands. Companies with the top quartile of gender diversity are 20% more likely to outperform on profitability, and 27% more likely to have superior value creation. But it’s not just gender. Companies with different ethnic backgrounds, and culture diversity, are a third more likely to have industry-leading profiles. Having that understanding of the wider world and making sure you have a team that lives and breathes that across the business. We’ve always been really good at supporting everybody for whoever they are and whoever they want to be. It’s just about finding the right talent which can sometimes be tricky in our world, but we’re trying our very best to do that.
A: I think you’ve got a brilliant way of thinking about that, and it is something that’s consistently challenging having those open conversations is critical. Finding talent and making sure you can get access to it is something you have to embrace as someone running a business. What are the key routes you use to find talent? You guys have had some really creative applications in your time.
K: I do remember one guy sent in a blow-up fish which was powered by remote control with a CV on it. It’s not as many as I’d like to be honest! I’d love more creative applications. I’d love to see TikTok applications - anything that fits with the work that we’re doing. The main thing is you just need to understand what role you’re going for and why you’re going for it. Not just sending something into Social Chain just because it’s cool. We do get most of our hires by referrals at the moment, but last year we started to use a freelance network because we got so busy so quickly.
We’re also massive advocates of apprenticeship schemes like Juice Academy - we’ve already got a couple of people there and we’re looking for more.
A: Have you seen a shift in roles that you’ve needed for clients?
K: It’s not really changed, but we’ve really focused on our creative talent and it’s now about how we can double-down on the amount of work we’ve got. We’ve always been known for our specialisms and we’ve had a lot of PR about our story and our name, but I really want us to be known for the work that we do now.
A: That’s a really interesting transition. I can see why taking 2 years to find the right person to be your Creative Director is a great exercise in terms of taking an agency to that next level. K: I don’t know if you saw the Cravendale Marble Olympics we did last year? There’s been all sorts of amazing stuff we’ve managed to achieve in that time.
K: I don’t know if you saw the Cravendale Marble Olympics we did last year? There’s been all sorts of amazing stuff we’ve managed to achieve in that time.
A: That’s amazing. I’ve got a couple of questions here from people in the chat. I think this is a good one as it resonates with what life was like when I was running an agency...what’s the biggest advice you could give for someone scaling a small 4-5 person agency, to running a bigger agency?
K: Again it's about the right hires, finding people that will help you, because when you’re a small team you end up doing a bit of everything anyway. Finding people who can help take on some of that work means you can focus more on growth, which isn’t easy. Especially when everything is urgent, you need to find people that can be more proactive.
A: That makes sense - we’ve had another question here which goes back to an earlier point. How has working from home unfolded for you when culture and office life is such a huge part of your brand? Are you still managing to do team get-togethers?
K: It’s not been easy. More from the fact that everyone is so Zoom fatigued! We’ve been having a lot more meetings than we normally would and we ran into the pandemic like bulls in a china shop as we went into survival mode, because of course we didn’t know what was coming. But we tried to make sure we kept doing the regular routine things: on a Friday we always have a review where we get together and talk about good stuff that’s happened that week. We also do initiations for new starters, which we’ve managed to continue. But you can see people aren’t on it as much as they were.
Christmas was a big one for me because we usually do such a good Christmas party, and you just can’t replicate that. We basically just had to ask the team what they wanted to do whether that was live music, wreath-making, or a wine and cheese evening, and we just ended up doing a load of activities across the week that people actually wanted to do. It’s actually helped us out having that knowledge because now we run a craft club every month, and it means you can have a conversation with people from work that you don’t see.
We’re just trying to listen to the staff of what they need and when they need it...we’ve done an overhaul of our benefits...mental health support and coaching.
A: All things considered it sounds like you’ve done a great job. I think what we miss most is the chat in the office, and it’s impossible to replicate on Zoom. It’s often those moments in the office by the water cooler where the magic comes from.
What’s your opinion of Clubhouse? Is it going to be the next big thing?
K: I’ve been on it as a spectator, and at the moment I think it’s a great networking tool. I also hosted an “ask me anything” and I know some people are actually having real success with growing their network. So if it is going to become a thing, you want to be on there now to start growing. If you pick your rooms quite carefully it’s also good for learning because you can have it on in the background. I couldn’t say whether it’s going to become the next big thing or not because at the moment the people on there are very much from our world...so will it go mainstream?
A: Yeah, difficult one.
K: They’re like live podcasts, aren’t they?
A: It’s very clear people are hopping from group-to-group dying to get onto the panels, so they can build a following. It’s part of the game I guess. I’m just going through some of these questions...What’s your route of getting clients and has that changed over the journey? Do people come to you because of your reputation?
K: We are incredibly lucky because our inbound is nothing like I’ve seen before. I joined Social Chain after doing new business and marketing for another agency in Manchester, and that was tough. You had to go out and were fighting against other agencies and people wouldn’t return your calls or emails. The outbound was impossible. I then walked into Social Chain and the inbound was insane. One of my big worries is that we need to ensure that it doesn’t dry up either. We need to keep that specialness alive as well as noise in the market and our reputation.
But we also do some amazing marketing work. The Social Minds podcast is just incredible and we get a lot of referrals from that. The reason why I do a lot on LinkedIn and put myself out there more on a personal level is because it helps with the new business drive. We don’t do traditional outbound, we try and do it through our reputation.
A: Which is an amazing place to be! And once you get that engine roaring, it’ll really continue for you - and I have no doubt you’ll do that. Couple of final questions - so the theme for International Women’s Day 2021 is #ChooseToChallenge...what are you choosing to challenge as part of this?
K: I am choosing to challenge the connection between mental health support and workplace culture, and I’m on an absolute mission to make sure I can disrupt the workplace and make sure that people understand the importance of putting your people and their mental health and giving them support there. I want to do that internally at Social Chain, and spread the word as much as I can about the benefits it’s given us.
Having been through it and seen family members who have had mental health issues from lack of support at work, I’m absolutely determined to challenge that change.
A: Mental health is such a key thing and it’s getting talked about so much more than ever before. We need to normalize making it something we talk about and something we know we need to look after, because we’re all on our own individual journeys with it.
Final question - What are the top 3 things you would say that someone needs to progress, whether that’s in marketing, building an agency or trying to get into a leadership position?
K: I think just be obsessive about the thing that you want to be good at. My first one would be to understand your own values and understand what you’re good at, because if you do have imposter syndrome and it’s holding you back and putting yourself forward, then you need to understand what it is that drives your values.
One of mine is learning, and what I’ve realized is that I take opportunities when they come up because of my passion for learning. I’ve taken sideward steps and upward steps because I’ve wanted to learn something. And the reason I joined Social Chain was because I didn’t know about digital marketing. I started as a press, radio and outdoor buyer, and not having that digital knowledge I knew I was making my obsolete. So I found Social Chain, saw the amazing work they were doing, and said to myself “I want to be part of that”.
Also, ask lots of questions! If someone is doing the job you want to do, ask questions about that job or ask if you can shadow them - look for a mentor that really aligns with what you want to do. Or ask your boss! If there’s something you really want to be in the future, ask for help with a progression path or making sure you’re on the right training courses. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.
A: I think everything you’ve just said there will answer so many people’s questions. People have that open mindset towards wanting to progress and that’s often what it comes down to, and having the encouragement to do it.
Thank you so much for that - it’s been amazing to hear about your journey and Social Chain’s success and we wish you all the best for the year ahead.