CEOs during COVID-19: Imogen Hewitt on the challenge of starting a new role just before a pandemic

In this series, Mumbrella's Brittney Rigby asks media agency CEOs how they're leading their teams through a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. Here, in this final instalment, Spark Foundry's Imogen Hewitt expresses why leading an agency is easier than year six long division, why she's grateful to fellow leaders who have abandoned fierce competitiveness to support her, and what it was like to barely be settled into the job before she was forced to tell people to go home and stay home.

The first question I ask Imogen Hewitt is: How are you?

It’s the same question with which I’ve started each interview for this series, because I wanted thoughtful answers, on the record. Usually, it’s one hurriedly asked before the red light on my recorder starts flashing, a way to fill in the time with a little small talk. But it’s taken on a certain gravity lately, for both the questioner and the questioned.

We’re recovering from a global pandemic, a period during which jobs have been (and still are) insecure, people are still (mostly) physically isolated, and, in a CEO’s case, there’s enormous pressure to save jobs and keep a company afloat. So we know the usual ‘good’s and ‘fine’s won’t be true.

Imogen Hewitt_Mumbrella360 2018

I’m especially hoping for more than a ‘good’ or ‘fine’ from Hewitt, in her first proper interview since beginning as CEO of Spark Foundry just six short months ago in December. Most of her tenure has been spent at home, getting to know an agency and its people and clients without being able to see them.

She says it’s been a challenge so big, it’s only second to “becoming a mother for the first time”. Navigating this situation in a way that protects jobs has been “gut-wrenching”. And so, when I ask her how she is, her response is frank: “I’m doing very well, today. Some days, not very well.

“But certainly, there is so much more honesty in the way that people are answering and asking that question.”

And then there’s the moment in this interview, edited for length, when she articulates so perfectly what this moment in time has, and continues, to be like: “Good days are great and bad days happen, and being honest and truthful and allowing life to just play out around you as you’re doing the best job you can possibly do is enough.”

‘Like a movie script’: Working, leading, and schooling from home

I’ve had moments where I’ve thought, ‘I cannot wait to get back into an office’. And I’ve had other moments where I think, ‘My goodness, I could never get this many cuddles from my children during the day if I was at the office all the time’.

It feels a little bit like a movie script. So I’ve had really great moments of working at home, and then I’ve had really low moments. There’ve been emotional highs and plot twists, to stretch the analogy. A lot of it has been an exercise in personal agility, in trust, in vulnerability, when you’ve got the collision of your work and personal lives.

Hewitt with her husband and daughters on a walk

And certainly, it has just required adjustment and re-adjustment and adjustment and re-adjustment as things have changed.

I’ve had kids at home [aged 11 and seven; both had birthdays during lockdown]. I’ve had kids back at school. I’ve had my husband at home, I’ve had him out again. So lots of changes. [I’ve been involved with homeschooling] with mixed success. I have discovered that it is considerably easier to have sensible conversations about an agency’s commercial performance than it is to manage year six long division.

I have really enjoyed having my girls closer to me more often. That has undeniably been one of the more wondrous aspects of the whole experience.

‘Second only to becoming a mother’: The COVID-19 leadership bootcamp experience

It has felt a little bit like leadership bootcamp. I imagine that that has been the way that it’s felt for lots of people.

I was very new to the role at Spark Foundry when all of this started. I only joined in late December, early January. And so I was still very much in the process of immersing myself in the people and the product and the clients and the business when all of a sudden, I found myself directing 150 people to grab what they needed and go home indefinitely.

If I’m really truthful about it, the learning curve of the last few months is really second only to becoming a mother for the first time. Both of those things take a huge amount of support and guidance from a brilliant team. And that’s what’s got me through this set of circumstances is wonderful people, great support, and an appetite for change. You have to be pretty resilient.

Hewitt’s work from home set up

[The hardest part is] the very genuine responsibility that I feel for our people. It is about their health and their safety, and it’s about their jobs. And that has been the most emotionally taxing part of this whole thing. There are brilliant people that work for this organisation and navigating this in a way that makes sure that we deliver the best possible outcome for them is the thing that has really been quite gut-wrenching.

‘I have been nothing but awestruck’: Underestimating her people and clients

In terms of the practicalities, the way that we work with clients hasn’t changed as much as I anticipated that it might. Our teams and our clients have been so extraordinary in just getting on with it.

