Sophie Kelly is CEO of The Barbarian Group, a creative technology company that serves clients such as Samsung and Pepsi. She's delightful and hilarious and I had the pleasure of spending some time with her in October to talk about how she left her life in Australia in her quest for personal growth.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
An Actress. A really famous one. Unfortunately, my singing and dancing ability let me down.
Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Audrey Hepburn, Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep, George Lucas, Catherine Martin, Blondie and JFK.
What single book had the greatest impact on you?
The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham. It instilled a sense of discovery and adventure and ignited the fact that I wasn’t going to live in Australia forever.
When do you go to bed and when do you wake up?
I’m in bed by 11pm or midnight and woken by my dog, Matilda, at 6.30am.
What is your favorite time of the working week?
5pm on Friday. It’s the time when the pressure cooker goes down; people gather around our bar, everybody starts to have a drink and talks about the week.
Can you briefly explain your career path to date?
When my budding ambitions to become an actress were fading into the distance, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. So I went overseas and did the walkabout thing for a few months, came back to Australia and started working in the hospitality industry.
What was cool about that was I learned that I was really good at dealing with people and solving problems in super high-pressure situations. While I was there, I visited the hotel’s ad agency (which was Lowe Lintas at the time) and was drawn in by the cool environment. I applied for a job and ended up becoming a media buyer.
It was at the time when everything was still done by paper and faxes, which is hilarious. I got into media and loved it. I spent the first 6 years of my career as a media person and ended up going through the ranks to become a group head working on massive clients like P&G and Nestlé. I guess it was through that experience that I realized I was pretty ambitious and curious. I didn’t like being conditioned to only do one thing. I wanted to show I could take on other things as well, so I just showed up and kept learning. I was even studying for a communications degree in my spare time because I wasn’t in a position to go to university full time.
This was a time when media was still in-house and I sat with the account people and strategists. It developed my appreciation for data and dissecting audiences and putting together marketing plans based on real numbers.
When media started to become divorced from creative agencies I decided to have a few conversations with people about going to the account management side of the business, because I didn’t want to be separated from the creative product. I realized pretty firmly that the most exciting part for me was making stuff and working out how to get it out there so that people would see it.
I went on a bit of an adventure and spoke to some people about new opportunities. I figured it would be an easy transition from Media Group Head to Account Director and that’s when I landed at Mojo as an Account Director. After that I went to JWT with the contracted obligation that I would be moved to other countries. I spent time in London and Bangkok before ending up in New York where I’ve been for the past 11 years.
Again, I worked my way through the system and I think the biggest cultural shock to me coming from Australia to work in a place like New York, was how siloed people’s tasks were on an entire team. I think one of the things that made me stand out from other talent was that I was always looking towards producing something, not just moving it to another point in the process. I had no issue doing a multitude of things versus just doing what was perceived to be my part of the process.
Some people could call that ambition but I call it curiosity. I wanted to be involved in everything all of the time, not just involved in a part of it, but getting to a finish line, or getting to a result. I think that focus drove me through the system quicker than other people.
After doing a lot of global business and travelling the world and being a partner to my clients, I had a yearning to go to a smaller place and so that’s when I changed course.
Rather than run a brand, I had a real desire to run a company. So I moved to Strawberry Frog as Managing Director. That was a much smaller company and I got right in there and I like to think I made a big impact on the culture. After a while I got excited at the prospect of exploring a company that had its heart and soul in innovation and technology. This is what put me on a new learning curve and to The Barbarian Group.
I wanted to move beyond lengthy strategic conversations about the pros and cons of what could happen and go back to the culture of a company that was highly connected to and accountable for making things. I also enjoy the agility and pace that comes with working in a digitally focused area.
My career path has been about showing up, about being interested in doing the whole job not just part of the job, which has led to me progress through various disciplines and not take a backward step when massive opportunities have come my way. I’ve always wanted to make something, have an impact and watch that change into a better system, better work and a better company.
