AgencyNXD Interview

In this interview with AgencyNXD, I talk about acting as a Non-Executive Director, my entrepreneurial journey, how I got support and advice as the agency scaled, and planning for an exit.

First published in Ask our non-execs: Susan Hallam by Nick Jaspan.

How did you start your journey in the marcomms world, what did you do before setting up your digital marketing agency Hallam

My experience working on the Internet started way back in 1983. 

Most people don’t realise the Internet was a thing then, well before the advent of the world wide web and Google. I was an early player in the data management field, and in hindsight I was enough of a risk taker to just “say yes” to what became transformational digital opportunities. Before I set up Hallam I was a Senior Lecturer in Computing at NTU, and also had senior leadership roles in telecommunications and banking. I think that combination of academic and blue chip experience set me up well for the entrepreneurial journey that followed.

You worked for and learnt from others before deciding to ‘do your own thing’ – what was or were the factors that compelled you to want to have a go for yourself

It’s surprising how many successful businesses consist of just their founders for a number of years, and then over time the business takes off and achieves that hockey stick growth. I set up on my own because I genuinely had a passion for digital marketing and wanted the freedom to do my own thing. 

I was a “one man band” for 10 years before Hallam’s growth took off, eventually employing 70 people and being named one of Google’s top performing agencies in EMEA.

Running a business can be lonely. How did you reach out for advice when you felt it could be useful

I agree running a business can be lonely – particularly as a woman business founder in a technical profession where women hold less than 25% of the leadership roles. 

I actively sought out a range of leadership development programmes that connected me with other business owners who gave me advice and provided a much needed sounding board. I am still in touch with some of those other business owners today, even after having exited my company.

Did you always plan to sell your agency and why ultimately did you decide to sell to the management

I have to confess when I was a kid I never once thought “I want to be an entrepreneur when I grow up.” Like many agency founders, time passed and after years of hard work I woke up one morning and found myself leading a big company. Most successful agency owners have M&A companies sniffing around them, and we were no different. 

After assessing offers from international buyers and exploring other options with our excellent business advisors, we agreed an MBO was the best way forward. The MBO kept our outstanding leadership team motivated, gave me the cash I wanted, and most importantly retained Hallam’s company culture and unique market position.

Building, managing and ultimately exiting an agency requires several different skill-sets. What advice can you share with ambitious marcomms bosses who also seek to grow and sell their businesses

I think there are two things that help agency owners to scale up a business. First, you need your “North Star” – that overarching vision of what you do, and what you value, your passion, and where you are going. You can’t fake being an expert, you can’t fake integrity, and that North Star will make you the leader you need to be to grow and sell. 

And the second secret to scaling your business is to focus on your people. Notice I didn’t say focus on the money. If you focus on your people, financial success will follow. So take good care of your people, and nurture and develop them.

Your skills span start-ups, sales, strategy, scaling up and leadership development – what sort of businesses/bosses are you most interested in advising?

I am interested in advising people who have the same passion, the same commitment, and the same energy I had when I was growing and ultimately selling my own business. I made more than my fair share of mistakes along the way,and I enjoy working with individuals who have the resilience to pick themself up and brush themselves off when they hit a bump in the road.

Leadership Lessons

In this interview in the IoD Director’s magazine, I share my thoughts on productivity, women in tech, and how to beat analysis paraysis. First published in “The leadership lessons of digital marketing pioneer Susan Hallam”

Keep following your “North Star”. When I started Hallam Internet back in 1999, I was an expert in my field, I had a real passion for the business and my work had real value. These three elements still form the agency’s guiding vision today – our North Star. We have built our success on staying true to our values right from the beginning.

Learn how to cut your losses. I have made a few bad business decisions over the years, including one that cost a lot of money. What on Earth was I thinking? My big lesson from that was to recognise how emotion could cloud my judgment. It taught me the need to make more balanced decisions and, at the end of the day, cut my losses if necessary.

“This too shall pass.” The best piece of advice I’ve ever received came from my dad, who would remind me that nothing lasts forever. Don’t wait to celebrate the good times until it’s too late because you’re already focusing on what’s next on the plan. And keep the faith that you will survive the bad times. We have achieved great success at Hallam Internet, but we’ve also gone through some rough patches. His words – “this too shall pass” – keep it all in perspective.

We have great business ideas in this country – I’m an active supporter of initiatives such as the Midlands Engine, which champion my region’s commercial and cultural assets, for instance. But our competitors too often make more of our ideas, creating greater wealth and employment. When it comes to productivity, now is the time for businesses in this country to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. Productivity is about more than just saving time – we can use technology to help our companies adapt to change and gain a competitive advantage. Improving productivity by, say, adopting more flexible working is essential to the future success of UK plc.