Great work has gone out the door. We’ve inducted new clients. The day-to-day delivery has continued relatively unchanged. And if I’m really honest, I think I probably underestimated the power of the people and our client teams and our clients, for that matter, in just being as persistent and dogged in their ability to keep delivering incredible work despite the challenges that we’ve all faced.

I have been nothing but awestruck by what the teams have managed to keep doing, which is enormously gratifying.

I was still very much building relationships with people and clients. Barely had my feet under the desk at the time that this all happened. What this situation has really allowed me to do is to get quite personal quite quickly. The level of intimacy in the conversations that I’m having with clients has been surprising but really beautiful.

I’ve had conversations about kids and working from home, and, as I’ve said, year six long division. Also about elderly parents and about the emotional toll of how you try and stay positive and optimistic.

Hewitt’s daughter, Lilly, pretending to be CEO for a day

It’s been an opportunity like very few I’ve experienced where humanity and intimacy in those relationships has accelerated. Because we’ve needed to depend on one another.

‘Minimum generalisation and maximum fact’: What she wants from her team

What I’m expecting from the team is more of the same, to be honest. They have done such a phenomenal job.

Very early on, we made the decision not to try and crystal ball. So neither to fear monger, nor to allow ourselves to subscribe to overly simple adages, like, ‘spend your way through it’. We wanted to be of service to our clients. And that means for us minimal generalisation and maximum fact.

One of the things that our clients definitely have needed through all of this is facts, evidence. And I think that what they deserve is empathy. I’m still expecting that from our team, a recognition of the fact that we’re all in the same situation in a macro sense, but personally, our experiences can be very, very different and that traverses both our team members and our peers, but also our clients.

This is really, really difficult. It’s been kind of weird, moments of it have been wonderful, aspects of it have been sort of wild, but really, through all of it, we’ve tried to foster kindness for one another, for our clients, just operating with a sense of compassion.

It will be ‘based on how they’re feeling about it, not based on how we’re feeling about it’: Transitioning back to the office

We have a quite unusual situation in that before we all started working from home, we’d never worked in one office altogether, so we were still split between an office in [Sydney’s] Surry Hills and an office in Walsh Bay. On the 20th of March, which was exactly the week that we all went home to work from home indefinitely, was the same week that we were meant to move into our brand spanking new offices.

I anticipated that what that might mean was a real eagerness to get back into a work environment because it’s a new environment and it marks a really significant milestone for Spark Foundry as an agency. However, what we’ve tried to do through all of this is make sure that we’ve been consultative and that we really understand what’s troubling our people, but also is what is working really well for them.

We have some people [around 10] going back in this week [this interview occurred at the start of last week]. It’s very few, and it’s the people that have said, ‘I’m really struggling to continue to work from home’, for whatever reason.

We are going to allow people to do what they feel is most comfortable. We are not going to push people to be in our office if they don’t feel comfortable. We are not going to mandate that you have to be back into an office environment by a particular date.

Globally, the call has been made that we will facilitate working from home for the rest of this year, if that’s what people choose to do. But we don’t have a blanket approach.

It’s been very different for very different people, and we need to be mindful that we have a responsibility to tailor the way that we bring people back into the office based on how they’re feeling about it, not based on how we’re feeling about it.

‘A really wild experience’: What’s the last few months been like?

It’s been really challenging. I’ve had to get very comfortable very quickly with my own vulnerability about not always having the answers that people might like me to have. I’ve had to build an enormous amount of rapport and trust with our leadership team, and they are brilliant humans, and that hasn’t been overly difficult to do, but it could have been.

I have found it really gratifying when you feel like you’ve made the right call and that the right call has led to this experience being less difficult for the people that work for us.

Hewitt co-working with her daughter, Lilly

I don’t necessarily think that I would recommend joining an agency just immediately before there’s going to be a global pandemic. But having said that, I don’t think I would change it, because as I said earlier, it has been the most extraordinary opportunity for lessons and growth and really finding out what you’re made of.

All of those things and more. It has also been a terrific opportunity to just see how brilliant people can be.

It’s been amazing to see how supportive the industry will be of one another. I have had plenty of calls with other people in similar situations or similar roles to me who have put down any sense of competitiveness for a sense of solidarity and helping one another to make the best choices possible through this. That kind of thing is unusual, but wonderful. I would hope that that continues.

It has been a really wild experience. I found the human toll of what is going on very, very difficult to manage and not feel overwhelmed by. But at the same time, just such a privilege to see that businesses really can make a significant difference to the way that their people feel through such an extraordinary set of circumstances.


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