What is the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome, as it relates to your industry?
I am not a very patient person and because I am so results-driven I tend to get very frustrated with over-intellectualization and process for the sake of process.
As I was going through my career I would fail to communicate effectively because I was so focused on the results and often lacked empathy for different processes.
I am very quick at solving problems, so on a deadline I would just go and get it done. I had to learn how to embrace and empower other people’s processes and lead them to the same result without just doing it myself, or putting people offside because I was so enthusiastic about getting to the result.
So I’ve had to really work on my delivery and my understanding and also say to myself that there can be other ways to get there.
What motivates you?
A sense of progression. The notion of having milestones and an understanding of what you want to effect and seeing how that has implicated where you are today is really motivating to me.
I’m motivated by talent. There are certain people I turn up 10 times better for because I have high respect for them and I don’t want to let them down. Just as I’m motivated by them, I want them to be motivated by working with me everyday.
Financial success. I never understood the importance of this for an agency until I started running a company. Financial success means more freedom, the ability to grow and innovate.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I don’t ever look at myself like that. I think one of my greatest achievements was leaving Australia and ending up making a life for myself somewhere else. Anyone that lives away from home is always plagued by not being near their family. I think establishing a network is a big achievement. Whether professional or personal, a network of people around you can be fulfilling and comforting.
What do you believe has been the key to your success?
The short answer is I’ve showed up and I’ve worked hard.
You always have to have an eye on the result you’re trying to achieve for all of the work you’re doing. Then you have to get to that and move on to the next thing.
I also believe my ability to deduce and clarify what the real issues are on a human level and get people aligned to them so we’re all on the same agenda has helped me progress.
What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
You have to be really careful about how you communicate.
You have to be aware of your physical and emotional impact on people because that will define whether people want to trust you in a leadership position. It will also define the dynamics of your group and of your teams, and ultimately how effective you can be in business.
Having said that, one thing that really drives me mad is that I am an incredibly passionate person so people always say, she’s yelling or she’s emotional. I’m not emotional, I’m just super passionate about what I’m talking about. I think this is a really difficult thing for women because I think we get labeled as defensive or emotional, when we’re actually just fully into something.
What do you believe are the personality traits of great leaders?
You’ve got to have a vision or ambition about what you’re trying to do. You have to be able to action that, make it tangible and empower the organization to deliver it.
You need to be hard, but fair. There’s nothing wrong with being hard but there’s everything wrong with being mean. And there’s a big difference.
Great leaders are curious, they don’t settle. They are consistently searching for how to optimize things.
What do you believe is the secret to rising up to the top?
I don’t think there’s a secret. Show up, own it, be present, work hard and be curious about what you want to do. It’s that simple.
I would like to think that my story motivates people that there is a non-traditional path to success. I do think that in this market it helps to have certain classifications in how you got to the top. I didn’t know what I wanted to study when I left school so I went travelling and then went straight into the workforce. Then I studied part time. Everything I’ve done has been in search of the higher career, but I didn’t plan it.
Everything has been propelled by my performance on the job, not qualifications. What people don’t talk about enough is that you get more responsibilities to do other things in your career if you perform. Show up, be present and know what you’re there to deliver. Don’t just be a part of it. Know what you have to contribute. Performance allows you to progress. It’s not a secret but not spoken about enough.
I’m very focused on continuing to build The Barbarian Group to be a highly booming creative technology company that feels nothing like other agencies today. Media and creativity are getting closer together and I’ve got a very strong eye on how media is going to be integrated back with creative or vice versa. I think that first party data is going to change the game for how we work with brands, products and utility to impact behavior in the real world. And I’m really obsessed with what’s going on in the retail environment. Models like Warby Parker and Story by Rachel Shechtman are changing the fundamental laws of business.
As told to Caroline Hugall at The Barbarian Group Offices on Thursday 9th October 2014.