There is no such thing as digital marketing any more. It is all just marketing, but marketing in a digital world. One of the biggest mistakes that a business can make is to put “digital” into a silo and expect some teenage geek or piece of software to fix all their problems. There are always tears before bedtime when a so-called digital guru creates a digital marketing solution that isn’t aligned with the goals of the business.

Don’t underestimate the importance of women in technology. Only 19 per cent of jobs in the UK tech sector are held by women at present, although they have a much higher representation in start-ups. Change is happening at grass-roots level, but it needs to happen faster. The push to get more diversity in this industry is only getting started. Initiatives such as retraining women who are re-entering the workforce and encouraging women to turn to tech for a second or third career are already making a difference.

Having excellent mentors has benefited my career in a huge way. My first job was at an SME and then I moved on to work for BT and Capital One. I recognise now how lucky I was to have great mentors at all three of those businesses. These people really cared about my development and gave me the opportunity and security to take risks and grow.

The best non-executive directors pose the trickiest questions. As the chair of Nottingham’s Creative Quarter Company, I add value by asking my executive colleagues challenging questions. The secret to doing this, of course, is to research the issue at hand before the meeting and then listen carefully. Asking such questions can bring a new perspective to bear and enable the board to get to heart of the matter more quickly.

Analysis paralysis kills the fun of running a business. When an opportunity arises, just say “yes” and then figure out how you can make it happen. We have won international contracts with organisations such as the United Nations by saying “yes” first and asking questions later.

Pay it forward. Passing on good deeds spreads positivity. I believe in the benefits of actions such as writing thank-you notes and lending your team a hand when the going gets tough. The agency also nominates a charity to support each year. Our current one is Nottingham Samaritans, for which we’ve raised £20,000.

Focus on your people and success will follow. Our leadership team works hard on building a culture that we call “the greatest place to work”. Our secret to finding great people for our company and retaining their loyalty is all about that “Team Hallam” culture. The kinds of experts we want to recruit have to want to join our organisation and they have to fit in culturally.

Susan Hallam read political science at Penn State University and then gained a master’s degree in information science from Drexel University, also in Pennsylvania. She moved to the UK in 1985 and became a senior lecturer in computing at Nottingham Trent University. After leaving academia in 1997 she held senior marketing roles at companies including BT and Capital One. In 1999 she started Hallam Internet, one of the first companies in the UK to specialise in digital marketing. Today it employs more than 60 people at its offices in Nottingham and London. The agency, which has won several industry awards, has clients including the Raleigh Bicycle Company, Speedo International and the United Nations. Last year Hallam was appointed an MBE for her services to entrepreneurship and innovation. She is a trustee of Nottingham Castle, a freeman of the City of London and the chair of Nottingham’s Creative Quarter Company, which was created to stimulate the city’s creative economy.

Cyber-serfdom: slaves to the technology

I am a slave to technology. A cyberserf.

Emails. WhatsApp. Voicemails. Texts.  Messenger. Snapchat. 3G, 4G, 5G. Internet enabled door bells and watches and coffee machines.  It’s all supposed to make my life easier, but actually if I’m not careful it can make for a 24 hour constant-contact hell. On average we check our mobile phones every 12 minutes, and 61% keep it close to them even when they’re sleeping.

We text whilst we’re driving and we’re killing people.

We go out to a restaurant, and we ignore our nearest and dearest because we can’t put our phones down.

We only pay half attention to our kids because we’re busy checking our emails.

And when in a stadium filled with music, we don’t actually watch and engage with the artists, we pay more attention to filming it.

It’s called device creep, and the best article I’ve ever read on the topic of Cyberserfdom was published in the New York Times way back in 2001.

I’ve just had a chance to re-read it, and it still rings true.

But it isn’t all bad… is it?

I reckon technology is a bit like chocolate. On the one hand, it’s addictive, and too much can make you sick.  Once you open up the wrapper you’ll binge on it til it’s gone. And for some creatures, like dogs, it’s toxic.

But chocolate also has health giving properties. It can be inspiring, and make you smarter. It’s comforting.

Ironically, technology can help us take even more  control of our lives rather than make us cyberslaves. Make it easy for us to keep in touch with distant friends, provide a way to meet new lifetime partners, and even keep us fit. A bit.

So, what’s the bottom line?

The answer is easy, really. A bit like when you get a big box of chocolate for your birthday.

It isn’t right for me to react to and be driven by the technology, but rather for the technology to adapt to me, and the way I want to work.

Privacy Settings
We use cookies to enhance your experience while using our website. If you are using our Services via a browser you can restrict, block or remove cookies through your web browser settings. We also use content and scripts from third parties that may use tracking technologies. You can selectively provide your consent below to allow such third party embeds. For complete information about the cookies we use, data we collect and how we process them, please check our Privacy Policy
Consent to display content from - Youtube
Consent to display content from - Vimeo
Google Maps
Consent to display content from - Google